Ceasefire in Colombia?

The president's coming talks with Farc have again raised hopes of peace in Colombia. Only he can broker a deal.

Talks this week between Hugo Chávez, the Venezuelan president, and leading figures from the Farc, the powerful and long-lasting Colombian guerrilla movement, have again raised hopes that more than half a century of warfare in the Colombian countryside might eventually draw to a close.

Under discussion in these talks, held in Chávez's home state of Barinas, close to the Colombian border, is the possibility of a prisoner swap, including prisoners held by the guerrillas that are of interest both to France and the United States. If successful, these initial talks, which have the blessing of Alvaro Uribe, the Colombian president, might lead to a ceasefire and a period of détente. But the distrust on both sides is considerable, and the obstacles are formidable.

Uribe called for Chávez's assistance in August, after the Colombian government had come under considerable pressure from public opinion, and notably from the new French government of Nicholas Sarkozy, to take action to secure the release of prisoners captured by the guerrillas, many of whom have been held for several years. The most prominent captive is Ingrid Betancourt, a former presidential candidate with a dual French-Colombian passport, kidnapped during her presidential campaign in 2002. Others include three American contractors, captured when their plane crash-landed, and more than 40 Colombians.

Several hundred guerrilla prisoners are held by the government, and two senior Farc commanders, Ricardo Palmera and Anayibe Rojas Valderama, are in gaol in the United States, convicted of drug-trafficking and terrorism. (The Farc is termed a "terrorist organisation" by the United States.)

There is plenty of scope for an exchange, but both sides are determined to drive a hard bargain. Chávez has been involved as an intermediary for more than two months, exchanging messages with Manuel Marulanda, the octogenarian leader of the Farc since the 1960s, and with Piedad Soledad, an Afro-Colombian senator from the opposition Liberal Party entrusted by Uribe in August with the task of mediating a peace. It has been neither quick nor easy. "Marulanda does not have a telephone," Chavez explained in September, "and I cannot call him like I do Uribe." Although the Farc has a website, Marulanda has neither a fax not an email. Chavez hopes to be able to show a Marulanda-approved plan to President Sarkozy, when he visits Paris on November 20, that can then be presented to Uribe.

Marulanda insists that a demilitarised zone must be established in an area of south-west Colombia before a prisoner swap can take place. There is a precedent for this. The region around his headquarters at San Vicente de Caiguán, west of Popayán and north of the Putumayo River (where Roger Casement reported on the atrocities in the British rubber trade a century ago), were demilitarised during a period of peace negotiations between 1999 and 2002 under Andrés Pastrana, the previous president. On one occasion, the entire Bogotá diplomatic corps landed in the jungle to supervise the proceedings, in a publicity coup for the guerrillas that Uribe would not wish to see repeated. Uribe has firmly rejected the proposal for a demilitarised zone, as well as the surreal suggestion that Chávez and Sarkozy were to meet Marulanda in the jungle on October 8, the anniversary of the death of Che Guevara, and return with Ms Betancourt.

Marulanda is equally distrustful. Many guerrillas abandoned the military struggle and took up civilian politics at election time on the last occasion that a serious peace deal was negotiated in 1984. This led to more than 4,000 left-wing activists and organisers being assassinated in the subsequent year, and the survivors retired to their safe territories in the rural areas, vowing not to make the same mistake again.

Chávez's task is to find common ground between Marulanda and Uribe. He has always had some sympathy for the guerrilla struggle in Colombia, and the Farc described itself as "Bolivarian", the word that Chávez uses to describe his own revolutionary process. He is ideologically at odds with Uribe, but as befits a ruler of a country that shares its longest border with Colombia, he rubs along well enough. The stakes are high.

The violence in Colombia has lasted for more than 50 years. In the 1950s, it used to be called just that, la violencia, a vicious war between peasants armed chiefly with machetes that claimed close on a million lives. In the 1960s the violence acquired a more ideological colouring, as peasants backed by the Communist Party fought to defend their land against attacks by the army backed by the United States. The Americans feared that the "independent republics" developed by the peasants in obscure rural areas, and controlled by Marulanda, might expand and lead to the overthrow of the central government, as had already occurred in Cuba.

The war has lasted for decades, with no obvious winners, even though the United States has poured in military and financial assistance on a scale usually reserved for Israel. Peace talks have come and gone, and with the end of the Cold War, and the death of Jacobo Arenas, Colombia's chief Communist guru and strategist, the rural guerrillas have lost their international significance. Yet pressure from the families of the prisoners on both sides has been growing, and Chávez -trusted both by the government and by the guerrillas - is the only figure capable of negotiating a deal. It would be a triumph for him, but also an end to one of the great festering sores of Latin America.


Richard Gott

The GuardianTramp

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