HAVANA — A senior commander of Colombia's main rebel group said Tuesday that days of intensive peace talks with the government are going well, the clearest signal yet that the half-century-long conflict may eventually be resolved.
Jesus Santrich noted that negotiators from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia and the government, meeting in Havana, have already agreed to support a broad forum in Bogota in December to discuss agrarian development, which has been an issue in the class-based conflict.
"Up until now we have had good results," Santrich said upon entering the seventh day of talks at a convention center in the Cuban capital. "There has been agreement. We are on the same wavelength."
Participants say the forum agreement is significant because it means both sides have accepted a basic framework for the negotiations centered upon six themes including land reform, victim compensation, drug trafficking and reinsertion of the rebels into society.
It is also hoped that the forum – which is being organized by the United Nations and the National University of Colombia – will give Colombian society a greater stake in the success of the negotiations, making an eventual agreement more likely.
The two sides are expected to break for Christmas, and restart talks in January armed with a report on the forum's findings.
Santrich – the nom de guerre used by Seuxis Paucias Hernandez – also called on the governments of Ecuador and Colombia to work with the Red Cross to repatriate the remains of rebels killed in a cross-border raid in 2008, including Raul Reyes, a top rebel leader.
Santrich also dismissed a senior American official's comment that the United States is unlikely to ever release a guerrilla leader serving a long jail sentence there.
"We don't want to lose faith and hope that President Barack Obama will send a message of peace for Colombia by reacting favorably to our petition," Santrich said. Rebels have sent a letter to Obama seeking a presidential pardon for Simon Trinidad so that he can participate in the talks.
On Monday, Ricardo Zuniga, the lead official for Latin America policy on the National Security Council said Trinidad would "remain imprisoned."
Rebels have spotlighted Trinidad's cause during the talks, coming on the first day with a life-size cardboard cutout of their missing comrade and insisting it be placed in an empty seat at the negotiating table.
On Tuesday, Santrich wore dark glasses and a black baseball cap inscribed with the words "Simon Trinidad is here" in Spanish across the front. While the rebels have spoken to the press nearly every morning, Colombian government negotiators have not said anything.
That has not stopped both sides from publicly sniping in the media. Rebels have called the government and Colombian military liars, while Colombia's defense minister responded last week to a unilateral rebel cease fire by calling the FARC terrorists and saying they cannot be trusted.
Still, participants in the talks say privately that negotiators have been steadily building trust among themselves since the latest round of talks began on Nov. 19 following conversations in Oslo, Norway the previous month.
Ten-strong rebel and government negotiating teams sit on opposite sides of a long table at the convention center, with Norwegian and Cuban guarantors also present. The teams break for snacks and coffee every hour or so, and can chat informally among themselves.
They are scheduled to meet each day through Thursday before taking a short break.
In addition to the negotiators who sit at the table, each side has about 20 others in Cuba to help. The rebel and government teams are living in guest houses in the Cuban capital, and are free to contact each other outside the formal negotiations as well.
The 9,000-strong FARC has been fighting the Colombian government since the 1960s. In recent decades it has increasingly turned to kidnapping and taxing drug traffickers who operate in its areas of control to finance its struggle.
Cuba has facilitated the peace process by hosting seven months of secret preliminary talks that began earlier this year. The United States has voiced support for the peace process. The Colombian government has said the talks must wrap up in months, not years, if they are to be successful.