“What the FARC did was serious because it breaks a fundamental principle: We do not want to mix politics and weapons,” reads the official statement from Colombia’s High Commissioner for Peace, Sergio Jaramillo.
The remarks by the senior peace negotiator in Cuba before the National Peace Council follow a serious incident in Conejo — a small hamlet along Colombia’s northern peninsula of La Guajira — when a video leaked last week showed four of the FARC’s senior negotiators surrounded by armed guerrillas, talking with locals.
According to the protocols of the on-going peace talks between the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the Colombian government, the guerrillas are forbidden to talk with the civilian population.
Breaking an agreement set out in the original terms of the negotiations which began in Oslo four years ago, the Conejo incident released a maelstrom of public discontent.
The FARC repudiated the government’s position, claiming that their interaction with the inhabitants of the area was not politically, but educationally motivated.
The guerrilla group argues that pedagogical visits regarding the peace process do not equate to subversive dialogue nor political campaigning. “The pedagogy of peace is not the same as armed proselytism,” wrote FARC in their own official statement.
The fact that four senior FARC commanders could turn up in Colombia — and close to the contentious border with Venezuela — has also generated outrage among many Colombians who claim FARC will continue to breach the process in order to impose their version of politics by rule of the gun.
Opposition leaders including former President Álvaro Uribe Vélez criticized the visit questioning how a bunch of “terrorists” could wander around at will in areas where they once victimized the civilian population.
Meanwhile, President Juan Manuel Santos suspended FARC’s request to “teach the peace” in their camps and ordered the immediate return of the commanders to Cuba. They remained in Colombia until Tuesday afternoon.
“Our responsibility is for the safety of the population, the people,” said Jaramillo, Tuesday. But on a rather conciliatory note, the negotiator went on to claim: “We understand that FARC has a huge need to explain to the men and women where this process is going.”
For the government, the Conejo meltdown was hopefully the last “impasse” for the March 23 deadline, agreed upon by both negotiating teams to formally end Colombia’s long and violent internal conflict.
For FARC, it was “unjustified polemic.”
But President Santos wasted no words to warn the rebels that time for finishing the negotiations is running out. “If that doesn’t happen, we, Colombians, will conclude that FARC was not prepared for peace.”
Even though the Conejo meeting did not derail the peace talks in Havana, it soured public opinion as to the real motives behind FARC’s rehearsed visit to La Guajira.
Critics of the process assert Santos sells-out to a criminal organization that doesn’t understand any other way than to mix their Marxist politics with firepower. Yet, with less than four weeks to go before the signing of an historic peace, this latest “storm in a teacup” may have bought extra time in order for U.S. President Barack Obama to preside over the official declaration of peace while visiting Cuba on March 21.
By Wednesday, the storm clouds from Conejo were quickly evaporating. The head of the peace delegation, Humberto de la Calle, addressed the nation, saying it was “necessary” and “important” for FARC to make pedagogical visits to combatants in order to explain what’s “being talked about in Havana.” De la Calle also asserted that with both sides willing, a final push could be made to reach the March 23 deadline.
So, if the guerrilla’s maximum commander “Timochenko” and President Santos want to coincide their official signing of the end of the longest civil conflict in Latin America with Obama’s trip to Raul Castro’s Cuba, the time has arrived for FARC to stop giving Colombians the proverbial snub, or “conejo.”