BOGOTA (Reuters) - Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos unveiled on Wednesday a six-man team to negotiate with Marxist FARC rebels in the hope of ending almost 50 years of war.
A decade after the last attempt to end Latin America’s longest-running insurgency failed, the negotiators led by former Vice President Humberto de la Calle are to travel to Norway next month to meet the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia.
The negotiations will then move to Cuba.
“It’s a team with ample experience and each member wants things to move ahead in a serious, dignified, realistic and effective way,” Santos said at an address in the presidential palace, flanked by some of the negotiators.
Members of the negotiating team include a former police chief, an industrialist, a former military head, the president’s chief security adviser and a former environment minister.
Half-way into his four-year term, Santos, a U.S.- and British-trained economist, is staking his reputation on the talks. He knows they will be thorny given past failures like the 1999-2002 process when the rebels stonewalled, threw up tough demands and used the time to regroup.
Santos is betting the FARC will avoid imposing tricky demands this time and bring an end to a war that has killed tens of thousands since starting in 1964.
“The difference with these peace talks and the last is that there seems to be real desire, willingness from both sides,” Ivan Cepeda, an opposition lawmaker whose father was killed by a paramilitaries in 1994, told Reuters. “That wasn’t the case before.”
Back in El Caguan, as the 1999-2002 process became known, the seven-member FARC leadership was composed of ideological and military hardliners, who, critics say, had no intention of agreeing to peace. Four of them are now dead.
Still, this time there will be no ceasefire, which some analysts say could jeopardize the talks as combat rages.
The dangers were illustrated on Tuesday when FARC rebels blew up two trucks at a coal mine in the northern province of La Guajira, according to industry sources.
Though Colombia’s economy has enjoyed a boom since the FARC were pushed back to remoter areas, its presence is still a hindrance to the fast-expanding mining and oil sectors.
Others, though, say the lack of a ceasefire could actually be beneficial by injecting urgency into the talks.
“It’s a big risk but will ensure that the talks move ahead quickly,” Leon Valencia, a former fighter in the second-biggest rebel group, the ELN, told Reuters. “If they negotiate in war, it has to be very short; it has to be less than a year.”
From a wealthy Bogota establishment family, Santos has been laying the groundwork for peace since he took office in 2010, targeting inequalities that foster violence in rural areas and introducing reforms that would help recover land stolen by FARC and paramilitary groups.
He also pushed through a constitutional amendment that set the legal basis for eventual peace with the rebels. The reform prohibits guerrilla leaders accused of crimes against humanity from holding political office.
The two sides have set a framework for talks that includes the rights of victims, land ownership in rural areas and cocaine production and smuggling.
Perhaps the most difficult point on the agenda will be integration of some 8,000 fighters into civil society, many of whom have been hiding in the thick Amazon jungle for decades. Many joined the rebels when they were as young as 12 years old.
“This is the best chance at peace in a generation, but it’s a Herculean task, there’s no doubt,” said Eric Farnsworth of Washington-based think tank Council of the Americas.
Colombians are cautiously optimistic about the peace process, and the news appears to have boosted Santos’ possibilities for re-election bid in 2014.
“If he can bring peace to Colombia, that has been so damaging to our lives, I’d certainly give him another try,” said Claudia Chavez, 38, as she rode the bus on a mountain road above the capital Bogota. “But it has to end if they screw us again.”
Additional reporting by Luis-Jaime Acosta; Editing by Eduardo Garcia, Andrew Cawthorne and Cynthia Osterman