Time to negotiate

Manuel Marulanda
Time has come. On May 25th, Manuel Marulanda, legendary founder of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), was confirmed dead by members of his movement. For the Colombian government, this is a historical opportunity that should not be underrated.

Having spent more than forty years at the head of this Marxist guerillas quickly converted to drug trafficking and hostage taking, Manuel Marulanda, alias “Tirofijo” (“Sureshot”), was the movement’s spinal column. With his death, the movement loses both its historical legitimization and its main unifying force.

And Marulanda’s death could not have happened at a better time. In the past months, the FARC suffered many setbacks. On March 1st, Raul Reyes, spokesman of the organization was killed in Ecuador by the Colombian army. Only a week later, Ivan Rios, another FARC commander, was assassinated by one of his personal guards. And more recently, on May 18th, Karina, a colorful FARC leader, surrendered. Marulanda’s passing might not sound the guerilla’s death knell, but it creates a unique opportunity for the Colombian government to pressure an already diminished organization into negotiation.

Over the years, the FARC’s popularity has indeed plummeted. The numbers speak for themselves: while the rebel army enjoyed almost 20 000 inductees in the 1990s, its troops now barely reach 9 000 people.

Of course, this should not prevent the Colombian government from showing its willing to find a negotiated solution to the conflict. It might be true that “(the government) (is) in the process of winning the war”, as the Colombian minister of defense maintained on Sunday, but time has come for the Colombian officials to be more humble, and to play low profile, for such an opportunity might never turn up again. Alvaro Uribe must let aside his traditional hard-line rhetoric, and adopt a tone that will be conducive to genuine dialog with the rebels. The lives of the guerillas’ 700 or so hostages are at stake. More so, the national unity and democratic stability of a country gangrenous with ever-present violence is at stake.

The arrival at the head of the FARC of the moderate Alfonso Cana will sure help. He indeed played a crucial role in the piece negotiations held in 1991 in Caracas, Venezuela, and in 1992 in Tlaxcala, Mexico. But to get the rebels to lay down their arms and to release their hostages will take more than just good will.

Sermonizers will shout that the president shouldn’t change his political stance after six years of fierce fighting against a guerilla that is now regarded as a terrorist group. They have a point. But the FARC are so weakened that they will have to listen to Colombia’s rules. Such a chance might be a once in a lifetime opportunity for the country. Renounce to it on the ground of moral principles would be a shame.

Mr. Uribe already declared that he was open to using a $100 million fund to compensate the guerilleros who would demobilize and set free hostages. He further promised them the exile in France. Good for him. But that might not be enough. Further proposals are needed, and Uribe shouldn’t be embarrassed to finally favor national reconciliation over pride.

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