Former Colombian President Alvaro Uribe alleged that President Juan Manuel Santos is negotiating with FARC guerrillas in Cuba, although there is little chance of formal peace talks commencing anytime soon.
In an August 19 speech in the northern city of Sincelejo, former president Uribe accused the current administration of secretly negotiating with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in Cuba. “This is incomprehensible: security deteriorating while the government is negotiating with the FARC terrorist group in Cuba,” said Uribe. While he did not elaborate on this or provide any evidence, this is not the first time that the allegations have been made.
Santos has publicly denied claims of secret talks in Cuba as “pure rumors,” and in June said any future peace negotiations were far off, calling for “more lead” to be used against the guerrillas.
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Of course, the former president’s remarks could simply be a continuation of his attacks against the Santos government. Uribe has become one of Santos’ biggest critics, and has taken him to task for for reducing pressure on the FARC and for mending relations with Venezuela, despite evidence that the neighboring country has served as a refuge for the FARC and their smaller cousins of the National Liberation Army (ELN).
However that does not mean that secret negotiations are not taking place. Intelligence sources in Colombia told InSight Crime that the Santos government had sent out feelers to the FARC soon after taking office. Military sources have said that they believe formal negotiations are possible within the next two years. It is no secret that Santos would like to be the man that ended Colombia's 48-year civil conflict, and it might be that prospects for a serious peace process could win him reelection in 2014.
Nearly every Colombian president over the past 30 years has studied the possibility of peace talks with the rebels, including Uribe. The former president did not rule out peace talks with the rebels in the early days of his presidency, although he suspended all official contact with the FARC in October 2006 after guerrillas detonated a car bomb outside a military academy in Bogota, injuring 23. Uribe's relationship with the ELN was far reaching. He sent representatives to meet with ELN commanders in Havana, Cuba in 2005 and 2006, although these talks stalled in 2007. A leaked US diplomatic cable from January 2010 revealed that the then outgoing Uribe government had "focused on developing communication channels and building confidence with both [the FARC and ELN] terrorist organizations" to pave the way for future talks.
On one hand, the timing for peace talks seems ripe, as the rebels have stated that they are willing to return to the negotiating table. The new rebel commander-in-chief, Rodrigo Londoño Echeverry, alias “Timochenko,” called for talks to resume in January. The group publicly renounced civilian kidnapping in February, and in April freed the last of their security force hostages, a group of ten who had been held for more than a decade.
There have been indications that the government is preparing for negotiations with guerrillas as well. On June 14, Congress passed Santos' Legal Framework for Peace, a law which recognizes guerrilla groups as actors in an armed conflict, and grants them lenient prison sentences if they demobilize. It also allows former guerrillas to hold public office, opening the door to participation in conventional politics.
However, there are several reasons why Santos may not be in a position to start formal peace talks. Despite the gestures of the guerrillas, he may still be reticent to engage the FARC until they meet additional conditions. He has publicly said that a unilateral cease fire would be a necessary prerequisite for talks. Also, under constant criticism from Uribe, he cannot be seen to negotiate from a position of weakness. His approval ratings have fallen in recent months, and many Colombians are concerned that improvements to security under Uribe have been reversed, as guerrilla attacks have increased. If he is seen as making concessions to the guerrillas, it could take a major toll on his political support, potentially eroding his chances of reelection.