Diplomats have helped to put Colombia’s peace talks between President Santos and Farc back on track, writes JOHN HAYLETT
CUBAN and Norwegian diplomatic skills were put to the test and passed with flying colours this week when Colombia’s peace talks were derailed and then put back on track within days.
Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos had demanded the immediate release of General Ruben Dario Alzate, who had been captured with two soldiers by the Farc liberation movement in Choco province.
Santos called off the bilateral peace talks taking place in Havana, brought his negotiators home and dispatched troops to Choco last Sunday to search for Alzate and company.
The president called the capture a kidnapping, which ignores the fact that a war is ongoing.
He is personally responsible for this after rejecting repeated Farc demands for a ceasefire to assist national reconciliation that is essential to the success of the Havana negotiations.
Negotiator Pablo Catatumbo repeated the bilateral ceasefire call just days before Alzate and his aides were captured and shortly after a Farc unit took two soldiers prisoner in Arauca province.
Santos was previously defence minister under his predecessor Alvaro Uribe, whose family was involved with the far-right AUC death squads (United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia) and who opposes the peace process.
Santos has refused to bow to Uribe’s demands to end the peace talks and, in contrast to his former boss, maintains warm relations with his Bolivarian Venezuelan neighbours.
However, he will not countenance a ceasefire, claiming that the Farc people’s army will use the respite to regroup and rearm, thus feeding the mythology that Farc is negotiating because its armed struggle is on its last legs.
While Farc has shown restraint since the talks began, its forces have acted when necessary to counter nibbling attacks by the Colombian army or efforts to gain a military advantage.
They insist that, as long as the government refuses to budge on a ceasefire, they have the right to pursue military operations — not least to counter impressions encouraged by the Bogota government and by its Washington paymasters that army activity is legitimate while that of Farc is unlawful.
This false impression was implicit in Alzate’s wife’s comments prior to the Cuban-Norwegian announcement that conditions for her husband’s release had been agreed.
“A military career in Colombia is full of risks but I never imagined this was going to happen,” said Claudia Farfan.
Apart from the human empathy towards anyone whose family member is taken prisoner in a conflict, it is difficult to take her statement seriously.
Alzate has a reputation as a new-style hearts-and-minds officer who believes in infrastructure investment as a means of weaning the poverty-stricken rural population away from the national liberation movement.
Santos sent him to head a newly created Titan taskforce of 2,500 soldiers and marines in Choco in January to work with local authorities on a 25-year development plan in the western province where about 80 per cent of the population is Afro-Colombian.
His capture emphasised that Farc understood his project as a continuation of the war by different methods.
It also illustrated where decision-making lies within Farc when lead negotiator Ivan Marquez stressed that neither he nor his comrades in Havana had the power to order the captives’ release.
That prerogative lay with Comandante Timoleon Jimenez, known as Timoshenko, who heads the Farc national secretariat and its central high command somewhere in the Colombian jungle.
Timoshenko had already spoken out against the attempted criminalisation of the Farc people’s army after an informal Nasa indigenous assembly had sentenced five members to 40-60 years in jail for defending themselves against a number of indigenous armed guards.
The government welcomed the kangaroo court decision, demanding that Farc do likewise, accepting that the five be banged up in a state prison.
Timoshenko said that the indigenous court was as much a legal mockery as those supervised by the Justice Ministry, declaring that the Establishment was trying to legitimise an absolute reign of arbitrariness.
“In a country where criminals like Alvaro Uribe Velez and his court of thirsty violators of human rights cannot even be charged, let alone prosecuted … it means that the institutions are more than rotten,” he said.
The revolutionary forces are clearly not prepared to accept criminalisation of their struggle for justice while the state, dominated by the interests of landowners, ranchers and transnational corporations, awards itself a clean bill of health.
The regime’s courts continue to accord themselves the right to sit in judgement on Farc members and supporters.
Police announced the arrest in July of Farc 30th Front unit commander Martin Leonel Perez in the western Valle del Cauca state, accusing him of involvement in drug trafficking.
Farc commanders Heli Mejia, otherwise known as Martin Sombra, and “Karina” were put on a trial last December for crimes supposedly committed during the struggle against the oligarchy.
Timoshenko says that Farc members recognise “the illegitimacy of the legal system of the state” and have sworn allegiance to the just principles of the liberation movement, which is the only body empowered to judge them.
This week’s on-off negotiations episode illustrates the gulf between the two sides and the need for compromise by all concerned before success is assured.