LIMA, Peru — The Marxist terrorist group that has immersed Colombia in decades of vicious civil war is offering to hold peace talks with the government.
The highly unusual move came in the form of an open letter from Rodrigo Londono Echeverri, known as Timochenko, leader of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC by its Spanish acronym.
In the letter, addressed to President Juan Manuel Santos, Timochenko calls on the government to “show its face to the country” and negotiate with the armed rebels “without lies.”
It proposes a wide-ranging agenda that goes far beyond the conflict and that would also take in a range of government policies including “privatizations, deregulation, absolute freedom of trade and investment, environmental depredation, market democracy, military doctrine."
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President Santos rebuffed the terms of the FARC’s offer but appeared to leave the door open to dialogue on his terms.
“We don’t want more rhetoric,” Santos wrote on his Twitter account. “The country demands clear actions of peace.”
Yet previously, such an offer from the FARC might have been rejected out of hand, particularly under Santos’ predecessor, Alvaro Uribe, whose hard-line stance against the group was welcomed by most Colombians weary of the FARC’s atrocities.
Uribe’s father, it bears noting, was killed by the terrorists during a botched kidnapping attempt in 1983.
But since taking over from Uribe in 2010, Santos has shown himself willing to move away from some of the policies of his highly popular predecessor, particularly regarding the FARC.
While Uribe was understandably driven to wipe the terrorists off the map, commentators have noted in Santos an interest in the chance to go down in history as the president who finally signs a lasting peace agreement with the rebels.
In one recent interview, Santos noted: “The Colombian state is willing to open the door to a possible dialogue, provided that — and we have not seen this until now — [the FARC] give a more than reliable demonstration that they want some kind of agreement.”
And after several recent military successes against the FARC, including the assassination of its previous leader, Alfonso Cano, last November, Santos may feel ready to negotiate from a position of strength with a group that has killed thousands and once controlled an area the size of Switzerland.
Yet perhaps the biggest stumbling block is Timoshenko’s call for the talks to be based on the El Caguan negotiations.
Named after the jungle region in the south of the country where it took place, the El Caguan process, from 1998 to 2002, saw government and FARC negotiators attempt and ultimately fail to thrash out a deal.
As a precondition for those talks, the FARC demanded the government concede a 16,000 square mile demilitarized zone.
Now, el Caguan is widely viewed as a flawed agenda while many Colombians also believe that the president at the time, Andres Pastrana, conceded far too easily to the rebels in his desperation to bring an end to the violence. “Forget a new Caguan,” Santos also tweeted in his response to Timoshenko’s letter.
Equally, the Colombian government is unlikely to drop its insistence that for any peace talks to begin, the FARC must first clearly have ended its violence, including freeing all hostages and ceasing attacks on civilians and the military.
Whether Timochenko is prepared to do that remains unclear. The FARC’s troops, estimated at between 8,000 and 10,000, continue to launch ambushes on the Colombian army, with approximately 20 people dying in recent days.
The worst incident took place on January 4th, when 60 homes, a local school and medical post were destroyed during a FARC raid on the village of San Joaquin, in the western region of Tambo Cauca.
Camilo Gomez, a former high commissioner for peace who participated in the El Caguan process, voiced the skepticism of many Colombians, when he warned: “All this dialectic of Timoshenko’s is useless if there are no concrete acts.”
Speaking in the Bogota newspaper El Espectador, Gomez insisted Santos should not repeat Pastrana’s error of negotiating with the FARC before establishing a ceasefire, a demand which, when broached during the El Caguan talks themselves, ultimately led to the FARC walking out on the process.
Founded in 1964, the FARC’s original Marxist agenda was aimed at fomenting peasant revolution and rejecting US influence in Colombia.
But since then, its numerous bombings, kidnappings and bloody attacks on the Colombian military and civilians alike have seen it rejected out of hand by most Colombians.
The group has also been increasingly immersed in cocaine trafficking and has been categorized as a terrorist organization by the US State Department since 2001.
Interestingly, Timochenko’s letter indicated that he may be taking the FARC in a new ideological direction. Whereas the group was previously antagonistic to organized religion, Timoshenko’s letter contains numerous Catholic references, including to heaven, the book of Genesis and the word of god.
It now remains to be seen whether the FARC will need divine intervention to achieve its new leader’s stated goal of a negotiated peace — or whether its members must continue their life on the run.