Last updated: January 14, 2013 8:45 pm

Colombia peace talks resume in Cuba

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Colombia’s government and leaders of the Marxist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or Farc, began another round of negotiations in Cuba on Monday, in the latest attempt to end the western hemisphere’s longest-running internal armed conflict.

Humberto de la Calle, who heads the government’s delegation, said on Monday upon arrival in Havana that the talks must have a “new pace.”

“The important thing is that during these rounds the pace changes, that we enter with new energy this year so that here in Havana we reach agreement rapidly,” he declared.

The rebel’s chief negotiator, Luciano Marín Arango, also known as Ivan Márquez, somehow echoed the government’s stance on timing saying the guerrillas “want to arrive quickly at an understanding”.

While agrarian reform is the main item on the agenda, the biggest bone of contention appears to be the halting of hostilities while negotiations take place.

In late November, at the launch of the first round of peace talks, the guerrillas announced a two-month unilateral ceasefire.

Last week, the rebels said the truce would end on January 20 unless the government agreed to stop fighting. “There will not be an extension of a unilateral ceasefire,” Mr Márquez told reporters in Havana.

“Only the signing of a bilateral ceasefire would be possible, if the government deems such a measure reasonable,” he added.

Juan Manuel Santos, Colombia’s president, has repeatedly rejected Farc’s calls for a ceasefire, saying military operations would continue until a final agreement was reached. During the ceasefire, military attacks have killed at least 34 rebels.

“There are historical, military, as well as political reasons for the government not to jump into a ceasefire,” explains Henry Medina, a retired major general and former head of Colombia’s Superior School of War.

“In past peace talks when there was a bilateral ceasefire, the Farc used that to strengthen themselves belligerently as well as politically, and never in a real search for peace,” the US-trained soldier said.

A government’s negative on a ceasefire would also prevent the talks from dragging on indefinitely.

Launched as an ideologically led group under the banner of a communist agrarian movement in 1964, the Farc managed to survive for years through extortion and kidnapping for ransom. The lucrative drug trade then turned the guerrillas into a force of about 18,000 by the early 2000s – strong enough to over-run towns and military garrisons, controlling nearly a third of the Andean country.

Fast forward 12 years and the Farc are in a much weaker position. Between 2000 and 2010, Colombia’s annual military spending nearly doubled in real terms, from $5.7bn to $10.4bn, according to the International Crisis Group, making it one of the top military spenders in Latin America.

The increase led Colombia’s US-backed 380,000-strong army to kill several of the Farc’s top commanders. This helped the state regain control of much of the country, opening up land to an oil and mining boom.

Today, only around 8,000 guerrillas are believed to be scattered around remote rural areas lobbing grenades and laying makeshift landmines. Moreover, traditional allies, such as Cuba and Venezuela, have pushed the rebels to negotiate.

The Colombian military and police have accused the insurgents of breaking the ceasefire and attacking troops and infrastructure during the past 60 days. Colombia’s defence minister, Juan Carlos Pinzón, said last week that the rebels’ calls for a ceasefire were nothing more than “siren chants” that had never really materialised.

“The ceasefire order came down from the top leaders. But some middle-rank rebels in the jungle appear to be trying to show off their own strengths, and ignored those orders,” Mr Medina said.

If peace is reached, that might be Colombia’s future. “We will then have to fight some of the Farc’s remnants that decided not to lay down their arms but not under the Farc label, but under the criminal gang label,” the retired general said.

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