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High Stakes for Both Sides in Colombian Talks - 2002-01-19

In Colombia, the hours are ticking away toward a Sunday midnight (0500 UTC Monday) deadline set by President Andres Pastrana for advances in peace talks with the country's largest rebel group.

If the leaders of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, fail to agree to a timetable for cease-fire negotiations by the deadline, Mr. Pastrana will not renew their safe zone and will send in the army. The nation's hopes for peace now ride on a dialogue that could either produce the first major advance in 38 years of civil strife, or plunge Colombia into an even worse conflict.

The hawks and doves of Colombia are watching closely as the time for talks that could produce results grows shorter. Since President Pastrana created the rebel safe haven more than three years ago, critics have complained that little progress has been made, and that the FARC has used the zone to stage kidnappings and other attacks on civilians. Rebel attacks in several areas outside the zone over the past few days have bolstered the case of the hawks.

But those who support the peace process of the past few years say it has led to unprecedented exchanges of prisoners and rebel acceptance of international humanitarian principles. Daniel Garcia Pena, a political analyst who works with a Norway-backed peace advocacy organization called Planeta Paz, or Peace Planet, remains positive.

"To those of us who have been involved in these processes for a long time, there is no doubt that these past three years have been very fruitful," said Mr. Garcia Pena. "Three years ago, the guerrillas were talking about socialist revolution, and the government was saying that everything was perfect, and that we should maintain the status quo. Now, they both agree on a common agenda that admits we need reforms, democratic reforms."

Business leaders and military commanders have put pressure on President Pastrana to take a tougher stance with the FARC. As a result, the president threatened to abolish the safe zone last week, and only relented after rebel leaders agreed to immediate talks, aimed at establishing a timetable for comprehensive negotiations. Those are the talks now taking place in the rebel zone.

But the president remains tough. He warns the rebels that the patience of Colombians has limits, and that if progress is not made, he will take action.

According to Mr. Garcia Pena, if the talks break down and the war is expanded, Colombians will pay a high price. "I am afraid things could get much worse than they are at this moment," he said. "The fact is that the guerrillas have not used their all-out force and the army has not shown all of the strength that it has accumulated with Plan Colombia and with the U.S. military aid. The paramilitary groups have grown immensely these last years, so we would see a very severe escalation of the armed conflict."

While ambassadors from ten friendly nations have played a key role in the current talks, the United States has remained on the sidelines. Washington supports the Colombian anti-drug fight with over $1 billion in direct assistance. But according to Colombian Foreign Minister Guillermo Fernandez de Soto, the Pastrana government has asked for counter-insurgency aid. He says this idea did not come from the U.S. government, but that President Pastrana had raised the issue of U.S. counter-insurgency assistance during his visit to Washington in November.

Many hawkish Colombians are in favor of more U.S. help, because, they say, the rebels get most of their funds from cocaine, and the government cannot fight drug trafficking without also fighting the FARC.

Daniel Garcia Pena disagrees. "I think it is a terrible idea, and I think it would be disastrous," he said. "It would be disastrous for Colombia, and disastrous for the United States, as well. I hope that the U-S Congress will not abandon the position it has held up until this moment, which is to be very careful not to mix the two issues that are inter-related, but that are different. One of the prime differences is that drug trafficking is an international problem, and the internal armed conflict is an internal question."

Mr. Garcia Pena adds the only way out of the cycle of violence is for both sides to negotiate in good faith. He says the rebels must abandon their attacks on civilians, but that the government will also have to address rebel concerns such as economic inequalities and agrarian reform.