In news that was slightly overshadowed by developments in another decades-old Latin American conflict last week, Colombia’s largest guerrilla group announced a unilateral and indefinite cease-fire on Wednesday, a historic step in resolving a devastating guerilla war that began in the 1960s. Coincidentally, that cease-fire resulted from a round of peace talks in Havana, and came on the same day President Obama and Raul Castro announced the reestablishment of diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba.
Though the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) have made similar announcements in the past, often around Christmas or elections, only to see violence resume, this feels different. The announcement comes after the FARC’s fifth and last meeting with a delegation of representative victims in Cuba, the last stage of a five-point conflict resolution plan that included agrarian reform, political participation for the FARC, ending the conflict and eradication of illicit crops. In their statement online, the FARC say they believe they have “begun a definitive journey toward peace,” and that the cease-fire could turn into an armistice. It is set to start Dec. 20, so long as the the Colombian military also ceases all attacks, and that international organizations including the UN, European Union, and the Red Cross, as well as Pope Francis, ratify the agreement.
President Juan Manuel Santos, who came into office in 2010 pledging to bring the nation’s long conflict with the revolutionary Marxist group to a close through negotiations, said he did not accept the conditions, and that the military will continue as usual in its offensive against the guerrillas. He did call the gesture “a good first step,” comparing it to receiving a thorned rose. In the past, he has rejected calls for a bilateral cease-fire, saying these become an excuse for rebel groups to rearm and regroup, as indeed happened in the late 1990s when former president Andrés Pastrana gave the FARC a 26,000 square mile demilitarized zone in southwest Colombia.
A major challenge for both parties will be to keep rogue attacks from the FARC from sabotaging the cease-fire. But if the FARC keep their word, it would add credibility to their stated intentions to end the five-decade-long conflict. Skepticism about the peace talks, which first began in 2012, has been growing since the kidnapping of a general by the FARC last month. The government suspended the peace talks until he was released two weeks later, and negotiations had been stalled until this week’s announcement.
The most difficult and controversial steps in the peace process might be still to come, particularly the tricky issue of immunity for FARC members and how they will be reintegrated into Colombia’s civil and political life. Santos will also face strong public opposition to any major concessions to the group. Nonetheless, after half a century and more than 220,000 deaths, Wednesday’s announcement was a rare and clear sign of progress.