Clock ticks as Colombian peace talks drag on

Reuters , Saturday 10 Aug 2013

As government talks with rebel group FARC recess without visible gains, Colombian president backtracks on original November deadline for settlement of disputes as election nears

The Colombian government and leftist FARC rebels wound up a 12th round of peace talks on Saturday but apparently made little progress despite pressure from the country's president who has staked his legacy on a successful outcome before a looming national election.

The talks with the FARC, or Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, recess every few weeks, then resume, with the next round set to begin on Aug. 19. They are being facilitated by Cuba and Norway and hosted in Havana.

"We have begun the construction of accords concerning the rights and guarantees of political opposition in general, and in particular for new movements that arise after the signing of a final agreement," a joint statement issued on Saturday said, without indicating what common ground had been reached.

Discussions to end the longest and last remaining armed conflict in Latin America began last November with President Juan Manuel Santos saying he wanted them concluded in a year, a deadline he said this week was flexible if significant progress was made.

Santos said this week that talks to bring an end to five decades of conflict with the FARC were going well but should speed up.

"I am still optimistic. If I see that they have no future, that there is no will on the other side, that this is going nowhere, that same day I will dismantle the negotiating table and talks will end," Santos said.

The slow pace of the talks even as the fighting continues has Colombians beginning to lose patience. In a recent survey, some 43 percent of those polled in July said they were optimistic peace could be achieved, down from 45 percent in April.

The two sides, which are working through a five-point agenda, have only reached partial agreement on agrarian reform. Negotiators now are discussing the FARC's inclusion into the political system and then will move on to reparations to war victims, the drug trade and an end to the conflict.

The FARC has insisted on the calling of a constituent assembly and guaranteed seats in Congress, demands rejected by the government, which says a final agreement would be put to a referendum vote.

The government wants the rebels to hand in their weapons in exchange for safety guarantees. The FARC has indicated it is wary of disarming after an agreement is reached for fear of being eliminated by right-wing paramilitary groups.

"It is not simply a matter of guarantees. We are discussing political participation with the FARC because we hope with the signing of an agreement they will put down their arms," the government's lead negotiator, former vice president Humberto de la Calle, said in a statement on Saturday.


The 61-year-old Santos won election in 2010 by a landslide, and is widely believed to want to run for a second term in 2014.

The center-right president has bet his legacy on resolving the war, which began in 1964 when the FARC was founded as a communist agrarian reform movement. More than 200,000 people have died in the conflict and millions have been displaced.

Santos, in a Thursday interview with Reuters, appeared to threaten the FARC's negotiators if an agreement is not reached.

"They would have to return to Colombia and face the destiny of all other FARC leaders who ended up in the grave or in prison," he said.

The rebels lead negotiator, Ivan Marquez, said on Saturday such comments were "unfortunate" and did little to promote "a reasonable environment for the development and progress in working out a peace accord."

The Colombian president, who has seen his approval ratings slide below 50 percent, from highs above 74 percent when he took office, must announce his candidacy for a second term by November.

Bruce Bagley, an expert on Colombia at the University of Miami, said pressure was building for a breakthrough before a new election cycle began.

"Santos stated specifically that he is ready to suspend the talks. I think he was being diplomatic, but he laid down a line in the sand," Bagley said.

"If he can get through part two by November then he is ready to declare the talks a success and let them continue. If there's no progress I think that he's going to declare his candidacy and tell the FARC they simply were not serious and they are back to no discussions and a full onslaught on the part of the Colombian armed forces," he said.

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