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Peace Takes on an International Flavor, but Where's the U.S.?

A torn country takes tentative steps toward peace. Will bitter enemies and wary U.S. block the way?

March 11, 2001|Michael Shifter | Michael Shifter is vice president for policy at the Inter-American Dialogue and teaches Latin American politics at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service

WASHINGTON — Last Thursday's talks between the Colombian government and its largest rebel group returned some measure of hope to the war-weary nation. By engaging international observers for the first time in the effort to resolve the four-decade-long conflict, President Andres Pastrana and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as the FARC, might have put the country's bedeviled peace process on sounder footing. But to make the process work will be far from easy.

For most Colombians, who have learned to keep their expectations in check, there is still no choice but to pursue peace. Few believe that a military solution is an option. Without a peace process in place, the country will have to endure more of the same: unabated violence and rampant lawlessness, reflected in record kidnappings and the world's third-largest internally displaced population. The situation can get worse, leading to an implosion. That is why a political settlement is essential.

This may be Pastrana's last chance to get peace negotiations moving. He has staked his entire presidency on the issue. But despite bold gestures, including granting a demilitarized zone to the FARC in southern Colombia, and the best of intentions, Pastrana has failed to secure concessions from the FARC that would signal their inclination to negotiate in good faith. With fewer than 18 months left in office, what the Colombian leader can accomplish is, most agree, quite limited.

Pastrana's meeting with FARC leader Manuel "Sureshot" Marulanda last month--and their decision to restart talks that had been frozen since November--gave the president badly needed political oxygen. But to restore public confidence, he has to deliver concrete results. An agreement to allow international verification of the human rights abuses committed in the conflict would, for example, represent an important step forward. News announcing a cease-fire would surely give Colombians something to cheer about.

Attending Thursday's meeting was an impressive array of officials from Mexico, Brazil, Venezuela, Cuba, Chile, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Panama, Peru, Spain, Portugal, France, Italy, Finland, Norway, Holland, Sweden, Switzerland, Belgium, Austria, Denmark, the United Kingdom, Canada, Japan, the Vatican and the United Nations. Its purpose was a modest, chiefly informational one: to review the status of the two-year peace effort. But the meeting marked a step beyond previous gatherings with international officials to talk about alternative crops or last year's "Eurotour," when FARC representatives visited European capitals.

For the wily and headstrong 70-year-old Marulanda, bringing international actors into Colombia's peace process gained the FARC the international recognition and legitimacy it has long sought. With some 18,000 combatants, the FARC enjoys scant popular support in Colombia. Its image has suffered on the international front as well, in part because of accumulating evidence of the FARC's involvement in Colombia's drug trade and its systematic violation of human rights. Last year, the FARC was responsible for the bulk of Colombia's reported kidnappings. Still, despite its reliance on criminal operations to sustain the insurgency, the FARC's interest in engaging international actors reveals that it has a pragmatic side and understands the need to gain political ground.

Although Thursday's meeting hardly assures eventual success, progress in the peace effort would be even harder to achieve without the participation of non-Colombians. In other conflicts, an outside force to help catalyze a peace process proved essential. In the Middle East, Northern Ireland and Central America during the previous decade, neutral countries played crucial roles in convening the parties in conflict and trying to bring them toward an accord. In the on-again, off-again talks between the FARC and Colombian government, such a function had been missing.

It is encouraging that Mexico and Brazil, Latin America's two largest countries, sent representatives to Thursday's meeting. Their presence reflects a welcome shift in policy and the growing interest of Mexican President Vicente Fox and Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardoso to assist the hemisphere's most besieged democracy. Also important, in light of recent friction between the Colombian and Venezuelan governments, was the participation of a Venezuelan official.

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