BOGOTA, Colombia — President Juan Manuel Santos on Monday night said his government was in "exploratory discussions" to end more than four decades of conflict with Colombia's largest rebel group.
In a short televised address, Santos said the government had engaged in discussion with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, but he did not disclose details such as where the talks were held.
Meetings have been held in Cuba, according to news reports and speculation. Santos reportedly has sent security advisor Sergio Jaramillo to Havana to talk with FARC representatives.
Colombian government officials had not acknowledged peace talks with the FARC since 2002, when the so-called Caguan peace initiative launched by President Andres Pastrana collapsed in bitterness and recriminations.
Pastrana ceded the FARC a demilitarized zone the size of Switzerland from 1999 to 2002, but the rebels never fully cooperated, using the time and the zone, dubbed "FARC-land," to strengthen their military position.
A disillusioned Colombian electorate soon voted in hard-line President Alvaro Uribe with a mandate to pursue a battlefield victory. Uribe, benefiting from the $8-billion U.S. aid package called Plan Colombia, ordered the armed forces to win back territory and rout the rebels.
Since Santos took office in August 2010, government forces have continued to hammer the rebels, killing the two top FARC leaders, known by the aliases Alfonso Cano and Mono Jojoy, in military operations. Though its ranks have been decimated in recent years, the FARC in recent months has launched a series of attacks on oil pipelines and electricity towers. The rebels are believed to finance their insurgency with drug trafficking proceeds.
Santos, who served as Uribe's defense minister, said in his address Monday that he was "meeting the constitutional obligation to look for peace" but, referring to the bitter lessons learned at Caguan, cautioned Colombians that negotiations would advance to more substantive levels only under three "guiding principles."
"First, we will learn from the errors of the past so as not to repeat them," Santos said. "Second, the process has to bring an end to the conflict, not its prolongation. Third, we will maintain military presence and operations over every centimeter of national territory."
Santos also revealed that the nation's second-largest rebel group, the National Liberation Army, or ELN, issued a communique Monday saying it too was interested in participating in peace talks. Santos said he welcomed the group to the table under his three conditions.
Results of exploratory talks with the FARC will be known "in the next few days," Santos said. Meanwhile, Colombians can rest assured that their government is "working with prudence, seriousness and firmness," he said.
Milburn Line, executive director of the Joan B. Kroc Institute for Peace and Justice at the University of San Diego in California, said the announcement could be "the breakthrough many Colombians and people who follow Colombia have long waited for."
"Failed peace talks a decade ago poisoned the well on the belief that peace was possible," Line said. "But a peace agenda simply makes good sense for both Colombian and U.S. policy. Even an initial cease-fire could mitigate the suffering of millions of Afro-Colombians, displaced persons, indigenous peoples and rural peasants trapped in the crossfire."
Kraul is a special correspondent.