Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos today set a timetable for an end to Latin America’s longest-running armed conflict announcing that peace talks with FARC guerrillas will begin in October and conclude within ‘months’.
At 12.30pm, to a television audience of millions and flanked by the nation’s military leaders and his cabinet, the president confirmed what for months rumours have dared to speculate; Colombia’s bloody and pointless war could be over next year (before the presidential elections of 2014).
Within the hour, FARC leader Timochenko, took to the airwaves from the safe-house of Cuba. With his professorial beard and camouflage livery the rebel chief spoke at length, spitting out his Marxist hatred, and in the end resigning to the reality that peace cannot be achieved by ‘war’ but only through ‘civilised dialogue’.
Frankly, the game is up for the FARC, and they know it; their dream of a Communist revolution is in tatters as Colombia develops into one of the fastest growing economies in the world, and as its people in record number are lifted out of poverty.
Timochenko understands he must save face and secure a dignified exit for his jackbooted comrades. The negotiating table is the only way out for his cornered rabble.
Yet there are those in Colombia who remain understandably sceptical that these kidnappers, extortionists, murderers and torturers have the will to bid a farewell to arms.
None more so than ex-President Álvaro Uribe who this afternoon launched a tirade of abuse at the FARC and also at what he sees as a government of appeasers. For Uribe, Santos is rather like 1930s British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain who announced he had secured ‘peace in our time’ a year before Hitler’s aggression sparked World War II.
Uribe argues the government is acting in haste, sacrificing the advances in security made during his eight years in power to secure re-election in two years’ time.
How can you trust a FARC who refuse to enter into a ceasefire and who threaten to continue the bombing and the killing throughout the peace talks? How can the political elite sit at the table with these criminals to discuss peace while the military is at war? Uribe’s rhetoric certainly resonates with sections of a society tired of the FARC’s duplicity, and chastened by the disappointment of previous promises for a negotiated cessation of violence.
Time will tell whether the detractors are right and whether the FARC is bluffing, but I see cause to be hopeful that they are not. Last week I set out nine reasons why these talks are different from the past failures, and why a successful outcome is within reach.
There is not space here to reiterate them, but the overwhelming truth is that balance in power is different now than it was at the end of the last century when the then President Andrés Pastrana initiated talks in Caguán. Then the FARC believed they had a chance of installing a Communist state, and the Colombian government sat down with a weak hand. Now the guerrillas are a depleted force, in troops, in morale, and in leadership (both the military chief strategist Mono Jojoy and the previous overall leader, Alfonso Cano have been killed in the space of the last two years). It is time to face the reality of defeat.
Another reason for hope, overlooked by some, is that since coming to power in August 2010, the Santos government has paved the way for peace through a series of important legislative changes that allow for the integration of the FARC into civil society; an opportunity to pursue their ends through politics rather than armed combat.
The new transitional justice law allows Santos to place a meaningful offer on the table, one that Timochenko should take. Provision is made within this law for reduced penal sentences (but not impunity) and the possibility of elected political representation (potentially throughout the tiers of governance) for those who share the FARC’s philosophy.
As with the IRA in Northern Ireland, the ballot box must replace the bullet. Martin McGuiness and Gerry Adams before the ‘Good Friday Agreement’ of 1998 were terrorists. Both have since been at the top of Northern Irish politics and presided over perhaps the most successful decade in the country’s history.
The IRA famously trained the FARC during the 80s and 90s. It would be less than surprising if Timochenko has one eye on following in the footsteps of his former comrades.
We are about to enter into a crucial period in Colombian history. Santos may be remembered as the father of peace and the president who finally ended one of the world’s most bloody insurgencies. Alternatively, the FARC could again pull the plug, and prove Uribe right.
Timochenko’s discourse today in which he spoke of capitalism’s dehumanisation and enslavement of the people, in which he spoke of an ‘alternative Colombia’ sounded more like a manifesto launch than an indignant battle cry. For those on the far left, currently represented by Piedad Córdoba’s Marcha Patriótica, this was a clarion call, a sign to ready for an election campaign – perhaps as early as the congressional elections in 2014. While it is too soon for the ‘new, civilian FARC’ to have a presence, former commanders may urge sympathisers to unite around Córdoba.
Finally, Timochenko is wrong to say that dialogue is the end – disarmament is the end. We will not believe the FARC until they lay down their arms.
The might of rhetorical argument must replace the bullet of terrorism.