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Colombian Government and FARC to Begin Formal Negotiations

Bolivar square in BogotaRelatives of missing people, kidnapped or forcibly recruited by the FARC demonstrate in Bogota days before formal peace negotiations between the guerrillas and the Colombian government in Oslo, Norway. Photo by Guillermo Legaria/AFP/GettyImages

One of this year’s most important political events in South America gets underway this week — outside South America.

In Oslo, Norway, representatives of the Colombia government and leaders of the major left wing guerrilla group known as the FARC start formal negotiations aimed at ending decades of civil war, fueled in part by profits from Colombian cocaine sold in the U.S. and Europe. Informal talks had been going on for nearly two years, culminating in an August agreement to hold full negotiations, beginning this week in Norway and then in Havana, Cuba. Norwegian and Cuban diplomats, as well as officials from neighboring Venezuela, helped push the talks to the point that Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos could speak to the UN General Assembly in September of “moderate optimism.” (The negotiations were supposed to begin Monday, but the BBC reported logistical problems caused both delegations to arrive late).

Coincidental with the peace talks, we now have searing personal testimony from some of the principal victims of Colombia’s three-sided war between FARC guerrillas, government security forces and right-wing para-militaries. These are the four million Colombians (out of a total population of 44 million) who have been driven from their farms and villages by violence and intimidation, committed by all sides in the conflict. In stories equally harrowing and heart-breaking, 23 Colombian men and women describe murders and torture of their family members. The stories have been compiled in a book “Throwing Stones at the Moon” which is part of the Voice of Witness project that has taken testimony from victims of human rights abuses around the world.
The compilers and editors of the stories — American journalist Sibylla Brodzinsky, who has lived in Bogota for 15 years and human rights activist Max Schoening — appeared recently at the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington. They said the talks offered the best hope in years for ending the violence but warned of many obstacles to an agreement.

“I am a little too optimistic about it,” said Brodzinsky, who has reported for The Economist, Guardian and Christian Science Monitor. And she added, “Even if a peace agreement is reached, that won’t necessarily mean there will be peace.”

The official agenda for the talks includes rural development, the end of armed conflict, drug trafficking, the rights of victims and political participation. But what’s not on the agenda could also bedevil the talks, which will go on despite the absence of a cease-fire, Brodzinsky and Schoening warned. The displaced are not officially at the table and the delegations include no women. And as their book makes painfully aware, all too often it falls to women with little formal education — often married as teenagers — to hold the lives of their families together in a strange new town or city after they have fled the villages where their husbands were killed.

Brodzinsky and other analysts agree that the FARC has been seriously weakened by the ten-year campaign waged by former Colombian President Alvaro Uribe with billions of dollars of U.S. aid and military advisors. Uribe has since criticized his successor Santos, who was his defense minister, for being too soft of the guerrillas. But Brodzinsky said the two sides are at a logical negotiating point, that FARC is weakened but not totally vanquished and the Santos government enters the talks “without the hubris of the Uribe government”

Even so, she added, no one knows if FARC leaders can deliver their local commanders and more critically what kind of amnesty and reconciliation would be part of the deal. This is the issue most sharply dividing the Colombian public, she said, with 66 percent in a recent poll saying the guerrillas should not be forgiven. No guerrilla leader will sign a pact that would send him to jail, and few Colombians at this point could accept the idea of a FARC leader in their parliament. Similarly, demobilizing the right-wing paramilitaries and integrating them into the economy and society is another challenge.

And what will all those displaced get out of any deal? “It would have a positive impact,” Schoening said. “It could help them return to their land.”

But as Dialogue president Michael Shifter recently wrote, land could be the trickiest of all the issues in the peace talks. The left wing guerrilla movement launched five decades ago around an agenda of land reform and re-distribution, and no one knows how much their leaders will compromise. And as the testimonies and oral histories in “Throwing Stones at the Moon” have reminded, many of those displaced are victims of intimidation by right wing para-militaries trying to force peasants off farms they had been granted by land reforms.

Even the duration of the talks is up in the air. The Santos government has spoken of “months,” but FARC leaders have not shown their hand on a timetable.

Michael D. Mosettig, PBS NewsHour foreign affairs and defense editor emeritus, watches wonks push policy in Washington’s multitude of think tanks. From time to time, he writes dispatches on what those scholars and wannabe secretaries of state have in mind for Europe, Asia and Latin America.

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