HURDAL, Norway — Colombian and FARC rebel negotiators announced they will meet in Cuba in mid-November to start substantive peace talks where they will seek to bring an end to almost half a century of bloody conflict, according to a joint declaration issued in Norway on Thursday.
The talks, which opened in Norway this week, are the latest in a long history of attempts to resolve the war which has left tens of thousands dead and millions displaced from their homes since the establishment of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, in 1964.
Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos is betting that a decade of U.S.-backed blows against the FARC has battered the group to the point where it will seriously seek to end the war after so many attempts have ended in shambles.
"The peace process will be successful if it's serious, realistic and efficient," chief Colombian negotiator Humberto de la Calle said in Hurdal, Norway. The negotiations move to Cuba on Nov. 15.
"The process that starts today is different from the past," he said.
In a carefully stage-managed event, Norwegian organizers were able to avoid what had became a symbol of the failure of the last attempt at peace in 1999 — an empty chair. Back then, a red-faced President Andres Pastrana sat next to the empty chair of FARC founder Manuel Marulanda, who failed to turn up.
The two sides on Thursday appeared jointly at a table separated by representatives of Cuba and Norway. It was the first time they have met publicly in a decade.
Rebel and government negotiators filed into a hotel conference room together in Norway, but did not talk or shake hands. The last peace talks were held in a tent deep inside Colombia's jungles.
Peace with the FARC will by no means end violence in Colombia as drug trafficking and criminal gangs — many born out of the demobilization of right-wing paramilitary groups — will continue to operate across the nation.
Although ten years of strikes against the FARC — which has funded its war by kidnapping, extortion and drugs — have cut their ranks by more than half and put their leadership on the run, defeating the rebels with military means alone has proved difficult, leaving a negotiated deal as the best alternative.
"We've come to look for peace with social justice in Colombia," Ivan Marquez, head of the FARC delegation and member of the group's ruling seven-member secretariat, said.
But in the first sign of discord, Marquez slammed foreign oil and mining interests in Colombia, while de la Calle said that foreign investment would not be considered during talks.
In a tone reminiscent of previous FARC statements, Marquez criticized international mining companies and rich Colombians for buying up land at the expense of the rural poor, accusing by name the sons of former President Alvaro Uribe.
Uribe, credited for the U.S.-backed offensive that weakened the FARC, has been among the most vocal critics of the peace process, arguing that Santos has sold out in a bid for a place in the history books at the expense of security in Colombia.
Latin America's fourth-largest oil producer has seen a boom in oil and mining investment over the past decade as improved security attracted an influx of dollars with Santos' government calling the sector a "locomotive" for growth.
The bearded and bespectacled Marquez, wearing a dark suit and white shirt, lashed out specifically at Cerrejon, Drummond, BHP Billiton, and AngloGold Ashanti Ltd
"The energy and mining locomotive is like a demon of social-environmental destruction that if the people do not stop it, in less than a decade it will convert Colombia into an unviable country," Marquez said.
Foreign direct investment this year is expected to reach approximately $17 billion, a record, and well above the $2 billion it attracted in 2002. Back then, the FARC was at its strongest and able to launch attacks on the capital, Bogota.
The two sides held separate press conferences after the joint declaration.
"The economic model and foreign direct investment are not in discussion," de la Calle said.
In Colombia's capital, dozens of family members of FARC kidnap victims gathered in a main government square, wearing black T-shirts with colour photos of their fathers, mothers, sons and daughters who are being held by the guerrillas.
"We want to know the truth. We want them to give us back our family members," Amaparo Bustos, whose 71-year-old father is being held by rebels, said in an appeal on local television. "Alive or dead, we want to know the truth."
Even though the FARC pledged in February to stop kidnapping for ransom, hundreds of Colombians remain missing and the group has stepped up its attacks on economic infrastructure like oil and mining facilities.
"The outlook for the peace talks is positive," said Todd Howland, head of the U.N. human rights office in Colombia.
"But there will be many challenges that will require a great deal of creativity from both sides relating to human rights, the victims of the conflict, and how to deal with the past and how to integrate a force that has been fighting for the 50 years," he said.
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