Could President Oscar Arias be the man to bring peace to Colombia? Could there be a repeat of his presidency two decades ago, when his efforts to bring peace to Central America earned him the 1987 Nobel Peace Prize?
A recent visit from Colombian paramilitary leaders, who asked Arias to become involved in peace negotiations in Colombia, and comments Arias made on a trip to the South American nation this week have stirred these questions.
Some, however, are eyeing the possibility critically. This week, as he did 20 years ago, Arias faced accusations of paying more attention to the problems of other countries than to issues here at home.
The President, however, brushed these concerns aside at a press conference Wednesday, the day after he returned from Colombia.
“Not 20 years ago nor today am I going to abandon the national agenda,” Arias said.
“One must have a very small spirit to criticize someone who concerns himself with saving humans’ lives that are savable.”
The idea of Arias taking a part in the Colombian peace process was ignited Aug. 4 when Arias met with representatives from Colombia’s ultra-right Colombian paramilitaries, including the well-known paramilitary leader Carlos Mario Jiménez (also known as Macaco) and Antonio López.
Following their closed-door discussions, a spokesman for the Colombians announced they had requested Arias take part in “the Colombian peace process.”
Arias, for his part, announced his interested in the prospect and said he would talk about it further during his visit to Colombia this week for the inauguration of President Alvaro Uribe. Uribe was elected to a second term as President May 28, and inaugurated Monday.
Arias, who arrived in Colombia Sunday and stayed until Tuesday (see separate article), told the press there he would offer Costa Rica as a venue for eventual peace negotiations between the Colombian government and the leftist guerrillas it has been fighting since the 1960s. He added that the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) – the principal guerrilla army, founded on Lenin-Marxist ideology – is out of place in current, post-Cold War times. At the Wednesday press conference, Arias said the ball is now in Uribe’s court.
While in Colombia, Arias also met with representatives of the Association of Relatives of the Disappeared, a group made up of some family members of those kidnapped in the Colombian conflict. They asked Arias to intervene and persuade the guerrillas to provide proof that their relatives are alive.
On his return, Arias said “nothing is more humanitarian” than supporting a prisoner exchange between the government and FARC, heeding a call by the relatives’ group to push for such an exchange.
Colombia has been gripped by a civil war since the 1960s that involves government forces, leftist guerrillas and right-wing paramilitaries.
The various paramilitary groups, which attempted to unite under the organization Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC), have also been linked to human rights violations, massacres and drug production and trafficking, as have the guerrillas they fight.
The AUC, like the two principal insurgent groups – the FARC and the National Liberation Army (ELN) – has been listed by the United States and the European Union as a terrorist organization.
Paramilitary leaders began a process of disarmament and demobilization in 2002 after entering into negotiations with the Uribe’s government following his election. Some aspects of the demobilization – such as possible prison sentences for paramilitary leaders and the extradition requests the United States has made – have yet to defined.
At a press conference following the meeting with Arias, paramilitary leader López announced that 31,500 former paramilitary fighters have disbanded and started to reintegrate into society, and the paramilitaries have turned in 17,600 weapons.
The ELN is currently engaged in peace talks with the Colombian government in Havana, Cuba, but former President Andres Pastrana called off dialogue with the FARC in 2002 after FARC forces hijacked an airplane and kidnapped several politicians.
Mediation and Training
In their meeting with Arias at the Casa Presidencial, in Zapote, west of San José, the paramilitary leaders asked the President to take part in peace talks and proposed sending 20 former paramilitary members to Costa Rica for training in peace and productivity to better facilitate their reinsertion into Colombian civil society.
“We continue to value and recognize (Arias) as an icon of peace for the region, and we make public our invitation, our request, that he accompany us in the peace process in Colombia,” López said.
“If there is something that I can do, of course I am at their disposal to do so,” Arias told the press.
The President praised the paramilitaries’ demobilization efforts, calling them “an example for the whole world,” and indirectly called on the guerrillas to do the same.
“Now that, over the last years, we have seen the will of the self defense-groups (paramilitaries) to demobilize and reinsert themselves, it should be asked whether the insurgent forces – the FARC and ELN – are of the same disposition to one day follow this path,” Arias said.
The paramilitary leader also said he and the other representatives are looking to the Arias Foundation for Peace and Human Progress, founded by the President with his Nobel Peace Prize money, to advise them in the process, and help in bringing some former AUC members to Costa Rica.
“We also officially request that some of our demobilized boys who need to be trained in areas of peace and productivity come to Costa Rica for a few days to learn from Costa Rica’s experience to build a civil society, understanding that Costa Rica is the most clear expression of civility that we have found in all of Central America,” López said.
Costa Rican Foreign Minister Bruno Stagno, who was present at the meeting with the paramilitary leaders, said such a program “obviously does not exist yet,” and the first step would be to see if the Arias Foundation has the finances to conduct such a program, and if not, whether funds could be found internationally.
According to Otty Patiño, the founder and president of the Peace Observatory in Colombia and a former leader of the nowdemobilized leftist M19 guerrilla movement, Arias’ meeting with the paramilitary members may have hurt his chances of participating in peace talks between the government and the guerrillas.
Patiño, who lives in Bogotá, Colombia, and spoke with The Tico Times while he was in Costa Rica this week on an unrelated visit, says neither the FARC nor the ELN supports the current demobilization of the paramilitaries, because they believe it is an effort not to end “paramilitarism,” but to transform it into something more legitimate.
“The FARC are very radical in that, whoever legitimizes the (current paramilitary demobilization) process, they are not going to want to have anything to do with that government, that organization or that individual,” Patiño said.
Patiño stressed he does believe that international mediation is necessary for peace in Colombia, but said it must be handled very carefully.
“The distance between the positions and aspirations of the FARC and the government today is very big, and this necessitates an international mediation,” Patiño said. “But for the mediation to be fruitful, it has to gain the trust of both parts.”
Patiño pointed to recent failures by the United Nations and by Switzerland, France and Spain to play intermediary roles in peace negotiations in Colombia as evidence.
In related news, international and Costa Rican police agents yesterday arrested Héctor Orlando Martínez, a Colombian linked to FARC and wanted in Colombia in connection to various crimes including murder and acts of terrorism in 2002.
Authorities in Costa Rica had been searching for Martínez since 2003, and recently discovered he was in El Cocal, in the southwest province of Puntarenas, working as a fisherman.
He is being held while extradition proceedings are finalized.