The silhouette of a man is seen through the Colombian national flag during a protest against the FARC in 2011.
Jaime Saldarriaga / Courtesy Reuters

For a little under a year, the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) have been holding peace talks in Havana -- the first since the round conducted by the Pastrana administration from 1998 to 2002. Those were plagued by delays, accusations from the FARC that the Colombian government was planning to assassinate its top leaders, accusations from the Colombian government that the FARC was planning to kidnap officials, and ongoing violence. The fact that, this time around, the government and the FARC have succeeded in commencing negotiations and maintaining momentum is promising.

The negotiators have already resolved the first of five discussion points: land reform. Although the specifics have not been made public, both sides seem to have agreed that the government should facilitate the redistribution of land from those who have illegally seized it, including the FARC, to campesinos (rural farmers) for eco-friendly agricultural development. Now the negotiations have moved on to the second discussion point -- the morphing of the FARC from a terrorist organization into a legitimate political party. Two Colombian government negotiators, a prominent opposition member of the Venezuelan National Assembly, a Cuban lecturer and former diplomat, and two demobilized fighters offer their takes on the peace process and on how an agreement might affect their respective countries. Their hopefulness about the process varies, but all warn of regional instability should talks fail.

BOGOTÁ’S HOPE

In 1953, when Humberto de la Calle was seven years old, he took a train with his older brother from their home state of Caldas to Colombia’s northern coast for an unchaperoned vacation. The young de la Calle did not mind the hours-long ride; he was too excited to embark on this grand adventure. His brother, too, was gleeful. But upon arriving at the coast, his demeanor suddenly changed. “Humberto,” his brother ordered, “put your money in your sock. Here, there are men who will try to rob us and then kill us.”

Sitting in the spacious conference room of his law office in northern Bogotá recently, de la Calle shook his head. “Imagine being a seven-year-old and hearing that. I was terrified,” he said. The bandits his brother was so afraid of were members of a growing horde of disparate street gangs which, in pursuit of a wallet, would use lethal force even if the victim was willing to surrender his cash without a word. “Since that moment,” de la Calle continued, “I have never known a Colombia at peace. During the war between the Conservatives and the Liberals -- La Violencia -- I remember listening to the news on the radio, hearing about truck after truck filled with dead bodies.” De la Calle was referring to the decade of violence and ideological battle between Colombia’s right and left from 1948 to 1958. In those years, hundreds of thousands of Colombians were killed, and the FARC -- a champion of the left -- was born and radicalized.

Today, de la Calle and his colleague Frank Pearl are the lead negotiators in the peace talks between Colombia and the FARC. Given his age, 67, and his professional successes -- he is a lawyer who has served as the minister of the interior, ambassador to Spain and to the United Kingdom, and vice president -- de la Calle is often asked whether he was crazy to have agreed to lead this year’s negotiations. His response is simple: “I do not want to imagine another generation of Colombians never knowing peace.”

Like de la Calle and many other Colombians, Pearl knows victims who have been extorted, kidnapped, or killed by the FARC guerillas. He was previously minister of environment and sustainable development during the first term of Juan Manuel Santos, the current president, and was the high commissioner for peace during the previous administration. During his term as high commissioner for peace, Pearl was instrumental in structuring the disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration program through which the AUC (United Self-Defense Forces), a paramilitary group, was demobilized in 2006. Pearl says that sitting across a table from an acutely adversarial group of men and women who paint as just their alleged crimes against the Colombian state and innocent civilians is no easy thing. He said that it “is maybe one of the biggest challenges I have faced personally.” But given his experience dealing with the previous demobilization, this time around he is more ready to set aside knee-jerk reactions and personal and political biases.

For de la Calle and Pearl, the first few months were particularly trying. The members of the FARC negotiation team spouted propaganda for hours on end. However frustrating it must have been to listen to Iván Márquez and other FARC delegates drone on, the government representatives gave them the floor for several weeks. Eventually, de la Calle put his foot down -- and the negotiators flat-out refused to give in to FARC demands to open negotiations on points outside of the settled agenda, such as dissolving the various free trade agreements that Colombia has signed with other countries, severely restricting foreign investment, and doing away with a free-market system entirely -- and the monologue evolved into dialogue.

Since the negotiations began last fall, the government representatives have spent 20 days out of every month in Havana, away from family and friends. They live together in a single residence and have little private time. At 8:30 am they eat breakfast together; then they depart for the building in which the negotiations are held. They meet with the FARC until 1:30 pm and then break for lunch. They return to their residence around 3:30 pm, and, until 9 or 10 each night, discuss the day's events and plan for the following day.

De la Calle emphasized that there has been no socializing with the FARC after hours, save a handful of brief evening events at the Norwegian embassy. (The Norwegian government has, for several years, devoted time and money to support Colombian peace efforts, and is considered by both sides to be a trusted intermediary.) At these events, smoked salmon and caviar are served. De la Calle smiled at this last detail, as if to acknowledge the irony of purported Marxist rebels dining on such fare, saying that it is just what Norwegians like to serve. “In past negotiations, we made the mistake of socializing with the FARC,” de la Calle told me, referring to the talks that the Gaviria administration held in the early 1990s. “There was music, dancing, aguardiente ... but that did not lead to anything productive. The FARC are not our friends.” 

Beyond the ideological gulf that separates de la Calle and Pearl from the FARC negotiators is a difference in style. Since the beginning of the negotiations, the FARC negotiators have spent far more time in front of the cameras. In particular, the photogenic Tanja Nijmeijer, a multilingual Dutch woman who, over a decade ago, left her privileged life in Holland to embark on a bit of terrorist tourism with the FARC, has given several television interviews in which she suggests that she fights for the downtrodden of Colombia. In contrast, de la Calle and Pearl have remained out of the spotlight. (This is their first “personal” interview for an international publication.) When I suggested that they were patriots, fighting for the future of their country, they demurred. De la Calle said, “Sometimes in a [Bogotá] restaurant, someone will come up to me and thank me or they will offer words of encouragement, like ¡Animo! ¡Adelante!Courage. Onward. De la Calle says that he finds the small gestures of gratitude enormously heartening -- even energizing.

THE CARACAS CONNECTION

On the evening of April 30 this year, María Corina Machado, a prominent Venezuelan opposition leader, came home late after what, for her, was apparently a usual day at the Venezuelan National Assembly. She had been physically assaulted by Chavista assembly members who supported Maduro as the successor to the late Hugo Chávez. A bandage covered her broken nose; as she pulled into her driveway, heavy bruising had begun to form around her swollen eyes. Machado’s eldest daughter opened the front door. She had read about the attack on Twitter earlier in the day and had tried for hours to reach her mother, without success. Now, seeing her in the flesh, she stepped back, horrified. Afraid to hug her, she hugged herself instead.

According to Machado, although this particular incident was the first time that she had been physically harmed, her family members had long adapted to a barrage of Chavista attacks in the media. I first met with Machado in Bogotá, a week after the assault, as she was on her way to give interviews to Colombian television stations. Her black eyes and bandages were a sharp contrast to her calm, friendly demeanor and elegant appearance. Before showing me a cell phone video documenting part of her attack, she explained that, after the election results were announced on April 14, riots broke out on the streets of Caracas in which an undetermined number of people were killed. Diosdado Cabello, the president of the national assembly, decreed that only assembly members who acknowledged Maduro's victory and swore allegiance to him would be allowed to speak for their constituencies. And so, on April 30, the opposition arrived at the National Assembly armed with whistles and a banner. Within minutes, there was chaos, and a female Chavista punched Machado hard enough to knock her down. I watched the video on Machado's iPad. It showed Machado getting to her feet and approaching the podium, entreating Cabello to call the assembly to order. He did not.

Machado first ran for political office in 2010, when she was 42. She won her seat with one of the highest vote counts nationwide. In 2011, Machado announced her candidacy for the presidency. Although she was beaten in the primaries by another opposition figure, Henrique Capriles Radonski, she is considered a viable presidential candidate in the future. Like many Venezuelans, she understands the FARC as not just a Colombian problem but a Venezuelan one as well, and her views on the talks are instructive.

Machado explained how the Colombian conflict had spilled over the Venezuelan border long ago. By the 1990s, both FARC and Colombian paramilitary groups had seized power in Venezuelan border towns, usurping mayors' authority, extorting Venezuelan citizens, and imposing curfews with impunity. Making things more difficult, she said, was that the Chávez regime actively offered the FARC safe haven on Venezuelan soil. Information found on the laptop of the FARC commander Alfonso Cano after he was killed by Colombian armed forces in 2011 supports her assertion.

Machado links the Chávez regime's support of the FARC to the Cuban government’s influence over Venezuelan politics and its military strategy. It is no secret that the Cuban Revolution and the ideologies of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara have been held up as shining examples for left-leaning nations, such as Venezuela, and terrorist groups, such as the FARC. In addition, she says, there is the power of Cuban immigrants in Venezuela. In the last decade, over 200,000 have emigrated to Venezuela. Many of them have bought notarias, the centers where Venezuelans get their ID cards, register real estate transactions, and so on. Thus, Machado says, they have an enormous amount of information about Venezuelan citizens. She believes that they have given this information to the Chávez and Maduro regimes so that those leaders can use it against Venezuelan citizens who don't support their rule.

Throughout our discussion, Machado was clear in her support of the Colombian government. But, given the regional dynamics, she warned, “Until there is a true democratic government in Venezuela” -- one that is, in her words, “not a puppet of the Cubans” -- a peace agreement “will not be sustainable for the long term.”

THE MAN FROM HAVANA

In June, Carlos Alzugaray Treto and I met for dinner in a rooftop restaurant overlooking Central Park. Alzugaray had been invited by academic groups in various U.S. cities to speak on improving U.S.-Cuban relations, a topic on which he has written and lectured extensively. Alzugaray has a Ph.D. in historical sciences from the University of Havana, and he served as a senior Foreign Service officer in Argentina, Bulgaria, Canada, Ethiopia, and Japan; as ambassador to Belgium and Luxembourg; and as head of mission to the European Union. Although he had been denied a visa to travel to the United States several times before, this time it worked out. It happened to be his 70th birthday, and he said that, as a young man, he would not have imagined celebrating a birthday in such a place. I replied that capitalism has its perks. Alzugaray gave a wry smile.

As a teenager, Alzugaray, who was born into a prominent Havana family, did volunteer work with a group of Jesuits. He went into the countryside and worked with the poor, returning to Havana in the evenings. In those days, the various clubs owned by American gangsters were filled with the rich and famous, who danced until dawn. This was Alzugaray's first impression of the United States and its “champagne imperialism,” which jarred against what he experienced in the impoverished Cuban countryside. Alzugaray was studying in Tokyo when Fidel Castro assumed power, but he soon returned to Cuba to continue his education, embracing the revolution and communist ideology.

Alzugaray, now retired, no longer represents the Cuban government in an official capacity; he describes himself as an academic diplomat and frequently travels to attend conferences around the world. When asked why Cuba would host the peace talks between the Colombian government and the FARC, Alzugaray said that Cuba is interested in a peaceful and unified Latin America. “Imagine if Santos were to be able to announce at the CELAC [Community of Latin American and Caribbean States] Summit in January that a peace agreement has been reached, thanks to Cuba! That would not make the United States look very good.” He laughed, referring to the fact that the Cuba, which will host the CELAC Summit, remains on the State Department's State Sponsors of Terrorism list, in part because of its support of the FARC.

“The days when Cuba supported revolutionary movements have passed. And Cuba never exported revolution. But if a revolutionary group asked Cuba for help then we would give them material and training support.” (I have spoken with several demobilized FARC members who spoke about various commanders taking trips to Cuba.) “But don't worry, we don't do that anymore,” he said with a reassuring smile, as though he had just promised that the adolescents next door had finally outgrown their penchant for frog baseball.

Alzugaray went on to explain that the FARC has been problematic for Cuba for several reasons. First, Che Guevara never advocated terrorism -- not for ethical reasons but because it was an ineffective military strategy. “Whenever revolutionary movements in Latin America have used terrorism their main instrument of struggle, Cuba has always advised against it,” Alzugaray said. Although the Cuban Revolution committed acts of sabotage (revolutionaries bombing a power tower in Havana to produce a blackout, for example), innocent civilians were never harmed. That, Alzugaray said, is the main difference between the Cuban Revolution and the FARC. Second, the FARC “created a contradiction for Cuba.” He continued that although Cuba has generally supported the FARC, Havana wants good relations with Bogotá. (He hopes that Havana's hosting the peace talks will strengthen that relationship.) Third, he said, Cuba has always been uneasy with supporting revolutionary movements that have no chance of success, and that the FARC is one such case.

We turned to the topics of the post-election violence in Venezuela and Cuba's influence on Venezuelan politics. When I mentioned that I had just spoken to Machado, Alzugaray waved his hands dismissively. “Machado? She's a radical. I saw her on Telesur [a pan–Latin American satellite television station hosted in Caracas] speaking during the first session of the National Assembly demanding that Maduro get permission from his Castro bosses or something like that.” He was referring to the fact that, during this first post-Chávez session of the National Assembly, Machado accused Maduro of not being able to make major decisions without the Castro brothers' permission. When asked about Machado's assertion that the Cuban-owned notarias have passed along information to the Venezuelan regime, Alzugaray said, “I believe that the Cubans in Venezuela will try to get as much information as possible. What they do with it is another thing entirely.” 

Alzugaray hopes that the signing of a peace agreement between the Colombian government and the FARC would stabilize relations between Venezuela and Colombia. He suggested that it would benefit Cuba and the region as a whole if the FARC were to transition into a political party that could effect change constructively. However, he is not impressed with Maduro, and thinks that he is in way over his head. I added that state-controlled Venezuelan press has lauded Maduro for talking to Chávez when he comes to him in the form of a bird. “Yes,” Alzugaray said, “and that's just stupid.” That time, we both smiled.

THE END OF THE FIGHT

In May, I met with a group of former FARC and ELN fighters, all of whom had recently demobilized and were currently in the reintegration phase of the Colombian government's disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration program. (The ELN, or National Liberation Army, is a Marxist/Cuban Revolution–inspired group reported to have approximately 1,500 active fighters which has yet to commit to peace talks with the Colombian government.) Two of the women with whom I met expressed their views on the Havana peace process.

“Diana,” who is 25, spent ten years with one of the more well-funded (via the drug trade, and, increasingly, via illegal mining) FARC fronts operating in Antioquia, a Colombian department near the border with Panama. She was trained as a member of their special forces. About a year ago, her front commander allowed her to visit her mother, with whom she had been in contact via third parties for several years. I asked her why her commander would grant her leave. (Having met with scores of demobilized FARC fighters, I had never before heard of this happening.) Diana explained that her commander considered her an exemplary and loyal fighter and trusted her to return after her visit. She told me that, initially, she had indeed planned on rejoining her frente. But during the tearful reunion with her mother and other family members, including her sister, who had three young children, Diana was overcome with emotion and decided to stay.

She hid in her mother's house for several weeks before gathering the courage to present herself to the Colombian army as a guerrilla who wished to demobilize. “I was so scared that [my commander] would send someone to find me,” she said. He did not. Punishment for Diana's desertion came in another form: an intruder broke into her sister's house and shot the sister in the head, feet away from her children. “They are my children now,” Diana said, closing the subject.

Since then, Diana has aided the Colombian army in various capacities, despite the fact that doing so is not a requirement for successful reintegration per the rules of the disarmament program. Although she managed to find a job at a hotel in Medellín, she recently quit the job, having received numerous threats from the FARC. As a result, she is struggling financially. 

When I asked her about the peace talks, she told me that she could not see why her former front commanders would demobilize, given the amount of money they are making in the drug trade. She believes that the members representing the FARC in Havana are not to be trusted, since they are concerned only with their personal interests and do not speak for the rank and file. And if a peace agreement is reached, she worries about the safety of those FARC fighters who have already demobilized. She is sure that they will be viewed as traitors and killed. If there is a mass demobilization, she said flatly, “Who will protect us? We will all be living in the same communities, and there will be nowhere for us to hide.”

“Carolina,” a 45-year-old demobilized ELN fighter, sat next to Maria, nodding in agreement. Carolina was a member of the ELN for 20 years. Unlike Maria, who had been forcefully recruited (i.e., kidnapped) by the FARC, Carolina joined the ELN voluntarily, hoping to seek revenge against a policeman with whom she had had an ill-fated love affair. With some disappointment, she said that she never acted on her vengeful desires, but that she had stayed with the ELN, and eventually trained to be a nurse. She said that she received her training in Venezuela and that the doctor who trained her was Cuban. When I asked her why she decided to demobilize, she shrugged and said, “I was tired.”

Now, she struggles to make ends meet. The maximum stipend that a reintegration program participant receives is 480,000 Colombian pesos, or approximately $230 a month, for up to two and a half years -- and that is if the participant attends 90 percent of the required psychological, educational, and job training sessions that the program offers. Carolina does not have dependents, and still the stipend does not come close to covering her rent, food, clothing, and transportation costs.

Carolina wants peace for Colombia, and says the fact that the Colombian government and the FARC are talking is a good thing. But like almost everyone else I talked to, she worries what will happen if an agreement is signed. In addition to sharing Maria's concerns about the security of those who have already demobilized, she predicts that a great number of the newly minted former fighters would resort to illegal and violent activities to support themselves economically. “Sometimes I wish I could go back to the ELN. Que pena -- I'm sorry -- but at least in the mountains I knew what I had to do to survive.”

Polls published by the Colombia media indicate that the majority of Colombians support ending the conflict with the FARC by diplomatic means. Unfortunately, there has been little public discourse about the potential struggles that the nation will face if the FARC lay down their arms. Although Cuba and Venezuela have publicly expressed their support of Colombia's peace efforts, regional tensions remain high, especially when it comes to relations with the United States. For now, then, even if a peace agreement is signed, it does not mean that peace will prevail.

  • CHRISTINE BALLING is Senior Fellow for Latin American Affairs at the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington, D.C.
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