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Armed Conflicts

Hugo Chavez and Colombia’s Peace

BOGOTA, Jan 14 2013 (IPS) - Colombia has suffered an internal armed conflict for so many decades that it almost amounts to a “forgotten crisis” for external donors. But the president of neighbouring Venezuela, Hugo Chavez, is well aware of the conflict, and understands that it destabilises Latin America, where centre-left governments proliferate.

“He is a man who is determined (to find) a political solution, and to bring peace to this country. He did not lose the sense that Colombia deserves a better fate,” a source familiar with the ongoing negotiations between the government of Juan Manuel Santos and the FARC guerrillas, told IPS on condition of anonymity.

Chavez “has understood that this internal conflict causes tremendous damage to the country, but that it is also a destabilising factor in the region,” he said.

Amid the secrecy, the government and people familiar with the negotiations agree that the Venezuelan president has played a cardinal role in the current peace efforts.

The outbreak of civil war in this country dates to 1946, and in its current phase persists between the state security forces and the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN), both guerrilla groups that emerged in 1964.

Apparently, Santos told Chavez about his intention to explore a peace agreement with the guerrillas in a meeting in August 2010, during the early days of Santos’ administration.

The negotiations with FARC are no longer secret, but IPS has learned that separate talks with ELN are also moving forward.

Inquiries by IPS found that, with great courage, Chavez encouraged FARC leaders to accept Santos’ gestures. The Venezuelan leader’s initiative was also endorsed by Cuban President Raul Castro.

The proposal probably came as a surprise to FARC, whose leaders finally said “Yes” to the negotiations.

The source close to the talks said that the decision was approved by all of the guerrilla leaders, though some had recorded their written reservations over secondary issues, such as whether the timing was right or if the guerrillas were contributing to the popularity of Santos, which was indeed what happened.

Chavez not only approached the parties, but has acted decisively as the facilitator.

The first contact between the Santos government and FARC took place in the Colombian territory of Catatumbo, on the border with Venezuela, according to Mauricio Jaramillo, the nom de guerre of Jaime Alberto Parra, one of the guerrilla leaders involved in the exploratory talks.

Jaramillo is the current commander of the Bloque Oriental (Eastern Bloc), which operates in the giant bi-national valley of the Orinoco River and especially along the border between Colombia and Venezuela.

This meeting took place before the talks formally started, Jaramillo said in a letter on Jan. 9. “The process was about to fail because of the difficulty of finding an agreed location for the negotiations,” he added.

Santos also boldly began the rapprochement, without the army’s knowledge, as revealed in an article on Dec. 29 in the Bogota newspaper ‘El Espectador’, written by the president’s brother, journalist Enrique Santos.

But Santos rejected FARC’s proposal that the negotiations continue in Colombia.

Venezuela also was ruled out as a venue to avoid accusations against Chavez’s government, according to IPS’ annonymous source. The Colombian military regularly warns that there are limits to Venezuela’s tolerance for FARC presence on its soil.

Finally, Havana was chosen to host the exploratory talks: “We decided on Cuba for safety reasons and, above all, because it guaranteed confidentiality,” wrote Enrique Santos.

This exploratory phase ended in August of 2012, leading to the formal negotiation stage, which opened last October in Oslo and since November has been taking place in Cuba.

The process has involved much political arm-wrestling – just answering the question of how Jaramillo was going to be transported to Venezuela and then to Havana took almost a year, demonstrating the level of mistrust between the parties.

The government wanted to arrange an overland journey, crossing three-quarters of Colombia’s territory to reach the border city of Cucuta in the northeast. According to Jaramillo, the government claimed that “the airlift transport was impossible because it violated the drug controls agreed with the USA.”

Thus, Chavez also facilitated the transportation logistics for Jaramillo and other insurgents to Havana, which was a matter of “vital importance”, the source added without giving details, although these difficulties are “well known” by the International Committee of the Red Cross.

Finally, Jaramillo was taken to Venezuela by helicopter and from there travelled to Cuba. The same operation was repeated for the other guerrilla fighters.

The talks have had ups and downs, including a severe slump after the death of “Alfonso Cano”, the then commander of FARC and considered an expert negotiator, in a military operation in November 2011.

According to Jaramillo, “Upon formal request of the Colombian government, the bedridden Chavez was kind enough to intervene at some difficult times, contributing to smoothening some rough edges with his enormous prestige.”

Negotiations have moved behind closed doors in the middle of the war, since the government does not accept a truce. FARC, on the other hand, unilaterally decreed an offensive ceasefire for two months, starting last November and expiring on the 20th of this month.

Meanwhile, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the National University of Colombia on Wednesday handed government negotiators in Bogota, and FARC representatives in Havana, the civilian proposals to resolve what has triggered the war: inequality in land ownership, which in the Gini index ranks 0.87.

These propositions are contained in 11 volumes, compiling 546 proposals from 522 farmers and business organisations that participated in an agrarian forum held in Bogota last December.


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