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Colombia’s Ambassador Hopeful Peace Talks Will End Rebel War

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This could very well be the year Colombians mark the end of Latin America's longest-running guerrilla war — a nearly 50-year-old conflict between the government and Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) rebels that has left hundreds of thousands dead and countless millions displaced from their homes.

Carlos Urrutia, Bogotá's ambassador in Washington, says peace talks now under way offer Colombia's best chance in decades to negotiate a settlement to end the bloodshed once and for all.

"FARC is much weaker than ever before," he said of the guerrilla group that was established in 1964 as a communist agrarian reform movement and is now classified as a terrorist organization by the United States, Colombia, Canada, Chile, New Zealand and the 27-member European Union. "This time, it's the strength of the state rather than its weaknesses that have brought both sides to the table."

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Photo: Jessica Latos
Ambassador Carlos Urrutia

On March 5, the peace talks were suddenly overshadowed by the death of 58-year-old Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, the fiery populist whose anti-American rhetoric put him at direct odds with Colombia — long considered one of Washington's strongest allies in Latin America.

The day after Chávez's passing, two Colombian journalists were attacked by a screaming mob of chavistas outside the Caracas military hospital where the late president was being treated. Dramatic TV footage of the attack shows Carmen Andrea Rengifo, a correspondent for Colombia's RCN television network — blood pouring down her face — running away as the angry crowd chases her with shouts and insults.

The unfolding political drama in Venezuela is of extreme importance to Colombia not only because the two share a lengthy border, but also because Venezuela, along with Chile, is an observer to the FARC talks (Norway and Cuba are guarantors).

Asked to comment on the Chávez legacy and its possible impact on Colombia, Urrutia treaded very carefully.

"First of all, Venezuela is really not within my scope of work. Having said that, clearly many people in Venezuela are experiencing the death of President Chávez as an immense loss, and that feeling is certainly present in many places throughout the region," he said. "I'd like to point to the article published in the New York Times by former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva that highlights the role President Chávez played in the context of regional integration."

As far as Bogotá is concerned, the ambassador said Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and Chávez "had constructed a relationship of mutual respect that, among other things, contributed significantly to creating the right level of trust to engage the FARC in ongoing peace talks."

Urrutia, a corporate lawyer from Bogotá, had never held a diplomatic post before Santos sent him to Washington, where he presented his credentials to President Obama on Sept. 5, 2012.

"Until six months ago, I was managing partner for one of the leading law firms in Colombia," Urrutia told The Washington Diplomat. "The president felt I was the right person for this job. It has a lot to do with the fact that our bilateral relationship with the U.S. is at the highest level one can think of. Our agenda goes way beyond the traditional topics such as defense and security matters."

But it's difficult to divorce security from Colombia's stunning transformation over the last 15 years from a drug haven wracked by violence to a Latin American tourist destination with a growing economy and stable democracy. Whether you agree with the government's military approach to cracking down on the drug cartels, backed by massive U.S. aid under Plan Colombia, the difference between Colombia of 1993 and 2013 is night and day.

The FARC rebels have also experienced a dramatic turnaround, although in their case, it was in the exact opposite direction. Today, the group is a shadow of its former self, which is precisely why hopes are high that a peace breakthrough between the Santos government and an increasingly desperate FARC is imminent.

While it may have the upper hand, the government isn't taking any chances and has vowed not to let up on the rebels, refusing to agree to a ceasefire until a definitive deal is reached.

"FARC's prospects going forward are certainly grim. This could well be the last opportunity for a negotiated settlement with Colombian society," the ambassador said. "With this in mind, our government restored contacts with FARC leadership that had already been made by the previous administration [of President Álvaro Uribe]. Based on prior experiences and mistakes, we decided that any talks would necessarily have to be confidential and take place outside Colombia. A suitable venue was required, and it was concluded that the best place was Havana."

Negotiations have been going on for more than five months, Urrutia said, noting that "this is really the first time FARC has been willing to agree in writing to negotiations."

The agenda for those talks consists of five specific topics: an end to the conflict; reform of Colombia's agrarian policy; demobilization of FARC guerrillas and their legitimization as a political entity; reparation to victims; and a solution to the drug trade.

Urrutia conceded that his government has entered into peace talks with FARC rebels before, only to see them collapse. The last embarrassment came during the administration of President Andrés Pastrana, who handed FARC a Switzerland-size haven of jungle that the terrorist group subsequently used to traffic cocaine and train commandos. Pastrana later went on to become Colombia's envoy here (also see "President-Turned-Ambassador Battles Colombia's Drug Image" in the May 2006 issue of The Washington Diplomat).

It was a mistake Santos appears determined not to repeat.

"We have gone through at least three prior rounds of negotiations with FARC, once in 1982 to '85, a second time in 1991, and a third time between 1998 and 2002. All of these exercises were miserable failures because FARC never understood that they had a true opportunity to demobilize," Urrutia told us.

"What they tried to do in all three cases was take advantage of the negotiations and ceasefires to strengthen their ranks and widen the scope of their activities. They perceived wrongly that they had the opportunity to take power from civil society."

But it's not the same anymore, he said. Colombian society "has no tolerance for their barbarity and abuses." Indeed, FARC's steady diet of kidnappings for ransom (holding prisoners captive for a decade or longer), drug trafficking, bombings and other tactics have turned popular opinion against the group's stated mission to end poverty, imperialism and injustice.

Urrutia also points to the fact that FARC's numbers have dwindled dramatically since the last round of peace talks a decade ago.

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Photo: Larry Luxner
Colombian soldiers wait to board a military transport at a highway rest stop just outside the coffee-growing department of Quindío. Current talks between the government and FARC rebels will address reform of Colombia's agrarian policy, as well as demobilization of FARC guerrillas, solutions to the drug trade and other areas.

"FARC is now cornered by the Colombian armed forces. The general consensus is that they probably have around 8,000 men in arms. It used to be 30,000," Urrutia said. "Before, there was a demilitarized zone of close to 40,000 square kilometers. This time around, there is no DMZ. Also, there is no ceasefire. The Colombian armed forces are continuing their operations."

Urrutia said Santos is "cautiously optimistic" about the talks in Havana, and that his president has the "unqualified support" of the White House and senior Obama administration officials. In February, FARC negotiator Rodrigo Granda also sounded an optimistic note, telling reporters that discussions were on the right track and moving "at the speed of a bullet train."

"We need to wait and see what happens," cautioned the ambassador. "Progress is being made, but the negotiations remain completely confidential. The negotiating teams are not allowed to disclose the terms of what's going on."

That didn't deter experts from debating the FARC talks at a Feb. 6 conference at the National Defense University's Center for Hemispheric Defense Studies. The symposium, titled "Hemispheric Forum on the Colombia Peace Negotiations," featured Urrutia as well as retired Colombian Army Gen. Carlos Alberto Ospina Ovalle — now a professor at the center — and several Washington-based specialists on Latin America.

"As we've seen from peace processes across the Americas, without effective implementation, even the most ironclad agreement negotiated completely in good faith runs the risk of breakdown and failure," said the event's moderator, Eric Farnsworth, vice president of the Council of the Americas. "It is here that the international community can and should be expected to play a meaningful role.

Nevertheless, Farnsworth said prospects for a binding peace agreement may be as good as they've ever been.

"This is the best moment in a generation — and some would say ever — to think about a final resolution of the conflict," he said. "But we won't even get to the implementation phase if the parties cannot conclude a peace agreement themselves."

But David Spencer, assistant professor of national security affairs at the Center for Hemispheric Defense Studies, had a less optimistic view of the current talks.

"FARC does not think like Western governments do," Spencer said. "They have a very different approach ... and the organization has a number of characteristics that make them an extremely frustrating opponent to deal with."

Spencer also said the Colombian state and FARC have very different ideas of what a successfully negotiated peace settlement would look like. "The state defines end of conflict as demobilization, disarmament and reintegration," he explained. "FARC claims the guns will stop firing when society is transformed into a socialist state."

Spencer suggested that FARC leaders only agreed to negotiations to regain lost political legitimacy at home while playing to their supporters abroad. "If I had to predict today what the outcome of the negotiations are going to be, I would say they are going to fail," he said. "Currently, how the FARC is viewing the peace process and how the government is viewing the peace process is diametrically opposed. And even though these are the best conditions that have ever existed for peace to happen in Colombia, the positions are still too far apart and there will be more fighting in the next few years."

Indeed, despite swearing off the kidnapping of civilians — FARC's cash cow for decades — rebels kidnapped three civilian engineers in February. Although the hostages were promptly released, the incident stirred fears that the group might revert to kidnappings to replenish its finances.

Rebels have also said they reserve the right to kidnap police officers or soldiers as part of their ongoing battle against the state, and earlier this year they abandoned a unilateral ceasefire. A string of clashes between soldiers and FARC guerillas has ensued, testing the patience of Colombian officials.

That's why Ray Walser, senior Latin America policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation, said that even though public opinion in Colombia clearly supports the concept of a negotiated peace, it's important to remember that the FARC is a "narco-terrorist organization that lacks political legitimacy" and is outside the orbit of democratic conversation.

"The FARC has very much a Marxist-based, anti-capitalist, anti-U.S. mindset that is not going to be easy to change," he said. "Their views range from the utopian to the romantic. They want to create a Jeffersonian agrarian movement in the rural space of Colombia; they want to take 20 percent of Colombia's land and redistribute it. They've moved from restitution to redistribution, which if you represent the Heritage Foundation doesn't sit very well."

Walser added that "the tactics they employ are evolving, but seizure of power is still the objective."

Indeed, Colombia's Ospina, chief of the defense chair at the Center for Hemispheric Defense Studies, said it would be foolish to underestimate the FARC's commitment to its mission. "The goal of the FARC will not change," he said. "They will always try to seize power one way or another."

But whether the government should acquiesce to its demands is another matter, he said.

"Negotiating with terrorists is not a healthy practice," Ospina told his audience. "However, we have to admit that it has worked in other parts of the world, like Central America and Nepal. So maybe it's not healthy, but it could be useful."

Even so, the retired general said, "If the peace process means impunity for the FARC leaders and allows them to participate in politics, I will have to strongly oppose the peace process. Justice has to be served, and guilty terrorists have to pay for their crimes. Peace cannot be obtained at all costs."

Even former President Uribe has declared that the government should not negotiate with terrorists, even tweeting photos of dead policeman recently to hammer that point home.

Urrutia takes a more measured approach, suggesting that once an agreement is reached, "we should be able to absorb 8,000 men and their families into the mainstream of Colombian society. That's what the Colombian government is doing: devising policies and laws that will enable people to carry on with a productive way of life without going into the drug business."

They may have no choice in the matter regardless. Urrutia says that thanks to the superiority of the Colombian military — enhanced by modern technology and intelligence capabilities — it's only a matter of time before the insurgents lay down their arms and agree to deep concessions.

"Society no longer tolerates its vicious actions, and [Colombian government] concessions that would have been on the table 12 years ago are now unthinkable. FARC's involvement in the international drug trade and the international labeling of FARC as a terrorist organization has greatly diminished its standing and it has no room for improvement."

A negotiated end to Colombia's protracted guerrilla war could greatly improve both Santos's approval ratings and the nation's economy by boosting investor confidence. Foreign direct investment, which stood at $2 billion in 2002, exceeded $16 billion last year and is expected to reach $17 billion in 2013. "I'm sure the impact [of a peace treaty] would be at least a two- or three-point percentage increase in GDP," Urrutia estimated.

Yet even if FARC agrees to lay down its arms, it's not the only rebel group in town. The feared National Liberation Army, or ELN — which like FARC was established in 1964 as a Marxist rebel group with Cuba's backing — has a history of kidnappings, bomb attacks and extorting foreign oil and mining companies (the group recently released two German hostages captured late last year).

But whether the ELN would join any talks remains to be seen. Urrutia says all of Colombia's paramilitaries will have to come clean if they ever want to rejoin society.

"We Colombians are ashamed of what happened," he said. "The paramilitaries committed atrocities, too. The whole exercise will involve mechanisms so that both the paramilitaries and the guerrillas will be required to tell the truth about what they did, as a precondition of being able to come back into the social mainstream and go into politics."


About the Author

Larry Luxner is news editor of The Washington Diplomat.

Last Edited on April 1, 2013