HAVANA – Despite decades of mistrust and bloodshed, Latin America's oldest rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, is optimistic about the peace talks between the Colombian government and the group.
Marco León Calarca of the FARC, told The Associated Press in an exclusive interview Friday that Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos' rejection of a proposed cease-fire will not derail next month's peace talks.
Nor, he said, will the seeming improbability of a guerrilla imprisoned in the United States being freed to take part in the talks, as the rebels want.
"These obstacles are nothing compared with all that has accumulated from ... 50 years of violence, which we are trying to solve through dialogue," Calarca said. "In that sense, looking at things optimistically, we think there is no problem we can't solve."
The rebels had announced Thursday that a cease-fire was tops on their negotiating agenda, but Santos quickly rejected the proposal.
"There's not going to be any cease-fire," the president told reporters Thursday night. "We will not give anything until we get the final agreement, and I want to make that very clear."
Santos added that Colombia's military and police had even been told to intensify offensive actions.
Calarca spoke with the AP in Havana, where representatives of the FARC and the Colombian government spent six months hammering out an agreement announced this week to formally open peace talks Oct. 8 in the Norwegian capital, Oslo. Cuba, Venezuela and Chile also are taking part.
A decade ago, peace negotiations fell apart after Colombia had ceded a Switzerland-size parcel of the country as a safe haven for the FARC, which used it as a base to continue waging war elsewhere, extorting, kidnapping and drug trafficking.
Besides the cease-fire, the other issue that cast some doubt over the talks before they even started was the FARC's surprising request to have guerrilla Ricardo Palmera take part.
Palmera, alias "Simon Trinidad," is in a U.S. prison serving 60 years for kidnapping conspiracy in the abduction of three Americans in Colombia.
Again, Calarca seemed confident something can be worked out.
"The thing about Simon being at the negotiating table, we will examine it and figure out how Simon can be present. ... We don't think it's productive to have that discussion away from the table," Calarca said.
As for a truce, he said the FARC is proposing it to avoid further loss of life.
"We're not saying that if there is no cease-fire we won't begin (talks) ... but we're calling on common sense," Calarca said. "If we're going to talk, let's not do more damage. If we're inclined to peace, let's not do more damage."
Colombia's more than five-decades-old conflict has cost tens of thousands of lives, many of them civilians, and displaced countless others.
Calarca noted that the preliminary accord includes a call for other armed groups such as the smaller guerrilla force known as the National Liberation Army, or ELN, to help bring about peace.
"We say to our comrades in the ELN, think about that proposal, because we know (peace) is also part of your strategic goals just like ours," he said. "It's an invitation to build a peace process, which could be this or a different one."
The ELN has expressed a desire to get in on any peace process, and Santos has welcomed the idea.
Calarca also said FARC's negotiators are open to notable international figures lending their support to the talks, as former U.S. President Jimmy Carter has offered to do.
But as of now there are no firm plans to bring Carter or anyone else on board.
"We have not agreed, but we have discussed it," Calarca said. "There is a principle of agreement that this is possible. ... All those who wish to help the process are welcome. Not only do we accept them, we invite them."
Based on reporting by the Associated Press.