Colombians were glued to their television sets last week as six hostages held by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas were freed in three separate missions. Big TV screens were assembled in Colombia’s main squares, while relatives holding white daisies gathered at local airports to greet those returning from the jungle after more than seven years in captivity. People shed tears as they watched emotional encounters between families finally reunited.
Following the recent hostage releases, there are no politicians being held captive by the FARC today. For many this marks a shift in the FARC’s strategy and a glimmer of hope for possible peace talks between the government and the guerrillas. Since 1999, the FARC has captured senators, ministers and lawmakers and used them as bargaining chips to push for the exchange of hostages for imprisoned guerrillas.
The FARC has said the unilateral and voluntarily release of hostages is a humanitarian good will gesture. But few believe it’s that simple. The move is being seen as an attempt by the embattled FARC guerrillas to regain political leverage and credibility, following a series of heavy defeats at the hands of Colombia’s armed forces last year. Others hope the unilateral handover of hostages will prompt the government of Alvaro Uribe to open a dialogue with the FARC and initiate peace talks. Peace activists highlight that a march last February, which drew millions of Colombians to take to the streets in protest against the FARC, also prompted the guerrilla groups to reappraise its strategy and end kidnapping for political motives.
While speculation continues about the significance of the latest hostage releases, it’s clear that recent events have exposed an ever-growing polarization among Colombians. There are those who staunchly defend Uribe’s belligerent stance against the FARC, in contrast to those Colombians who believe it is high time for the government to ease its hard-line approach and consider the possibility of initiating peace talks with the FARC. The government is hoping that a sustained military offensive, largely funded by U.S military aid, will force a weakened and demoralized FARC to the negotiating table. This strategy still holds much sway among Colombians. But there are a growing number who believe that the all-consuming military offensive has failed to tackle the origins of Colombia’s conflict and has been at the expense of widespread social reform. Recently, this is a message being put forward persuasively by a new group of leftist intellectuals, known as Colombians for Peace. Led by opposition senator, Piedad Córdoba, the group brokered the latest hostage releases and has been vocal in its support for a humanitarian exchange, which would involve the release of 22 police officers and soldiers still being held captive by the FARC in exchange for dozens of imprisoned guerrillas.
The emergence of the Colombians for Peace group has forced the government on the defensive. It was sidelined from the rescue missions, while Senator Córdoba took all the limelight. Uribe has had to defend his hard-line policy against the FARC and reiterate why he will not cede to the group’s demands.
In the past, the government has been able to focus debate around its military victories over the guerrillas and how the country’s security situation has improved. But recently debate has focused on the origins of Colombia’s conflict and why successive governments have failed to bring peace. If only for a short while last week, peace activist groups, like the Colombians for Peace, were able to dominate the headlines.
During an extensive press conference, Alan Jara, a former provincial governor who was freed last week, criticized the government’s refusal to consider a humanitarian exchange of prisoners. He highlighted that the FARC were “not destroyed” and said that new and young recruits were joining guerrilla ranks. He put this down “to a lack of opportunities” available to young men and women, especially those living in the countryside.
But the government has so far refused to change its belligerent discourse. The prospect of peace talks remains remote. Following the release of hostages, Colombia’s defense minister, Juan Manuel Santos, said the “total offensive” against the FARC would continue. The government and its supporters believe that if the FARC wants political credibility, it must renounce violence and free all its hostages. But while many Colombians feel safer under the Uribe government, there is an urgent need to focus on the lack of social and agrarian reform in Colombia and access to education. It is being left to groups like the Colombians for Peace, to keep these issues high on the political agenda.
*Anastasia Moloney is a contributing blogger to americasquarterly.org. She is a freelance journalist based in Bogotá, Colombia.