After almost 50 years of fighting in Colombia, there is finally a real opportunity for peace. In August, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos announced that his government was holding "exploratory talks" with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc), the country's largest guerrilla army. The leader of Farc confirmed it. Now negotiators from both sides are due to meet in Norway for face to face talks.
The conflict – financed by kidnapping, extortion and drug trafficking on one side, and billions of US military aid dollars on the other – has wreaked havoc across Colombia, driving hundreds of thousands from their homes and taking about a quarter of a million lives.
Many Colombians are optimistic that the time for peace is near, but others fear the talks are a ploy by the weakened Farc to regain its strength. Will Santos be able to do what no government before him has achieved and bring lasting peace to Colombia?
From La Violencia, more violence
The Farc grew out of the cultural fault lines of Colombia's disastrous 10-year civil war in the late 1940s and 1950s, now known as La Violencia. The rebel movement initially gained backing by staging a popular uprising in the 1960s, with a focus on land reform and social equality – operating alongside a communist-inspired political party. In the 1980s, its political arm was wiped out when over 3,000 of its members were killed by government paramilitary forces.
Since then, the Farc’s increasingly violent tactics and notorious use of illegal activities to fund its operations have weakened its public support. The last round of peace talks was held over a decade ago, when the government gave the Farc a safe haven the size of Switzerland in return for coming back to the negotiating table. Three years later, those talks fell apart after rebels were found to be using the land to hold hostages, traffic arms, grow coca and build air strips for their drug deals.
To combat the Farc’s growing size and strength, the Colombian government – financed by more than $8 billion in US assistance – launched a massive military buildup in 2000. Using brutal tactics and illegal paramilitary groups, the government dealt major blows by killing much of the Farc's top leadership, leaving it the weakest it has been in decades.
Carrots and sticks
The Farc’s loss of popular support and comparatively weaker position – as well as Colombia's new, ascendant role in Latin America – has led many to conclude that peace is nearer than ever. President Santos and his government have also taken steps to appease the group, passing a constitutional amendment that lays the legal groundwork for a future peace process, and mending relations with President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, a key Farc ally. A government programme to demobilise combatants has also led to thousands of Farc desertions – leaving the organisation with just half the number of troops it had 10 years ago.
In addition, the rebel group is reportedly strapped for cash after announcing in February of this year that it would cease using kidnappings for ransom. The government’s military advances have also meant that the Farc can operate only deep in the bush, and their lucrative drug trade is suffering as a result.
Peace or ploy
These developments may mean that the Farc is more willing to negotiate in good faith. But skeptics point out that in recent months the group has actually increased their attacks. Colombia's defence ministry says "terrorist" attacks were up 53% in the first seven months of 2012.
After five decades of violence a certain skepticism seems appropriate – it's not clear whether these talks can actually end the war for Colombia. But with a new president improving relations with formerly hostile neighbors and a fast-growing economy, the geopolitical conditions seem right.
And more importantly, the people are ready. A recent poll found that 74% of Colombians supported the initially secret talks the government and the Farc held in Cuba earlier this year. More meetings are expected after the current round in Norway. Will these seemingly ripe conditions mean that a bold Santos can end the longest running conflict in the western hemisphere?
Read more: For an update on the return to peace talks in Oslo, check out this Reuters article and weigh in in the poll and comments below.
Sources: Insight Crime, France 24, Wikipedia, Sydney Morning Herald, BBC, Daily Beast, Guardian, Washington Post, Huffington Post, World, CNN, Reuters