Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos said Tuesday that setting a timeline on his government's negotiations with the guerilla group FARC would be "counter-productive." Santos had originally said he would like to see the peace process to end the country's decades-long civil war completed by November or December of 2013, but now says setting a deadline would be a mistake.
Santos announced in late August 2012 that his government had begun exploratory peace talks with Colombia's largest guerilla group, the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC). Formal talks began in Norway in October 2012, and then moved to Havana, Cuba, in November. The talks are the fourth attempt at ending the internal conflict in the last 30 years.
Santos said that when originally asked how long he wanted the peace process to go on, he gave the time limit of a year because he "prefer[red] these talks would last months and not years."
"And of course I would have liked for this to advance faster, but I think that we have made enough progress to continue optimism," Santos said. "I hope it will not take too long, but it is completely counter-productive to put on a process like this fatal deadlines."
The peace talks are centered on five main themes: rural development and land policy; political participation of the FARC; ending the armed conflict and reinserting rebels into civilian life; illegal drug trafficking; and victims' reparations. So far talks have covered the first two themes, and are presently focused on drug trafficking.
The FARC officially formed in 1964 to combat social inequality in Colombia and currently has an estimated 8,000 to 9,000 fighters. According to Santos, this is the lowest amount since tracking of the group's numbers began. The government has also killed several high-profile FARC commanders in recent years, further weakening the group.
More than 70 percent of Colombians expressed support for the peace talks as they began, although a much smaller number thought the peace process would be successful. This support is important for Santos, who announced two weeks ago he'll seek re-election in May.
The Colombian president has continued the "democratic security" policies of his predecessor President Alvaro Uribe, who was responsible for greatly increasing security in the country while he served from 2002-2010. While security concerns do remain, car bombs, kidnappings and assassinations have declined greatly, and land travel is now possible across large portions of the country.
Santos served as defense minister during Uribe's second term, and said he remains wary of allowing negotiations with the FARC to carry on too long.
"Of course nobody will continue indefinitely. These processes wear out, support will wear out," Santos said. "I prefer to say we hope to finish as soon as possible without creating a definite deadline."
President Barack Obama, whom Santos said was one of the first people he told about the peace talks that began in secret, expressed his support for the process.
"Obviously, this has been a longstanding conflict within Colombia," Obama said following a meeting between the two leaders Tuesday. "It is not easy; there are many challenges ahead. But the fact that he has taken this step I think is right, because it sends a signal to the people of Colombia that it is possible to unleash the enormous potential if we can move beyond this conflict."
The United States is not directly involved in the peace process, but Colombia receives the most U.S. foreign aid of any country after Egypt and Israel. Between 2000 and 2012, the United States spent more than $8 billion on Colombia. Aid originally began to fund counternarcotics efforts, but has now grown to include human rights, economic development, investment and trade. A U.S.-Colombian free trade agreement went into effect in 2012, and since then trade between the two countries has increased 20 percent.