President Juan Manuel Santos and FARC Commander “Timochenko” announced this week that they have agreed to hold “direct and uninterrupted” negotiations beginning in Oslo as early as next month to “put an end to the conflict as an essential condition for the building of a stable and durable peace.” Press reports suggest popular support for the talks, despite criticism from former President Álvaro Uribe and his allies in Bogotá and Washington. U.S. Representative Ros-Lehtinen, chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, called the news “gravely disappointing.” The role of Cuba and Venezuela in the preliminary talks and Havana’s future hosting of the post-Oslo phase of negotiations have particularly rankled Cuban-American legislators. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said the United States “would, of course, welcome any efforts to end the hemisphere’s longest-running conflict and to bring about lasting peace in Colombia.”
Santos has stated that the time is right to start talks, although he has emphasized that the government “will not make any concessions on the military side” and that military operations “will continue with the same intensity.” Observers note the conditions are indeed different from when previous efforts foundered. The FARC leadership has been weakened considerably, and the group’s ideological grounding and foreign support have evaporated. The FARC apparently feels that the security of demobilized combatants – a longtime concern – will not be compromised even though demobilized paramilitaries could very well try to hunt them down. Timochenko said the FARC “come[s] to the table without grudges or arrogance,” and the group issued a “Video for Peace” with a rap song urging support for talks – signs of confidence in the process not seen previously.
The State Department’s statement welcoming the talks was positive but general. Santos’s decision puts Washington on the spot – of which the sniping reflected in Chairwoman Ros-Lehtinen’s remarks is just one part. Sitting on a massive U.S. investment in the military option and espousing similar programs against narcotics traffickers in Central America, the Obama Administration may be reluctant to go significantly beyond rhetorical support for the talks. Cuba and Venezuela, whose influence over the independent-minded FARC has often been tenuous, are a moderating force, but Washington may be loath to acknowledge their value in a peace process. Santos has little choice but to take the FARC’s sincerity at face value for now, but he surrenders little leverage in the current configuration. The FARC may be cynically calculating that it can benefit from the sort of demobilization that the rightwing paramilitaries had – reaping benefits for commanders and troops, and then re-mobilizing as a newly configured force. After all, the bandas criminales – BACRIMs – marauding through parts of rural Colombia today are essentially paramilitaries without the ideological and political overlay of the past. Whereas the truce between former President Uribe and the paramilitaries had support from the Bush administration, it will be telling to see whether the Obama administration accepts what’s needed for a serious peace effort with the FARC, such as an expensive demobilization plan, launched by a Colombian president with stronger democratic credentials.
NOTE: This is a corrected version of an article originally posted on September 7, which incorrectly characterized the State Department’s position on the talks. We regret any confusion the inaccuracy may have caused.