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Colombia: Peace talks resume, but local hope dampens

Both the FARC and the Colombian government say they are pleased with peace negotiations so far, but citizens are losing faith. Violence continues and many feel excluded from the process.

Negotiators for the government of Colombia and leftist rebels resumed talks in HavanaCuba this week to try to end this country’s intractable war, but the hopes for peace for Colombians at home have been dampened.

An opinion poll published last week showed that support for the talks among Colombians had dropped from 77 percent in September just after President Juan Manuel Santos announced the negotiations, to 57 percent in late November. And 54 percent of respondents to the poll by Ipsos/Napoleón Franco said they were pessimistic about the outcome of the talks.

This, despite the fact that both sides of the negotiating table have said they are pleased with the way the talks are unfolding. Mr. Santos called the first round, which ended Nov. 29, “positive.”

But Bogotá restaurateur Orlando González says that because so little information is known in Colombia about what is being discussed behind closed doors, “there’s a feeling they’re making deals behind everyone’s back.”

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The government has stressed the need for discretion and has been cautious about giving statements, while rebel negotiators from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC)have taken advantage of the media attention. According to the poll, 56 percent of Colombians disagree with the government’s private handling of the talks.

Santos on Sunday called on Colombians to “have patience and not to demand immediate results” because negotiators were dealing with “some very complex issues.”

The negotiation agenda started off with discussion on land access and agrarian reform, often cited as one of the core issues in Colombia’s armed conflict, which has dragged on since 1964. The two sides called for a national forum on the land reform, which will be held in Bogotá Dec. 17-19.

Four other issues on the agenda are illegal drugs, political participation, disarmament, and reparations to victims. Although government officials previously  said they expected talks to last around eight months, Santos said on Sunday that he hopes a final agreement will be reached by November 2013 at the latest.

Although the guerrillas declared a two-month unilateral cease-fire through Jan. 20, 2013, government troops have maintained military pressure on the FARC, killing at least 20 people in a series of air raids on rebel camps in southwestern Nariño Province on Saturday. 

And while negotiators continue meeting in Havana, citizen organizations in Colombia have been busy drawing up their own proposals for peace.

“In those negotiations peace will not be achieved. What they can do is put an end to the armed conflict,” says Alirio Uribe, a leader of the Movement of Victims of the Conflict (MOVICE), at a meeting of civil society groups in Bogotá.

“Any agreements signed in Havana will serve to highlight the real conflict in this country which has to do with inequality and has to be resolved though democratic means,” says Mr. Uribe.

On Thursday, the congressional peace commissions sent documents with proposals formulated by citizen groups to negotiators in Havana, mostly dealing with agrarian reform, political participation, and suggestions on how to confront the issue of illegal crops in the country, which produces the bulk of the world’s cocaine.

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“Peace will be more sustainable and lasting if the proposals [from these groups] are taken into account,” says Bruno Moro, head of the United Nation’s office in Colombia.