That the FARC guerrillas actually responded publicly and positively to a communication should hardly be news. Except that it hasn’t happened in a very long time.
On Tuesday the FARC’s top leadership, or Secretariat, made public an October 16 response to a large group of Colombian intellectuals and politicians, most of them left-of-center politically, who had written a September 11 letter calling on them to engage in an “epistolary exchange” – a public written correspondence.
The purpose of this exchange would be to discuss how to move toward a “humanitarian accord” to free guerrilla hostages, as well as a renewed peace negotiation. (Or, as the letter’s incredibly indirect language put it, to “identify elements to allow the definition of an agenda that can clarify the routes by which it would be possible to reach an understanding that could lead to the long-desired humanitarian accord.”)
The guerrillas’ response, and the likelihood of an exchange of public correspondence on these topics, is cause for faint hope. This is so if only because talks between the FARC and the Colombian government are such a distant possibility, and no interlocutors acceptable to both sides have emerged to facilitate communications through any other channels. (In fact, many who served as interlocutors in the past are now under government investigation for alleged guerrilla ties.)
Faint hope is also warranted because this is the first direct FARC reaction in a very long time to what could be considered an expression of public opinion. Analysts have used the word “autistic” to describe the guerrillas’ years of unresponsiveness to regular governmental, non-governmental and international appeals. That they have responded now could be an indication of a course change – however slight – under the leadership of Alfonso Cano, who replaced Manuel Marulanda as the group’s maximum leader in March. Another factor increasing their responsiveness, meanwhile, may be the increased military pressure the FARC is feeling.
The FARC response was written before, but released after, the guerrillas’ latest humiliation: Sunday’s escape of Oscar Tulio Lizcano, a former congressman whom the group had held hostage since 2000 – an escape that was aided and abetted by his FARC captor. Lizcano’s account of beyond-inhuman suffering during his captivity – forbidden to speak to anyone, he whiled away time teaching imaginary classes to sticks -Â has further hardened public opinion against the FARC, but has also underlined the need to try any available means to win the remaining twenty-eight political hostages’ freedom.
A public exchange of correspondence is an unusual way to get a serious conflict-resolution effort started. But if no other options exist – and they do not appear to – it should be pursued.
Surely there will be voices in Colombia condemning those who participate in this “pen pal” arrangement as useful idiots, appeasers, or naive individuals helping the FARC to buy time, improve its public image, or achieve an undeserved political status. The Colombian government, however, would do well to let this exchange go forward without attacking it, as long as it continues to take place publicly and transparently. Drawing the guerrilla leadership into a political discussion, including clarity about its conditions for talks, can do little harm and quite a bit of good.
Here are the letters translated into English, presented in reverse chronological order. Both are heavy on run-on sentences and indirect phrasing; key parts are highlighted.
Mountains of Colombia, October 16, 2008
With satisfaction we have received your September missive which invites a collective exploration of pathways to peace, far from the current government’s direction of perpetual war and persisting in the impossibility of a military solution to political, economic and social problems that underlie the bloody conflict that shocks the country.
We greet the flourishing of a current of opinion that diverges from false triumphalism, and from the parameters of a warlike solution to large national problems. We have no doubt that your effort will succeed because it coincides with the majority’s feeling and desire for peace.
This letter is now the beginning of the Epistolary Exchange that you propose to us to discuss a political solution to the conflict, the humanitarian exchange, and peace. We will participate, in the people’s full view, in a wide-ranging and frank dialogue, without dogmatism, without sectarianism and without disqualifications of the issues that you suggest. It is necessary to work to achieve the participation of the greatest possible number of political and social organizations, and independent people.