Amid the fanfare surrounding President Barack Obama’s landmark visit to Cuba on Monday, a different US diplomatic achievement took place.
As Obama toured Havana, Secretary of State John Kerry sat down for a meeting with members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), a left-wing rebel group that has fought Colombian forces and paramilitaries for more than 50 years.
The meeting was the first one between a US secretary of state and the FARC since the rebels were designated a terrorist group by the US in 1997.
Even now, as peace talks move forward, US government considers the FARC a terrorist organisation, but that may soon change.
The FARC’s struggle with the Colombian state has dragged on since the early 1960s, and the rebel group, which formed in part as a self-defence group for rural Colombians, has since moved into other, more nefarious enterprises — including kidnapping and drug trafficking.
The Colombian government of Juan Manuel Santos and FARC representatives began peace talks in 2012 in Havana. Since then, the negotiators have reached at least partial accords on five of the six points on their agenda, with the “end of conflict” point — how to disarm and reintegrate FARC fighters — needing the most work, according to the America’s Society.
The issue of FARC’s inclusion on the US State Department’s Foreign Terrorist Organisations list has become particularly salient as the conflict nears what appears to be an end.
Colombian President Santos said earlier this year that once a deal was signed the US should remove the group from the list.
“If they sign it’s because we have a timetable for their disarmament and they have committed themselves to lay down their arms and make this transition to legal life,” Santos told the AP. “So I would say yes, I hope that they would be eliminated from the terror list.”
The US has said such a change would require more evidence of the FARC’s commitment to peace.
“We take the [Colombian] president’s request very seriously, but the same laws that apply to other groups apply to the FARC … they have to disarm, end their criminal activities and stop forming a risk for US interests,” US special envoy Bernard Aronson said earlier this year.
“When this happens, a revision process will begin to determine if the conditions [that justify a group’s designation as terrorist] no longer exist and they can be removed,” Aronson added.
Even if Colombian and FARC negotiators conclude a peace deal, removal from the terror list could take some time. The United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia, a right-wing paramilitary group with extensive ties to Colombian politicians and responsible for many rights abuses, weren’t removed from the list until 2014 — eight years after they officially demobilized.
Other issues remain before a deal is finished. In March, the Colombian congress gave the government power to set up demobilization zones, where government officials won’t be able arrest FARC members.
Critics worry this step will permit an incident similar to one that happened in the early 2000s, when FARC rebels used such a zone to remobilize and entrench their drug-trafficking operations. (Santos has suggested some leniency for FARC’s drug traffickers as part of the deal, but stressed than any violators of the deal would face extradition to the US.)
FARC members are also worried as they attempt to reenter civilian political life, they could face violent retaliation, as happened in the 1980s and 1990s and continues to happen to members of Colombia’s political left. (Reintegration of the millions of displaced persons in Colombia is also a point of concern.)
To that end, Kerry affirmed US willingness to support the security of those who lay down their arms as part of the peace process.
Kerry’s meeting with FARC leadership, as well as the US’s role in Colombia-FARC negotiations more broadly, have escaped notice amid Obama’s historic rapprochement with Cuba.
But rather then competing initiatives, US officials framed the two events as part of a united diplomatic effort.
“This Cuba policy is also our Latin American policy,” national security adviser Ben Rhodes told press at a Monday-evening briefing. “It’s why we are at the peace table with the Colombians here in Havana.”
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