Colombia’s president, Juan Manuel Santos, has begun talks with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and other rebel groups. This has surprised many – the former defence minister was elected on the understanding he would continue the hardline anti-insurgency policies of his predecessor, Alvaro Uribe.
Uribe, still popular, is crying foul, and it is not yet clear whether Santos has majority public support for his bid to end a conflict from whose tragedies no Colombian family has been spared. Given the farcical peace talks a decade ago – which saw the FARC grow in strength and the government humiliated – it is perhaps understandable that Santos is seeking to boost public confidence by denying the FARC a ceasefire, as much as it may dismay those who want a swift end to bloodshed.
Santos announced the talks, backed by Cuba and Norway, in August, although he started them in secret soon after taking power. Formal negotiations kick off in Havana, on Thursday 15 November. All of a sudden, his first two years can be seen in a new light. Even before he took office, Santos sponsored radio advertisements that praised human rights defenders, who were dismissed by Uribe as ‘friends of terrorists’. In his second year, he began almost obsessively to castigate the deep inequality in his country. Last summer, when unarmed indigenous groups in Cauca physically expelled government soldiers from disputed land, Santos was accused of weakness. But now it all looks like part of a longer-term plan to prepare the ground for peace.
How will it turn out? It is impossible to second-guess the will of the FARC, a secretive organization whose once-noble leftwing motives are now thoroughly muddied by decades of war and integration with the lucrative cocaine trade. It will seek political reform as well as guarantees for members wishing to re-enter civilian (and possibly political) life. Despite his class-traitor rhetoric, Santos’ clear intentions to open up Colombian territory to an influx of foreign investment and failure to implement any serious land reform are likely to cause tensions.
Nor will the disbanding of a guerrilla force be enough to secure an end to Colombia’s violence. The cocaine trade remains the most potent security threat, investments in mining and agriculture will still be accompanied by violence against rural communities, and a rise in crime is possible in a post-conflict scenario.
But the mood in the country is one of optimism. It feels like Colombia, for all its continued problems and deep poverty, may finally be entering the modern, democratic world where revolutionaries target ballots, not kidnap victims.
Santos has claimed that if this bold push for peace costs him re-election, he would welcome the trade-off. If we take him at his word, it would be churlish not to support such a noble intention.