Colombia’s president traveling to Cuba to promote peace

Author: the associated press

BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) – Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos announced a surprise trip to Cuba Wednesday for a meeting with guerrilla commanders that could remove the last significant obstacle to a deal ending Latin America’s oldest armed conflict.

“Peace is near” Santos said on Twitter Wednesday before embarking on a trip to Havana, where he and negotiators for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia are expected to announce an agreement on the thorny issue of how to punish rebel commanders for human rights abuses.

It’s also possible they will announce a bilateral cease-fire and set a deadline to sign a definitive accord, two people close to the talks told The Associated Press on condition of anonymity.

The apparent breakthrough comes after Pope Francis, in a visit to the communist-led island this week, warned the two sides that they didn’t have the right to fail in their best chance at peace in decades.

As part of talks in Cuba stretching over more than two years, both sides had already agreed on plans for land reform, political participation for guerrillas who lay down their weapons and how to jointly combat drug trafficking. Further cementing expectations of a deal, the rebel movement known as the FARC declared a unilateral cease-fire in July and has been working with Colombia’s military on a program to remove tens of thousands of rebel-planted land mines.

But amid the slow, but steady progress, one issue seemed almost insurmountable: How to compensate victims and punish FARC commanders for human rights abuses in light of international conventions Colombia has signed and almost unanimous public rejection of the rebels.

The FARC, whose troops have thinned to an estimated 6,400 from a peak of 21,000 in 2002, have long insisted they haven’t committed any crimes and aren’t abandoning the battlefield only to find themselves jailed. They say that they would only consent to prison time if leaders of Colombia’s military, which has a litany of war crimes to its name, and the nation’s political elite are locked up as well.

On Tuesday, Santos dispatched his negotiating team to Cuba almost a week ahead of the next scheduled round of talks and then further fueled speculation of a breakthrough by announcing on Twitter he would stop in Havana en route to New York, where he’s scheduled to address the United Nations General Assembly on Friday.

It’s the first official visit by Santos to the negotiations. He was expected to be joined at an event with the FARC’s top military commander Rodrigo Londono.

The FARC peace delegation said on Twitter that the rebel leader, better known by his alias Timochenko, is already in Havana and sent an undated photo of him dressed in a sweat suit relaxing in a leather sofa chair with rebel negotiators.

“Some people on both sides will be unhappy. Some want more peace, others want more justice,” Santos said in a speech Tuesday hinting at the advances. “Not everyone in the world will be content, but I*m sure in the long run we*ll be much better off.”

Two people close to the talks, speaking on condition of anonymity so as not to distract from Wednesday’s announcement, said that a road map to conclude talks will also be announced.

The government has gone to great lengths to insist that its framework for so-called transitional justice doesn’t represent impunity for guerrilla crimes such as the kidnapping of civilians, forced recruitment of child soldiers and heavy involvement in cocaine trafficking, for which the FARC’s top leadership has been indicted in the U.S.

But even before details have become known, conservative critics lashed out at what they said was excessive lenience on the part of the government.

“Santos, it’s not peace that’s near, it’s the surrender to the FARC and the tyranny of Venezuela,” former President Alvaro Uribe, whose military offensive last decade winnowed the FARC’s ranks and pushed its leaders to the negotiating table, said in a message on Twitter. “Without jail time for the commanders, there will be a deal in Havana but also a recipe for more violence in Colombia.”

With the sticky issue of transitional justice apparently resolved, negotiators must still come up with a mechanism for rebels to demobilize, hand over their weapons and provide reparations to their victims. Santos has also promised he’ll give Colombians the chance to ratify any deal, which must also clear the nation’s Congress.

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