Colombian President Ãlvaro Uribe announced a few hours ago that he would pull security forces from a 150-square-kilometer zone in order to hold hostage-for-prisoner exchange negotiations with the FARC guerrillas. Based on a proposal by the Catholic Church, this zone would have a presence of international observers, and FARC members participating in the talks “should” be unarmed.
Early news reports are portraying this as a breakthrough, and we hope that it is. We hope that the FARC accepts it, the haggling over pre-conditions ends, and the two sides get to the negotiating table.
However, we note that Uribe’s proposal resembles a plan that the Spanish, Swiss and French governments put forward in late 2005. The European proposal called for a 180-square-kilometer zone, international observers, and neither side carrying any weapons.
The European plan was, and is, a good proposal. President Uribe accepted it at the time, in December 2005. But the FARC never gave its assent. The guerrillas have stuck to their original bargaining position: an 800-square-kilometer zone, the entire area of Florida and Pradera municipalities near Cali, in the southwestern Colombian department of Valle del Cauca. In this zone, the guerrillas have made clear their desire to be the only armed presence.
The Colombian government has treated this guerrilla pre-condition as though it were an initial negotiating position, one that would be softened after a period of back-and-forth bargaining. The FARC, however, has softened its terms only once, in 2004, when it chose Florida and Pradera after initially requesting a larger territory in the department of CaquetÃ¡. Since then, it has rigidly clung to its pre-conditions.
Will the FARC seize the opportunity President Uribe offered today? Only if they show flexibility on two points:
- The size of the zone: Instead of two entire municipalities of 800 square kilometers, complete with small towns, Uribe is offering 150 entirely rural square kilometers.
- Weapons: The FARC have insisted on appearing at any negotiation with their rifles at the ready. They claim that this is necessary for their own security, though the symbolic value – “this is how much we distrust Colombia’s ruling class” – is also great.
There is some chance that the FARC may accept a smaller zone. If the past is any guide, though, the second condition – their weapons – may pose the greater challenge.
Semana magazine’s coverage of Uribe’s announcement indicates that the president may be prepared to yield a bit on the weapons question.
He indicated that “there would be a presence of international observers, and those present there to define the issue of a humanitarian exchange should not be armed [no deberÃan estar armados].” The use of the conditional tense for the issue of weapons is important because before, Uribe had always been categorical and unyielding in rejecting the presence of armed guerrillas.
Today’s proposal is cause for modest optimism. But it is not a breakthrough unless the guerrillas break with their custom and give ground on these two points.