Colombian rebel rejects peace talks deadline

May 29, 2013, 1:56 PM EDT
Marco Leon Calarca, member of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, gestures during an interview in Havana, Cuba, Tuesday, May 28, 2013.
(AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)

HAVANA (AP) — A leading peace negotiator of Colombia's main rebel group has rejected the government's insistence that talks wrap up by November ahead of national elections, saying the president should not put his personal ambition ahead of the peace process.

In an interview with The Associated Press, Marco Leon Calarca said his Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia were hopeful the months' long negotiations would lead to peace, and heartened that the two sides had reached agreement on the first major point of dispute between them: land reform.

But he also said there could be no short-cuts and the issues that remain — including political reintegration, drug trafficking, victim compensation and implementation of the accord — are hard to resolve.

"We hope the discussion will be more fluid," Calarca said in this week's interview. "But these are not simple themes, and for that reason they are on the agenda."

Talks between Colombia and the FARC began in Oslo, Norway in October and have continued since the following month in the Cuban capital. Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, under pressure at home ahead of a reelection bid in May 2014, has said that he will pull out if no agreement is reached by November.

The bearded, corpulent Calarca is one of the principal negotiators at the talks and is also a member of the Marxist rebel group's ruling secretariat.

Observers say his electoral fate is likely tied to the success of the talks. They have pointed to his falling poll numbers as a factor that could aid the discussions, since the rebels presumably fear any progress made at the peace table would be wiped out if he Santos loses the vote.

But Calarca disputed that notion, saying a Santos defeat could bring an even better negotiating partner to the presidency.

"Why would it be negative if Santos loses, if the person who wins is on the left?" said Calarca, adding that the rebels had called on all candidates to voice support for the peace process. "The peace process does not depend on Santos. That is not to say we are against him."

Calarca also questioned why the election campaign should have any impact on the talks at all, saying "it is lamentable that the process and its negative or positive results be tied to personal ambition."

The Havana talks are the fourth attempt since the 1980s to bring peace to Colombia, which has been at war since the rebels took up arms in 1964. A U.S.-backed military buildup that began in 2000 has reduced the FARC's ranks to about 9,000 fighters and killed several top commanders, though the rebels insist they are still a potent force.

Calarca would not discuss any details of the land reform deal his side and the Colombian government ironed out on Sunday, citing a confidentiality agreement, but did say that millions of acres (hectares) of land stolen from Colombian farmers by armed groups would be returned.

He rejected the government's claim that about a third of all disputed land was taken by the FARC, said the rebels had no interest in claiming any of the land for themselves, and insisted they were not involved in drug trafficking despite evidence they fund the insurgency in part by charging traffickers for protection on their territory.

Calarca said the rebels are prepared to discuss compensation for victims of the half-century old conflict, and do not deny their own culpability for a portion of the pain, though he rejected any notion that they be tried as criminals.

"Our purpose was never to hurt civilians," Calarca said. "We didn't take up arms for the fun of it. The policies that have brought war to Colombia are the state's responsibility."

The rebel said the government would never get the rebels to admit their insurgency was wrongheaded, just as the rebels are not seeking any apologies from the state.

"After 50 years of war," Calarca said, "why would we turn around and say, "whoops, we were wrong, take our guns and tell us how many years (in jail) we must pay."


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