Deep from the dense forests of Colombia, the leftist rebels have sent a message to the government: stop killing and start talking. In its decades-old war with the Colombian state, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) has declared ceasefire many times, but the latest offer may bring lasting peace to the country as it comes after a one-year long talks between the government and rebels in Cuba and Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos’s recent meeting with President Barack Obama in which they discussed the U.S.-led “war on drugs”.
In a communiqué issued on Tuesday, the Secretariat of the Central High Command of the FARC announced the ceasefire that will become effective from December 15. “We unilaterally proceed to order all our guerrilla and militia units a ceasefire and end hostilities for 30 days,” said the statement, asking the government to reciprocate as “public opinion was confused by this strange cocktail of death and dialogue”.
Considered Latin America’s longest-running insurgency, the conflict has left 220,000 dead and displaced 4.5 million people.
Though Christmas time ceasefires are not new in Colombia, the current truce — even though unilateral — is important as the peace talks between the Santos government and the rebels have made good progress on a five-point agenda: rural development and land distribution; political reform and participation of FARC; narco-trafficking, reparation and recognition of the victims of the conflict; and finally, conflict termination. The first two points already have been agreed upon and talks on drugs cultivation and trafficking are in a crucial stage.
The FARC, Colombia’s largest rebel group with 8,000 heavily-armed fighters, had unilaterally declared a ceasefire for two months at the start of the Cuba negotiations in November 2012, but lifted it after the government refused to reciprocate. Arguing that a ceasefire would give the FARC a strategic advantage, Mr. Santos had ordered his forces to step up their offensive.
This time too, the government has not yet responded to the ceasefire but there are indications that there is a change in the thinking in Bogota. Last week, Colombian Finance Minister Mauricio Cardenas said the current defence budget of 26 trillion pesos (US$10 billion) will come down if the government and the rebels sign a peace accord.
Various citizen groups in Colombia too have called on the FARC to maintain the truce till the presidential polls in May. Such a long ceasefire may be unlikely, but the government is trying to extract more peace gestures from the rebels in order to win public support for a deal.
The current ceasefire may also help the rebels and government to agree on the most important part of their negotiations: drug trafficking. In his December 3 meeting with Mr. Obama, Mr. Santos managed to get his support for a peace deal with FARC. The role of U.S., which has spent more than $8 billion, through a legislation known as Plan Colombia, to help Colombia combat drugs and fight the FARC insurgency, is crucial to the peace process.
With the US-led “war on drugs” being seen as a failed strategy by most countries in the region, the FARC has proposed 10-point plan to de-criminalise the drug usage and focus on the socioeconomic and cultural aspects of the drug trade.
Only last week, Uruguay became the first country to legalise marijuana use, a move likely to be replicated in several other South American nations.
“A new mood is evolving in Latin America where more leaders are calling for de-criminalisation and legalisation of drug usage as the most effective alternative to a failed and very costly strategy. President Santos is listening carefully to what his regional counterparts are voicing,” said Nazih Richani, the director of Latin American studies at Kean University, in a column.