Published October 18, 2012
HURDAL, Norway – Colombia's first peace talks in a decade were inaugurated Thursday a half world away with a demonstration of just how widely the two sides differ on how to end a vexing, nearly five-decade-old conflict.
The Oslo talks were brief, symbolic and largely perfunctory. Held at a secret venue, they lasted seven hours and were followed by word that substantive talks will begin Nov. 15 in the Cuban capital of Havana. The next round will tackle "comprehensive agrarian development," though little else appears to have been agreed upon.
The government's lead negotiator, Humberto de la Calle, sought to set a businesslike, cordial tone in brief remarks at a joint news conference at a lakeside hotel north of Oslo. He said the government seeks "mutual dignified treatment" in the talks and doesn't expect the sides to see eye-to-eye ideologically.
His opposite number from the Western Hemisphere's last remaining major insurgency, Ivan Marquez, said the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, had come to Oslo "with an olive branch."
Then he began railing against Colombia's "corrupt oligarchy," its alleged masters in Washington, "state-sponsored violence," the government's "deceptive and backward" land policies, and the "vampires" of transnational oil and mining that FARC says are ravaging the nation.
"We want to denounce the crime of capitalism and neo-liberalism," Marquez said during a 35-minute discourse that denounced some companies and individuals by name, including a cousin of President Juan Manuel Santos and a relative of one of the government negotiators.
Members of the government team, separated from the FARC negotiators at a long table by Norwegian and Cuban diplomats who have acted as facilitators, looked bored and slightly annoyed, some crossing their arms, others propping up chins with hands.
"There is a great chasm between the two parties that is going to be very difficult to overcome," said political scientist Vicente Torrijos at Bogota's Universidad del Rosario.
Colombia's business community is also hostile to the FARC. Its TV and radio stations cut away to commercials early in the FARC's separate news conference Thursday.
Land ownership issues are at the heart of Colombia's conflict, which is fueled by cocaine trafficking and aggravated by far-right militias that have colluded with a military widely questioned for human right abuses. Colombia's most fertile land has been largely concentrated in the hands of cattle ranchers and drug traffickers.
Colombia's president has said he expects the talks to last months, not years, as did the failed 1999-2002 talks that were held in a Switzerland-sized safe haven. Santos ruled out a safe haven this time and rejected FARC's request for a cease-fire.
"The government has said it is not a hostage to this process," De la Calle noted. Santos has said he will break off negotiations unless there is measurable progress.
The Norway talks focused chiefly on logistics, and De la Calle said his delegation would return to Colombia on Friday after just two days in the Scandinavian country. A key member of its five-man negotiating team, former police director Oscar Naranjo, did not even attend.
A road map for the talks was signed in August following six months of secret negotiations in Cuba with the participation of that country's communist government and the Norwegians.
They will be joined at the talks in Cuba by delegates from Chile and Venezuela, the latter of which has long been used as a refuge by FARC fighters. The facilitators' exact role has not yet been explained.
This week's negotiations were to have begun in the first half of October but were delayed by the red tape of suspending arrest warrants for rebel leaders and a dispute over the FARC's last-minute naming of a polyglot Dutch female guerrilla, Tanja Nijmeijer, to its delegation over government objections.
A U.S. arrest warrant for Nijmeijer on hostage-taking and terrorism charges was not suspended. She was not in Oslo. De la Calle said she would join the rebel delegation in Cuba.
Also absent was one of the five men named to the FARC's team of top negotiators: Ricardo Palmera, who is better known by his nom-de-guerre Simon Trinidad.
He is in solitary confinement at a maximum-security U.S. prison after being convicted in 2008 of conspiracy to kidnap three U.S. military contractors. They were held by the rebels for five years after their surveillance plane crashed in guerrilla-held territory, and were rescued that same year along with the presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt.
The rebel negotiators put a name tag for Trinidad, 62, at their end of the news conference's long table, after De la Calle said his participation "is not contemplated." Other Colombian officials had said he could possibly join the talks by videoconference. U.S. officials say they have received no request for that.
In his remarks, De la Calle expressed a willingness to compromise that has been characteristic of the Santos government.
"The government acknowledges that there are unjust social differences," he said. "We want to embark on a road to social change." Such language upsets Colombia's political right, including its standard-bearer, Alvaro Uribe.
President in 2002-2010, Uribe said Thursday that Marquez's speech was just one more instance of the rebels "mistreating the Colombian people, insulting them and trying to explain away (their) crimes."
Santos, who was Uribe's defense minister in 2006-2009, is a social progressive by contrast and has been applauded by the FARC for launching efforts to return stolen land.
Colombia is a nation of deep social inequalities and rampant human rights violations. It leads the world in union leader killings and has hundreds of thousands of internally displaced people.
De la Calle expressed displeasure at what he considered an attempt by Marquez to broaden the peace talks from an agreed upon five-point agenda with a blanket indictment of everything from capitalism to genetically modified seeds.
"We are not discussing the economic model. We are not discussing international investment," De la Calle said.
He said that after the FARC signs a peace accord, it can enter politics and try to win elections and enact change peacefully.
That prompted rebel delegate Jesus Santrich to comment: "Relax, we're only just starting."
Analyst Adam Isacson at the Washington Office on Latin America called the talks' launch notable for "an atmosphere of seriousness and discipline, and appearance that both sides are committed."
He said it was important for Marquez not to give the impression that the rebels are capitulating. The FARC has been seriously weakened in the past decade, reduced to about 9,000 fighters, as Colombia's military bulked up and gained effectiveness with the help of billions in U.S. aid.
Marquez's discourse was "similar to that of some politicians on Colombia's left who reject the FARC's violent ways," Isacson said. Indeed, the leftist presidents who lead Ecuador, Bolivia and Venezuela have all publicly urged the FARC to abandon its armed struggle and embrace democracy.
In addition to agrarian reform, the talks are to focus on full political rights for the peasant-based rebels once an agreement is signed and they disarm. The FARC would also get out of illegal narcotics, and restitution would be set for victims of the conflict.
One of the prickliest issues is what to do with combatants on both sides who are guilty of war crimes. A Colombian law passed in July contemplates amnesties and pardons, but groups including Human Rights Watch say anyone guilty of crimes against humanity should be brought to justice and punished.
Associated Press writers Frank Bajak in Lima, Peru, and Libardo Cardona and Cesar Garcia in Bogota, Colombia, contributed to this report.