US secretary of state John Kerry held an unprecedented meeting on Monday with leaders of a Colombian leftist rebel group on Washington’s list of international terrorist organisations.
The rebels of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or Farc, have been engaged in peace talks with the Colombian government in Havana to end the South American country’s half-century of war.
In closed-door meetings, Kerry first spoke with the members of the Colombian government team seeking a peace deal with Farc, Latin America’s oldest guerrilla group. He then met separately with rebel negotiators in the Laguito neighbourhood, where peace talks have been held since 2012.
Members of Farc’s ruling secretariat, including rebel leader Rodrigo “Timochenko” Londono, gave Kerry an signed copy of the Spanish-language book Resistance of a People in Arms, a compilation of the personal diaries and letters of Farc founder Manuel “Sureshot” Marulanda, who died in 2008 at age 78.
The inscription in Spanish says the book tells part of the story of an “insurgent organisation that today is preparing to transition to a legal political movement”.
Kerry told both sides he was “encouraged that the ‘end of conflict’ issues are now front and centre in the negotiations, including a formal bilateral ceasefire monitored by the UN security council, a timetable for disarmament, and security guarantees post-conflict for all lawful political actors”, according to a statement released by the US state department.
Chief government negotiator Humberto de la Calle said the government’s meeting with Kerry was “very productive” and they had discussed in detail the progress of the talks and the “immediate challenges” facing the negotiations.
Those challenges include guaranteeing the security of demobilised fighters, defining the terms of their disarmament and how to ratify the accords in Colombia.
De la Calle said Kerry expressed US commitment to help in the security of demobilised rebels, one of the guerrillas’ main concerns as they move toward setting aside their weapons to pursue politics through the ballot box. He did not provide details of what shape that help could take.
A previous foray into electoral politics in the 1980s and 90s ended with as many as 3,000 members of the political movement dead at the hands of rightwing paramilitary forces working in collusion with members of the military.
“Mr Kerry, we ask through you that the United States help stop paramilitary violence,” Farc said in an open letter published on the group’s website. At least six leftist activists and social leaders have been killed this month alone in Colombia.
The White House portrayed the meeting between Kerry and Farc leaders as one of several regional dividends stemming from its strategy of normalising relations with the Cuban government.
“This Cuba policy is also our Latin American policy,” national security adviser Ben Rhodes told US reporters at a briefing on Monday evening. “It’s why we are at the peace table with the Colombians here in Havana.”
The Farc leaders said they hoped to be considered Washington’s partner in that regional effort. “We have reasons to believe that the United States can come to see in the Farc a trustworthy partner in the construction of a continent-wide peace,” the group said in its letter.
Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos and Farc leader Timochenko had set 23 March as a deadline to reach a final peace agreement, hoping to coincide with President Barack Obama’s trip to Cuba.
However the two sides remain far apart on the mechanics of ending the war, which has claimed more than 220,000 lives and displaced more than 6 million Colombians. Analysts expect a comprehensive agreement could take several more months to finalise.
The United States has expressed overwhelming support for the Colombia peace talks and Obama has asked Congress to support post-conflict peace efforts with $450m in US aid.
Monday’s meeting was the first time the secretary of state has met with Farc rebels, who have been on the US list of terrorist groups since 1997. US officials have said Washington would consider dropping the group from the terror list once it disarms and stops posing a risk to US interests.
Washington has also said it would not insist on the extradition of Farc members indicted in the US on drug trafficking and terrorism charges.
Last year, Washington named a special envoy, Bernard Aronson, to the talks as a private citizen, and he has a special dispensation to engage with the Farc while the group negotiates an end to its 52-year war against the Colombian state.
Former Colombian president Álvaro Uribe, a strong critic of the peace talks, condemned Kerry’s meeting with the Farc. “Many Colombians feel offended by the meeting between the US government and the Farc, the world, largest drug cartel, terrorist group,” Uribe wrote on Twitter.
On Tuesday, both Colombian government and rebel negotiators are expected to be present at an exhibition game between Major League Baseball’s Tampa Bay Rays and Cuba’s national team, which will be attended by Obama and Cuban president Raúl Castro.