Cautious optimism over Colombia peace talks

Opinion among students split over whether dialogue between government and FARC rebels will end long-running conflict.

Bogota – In a fourth floor classroom at Javeriana University in Bogota, the capital city of Colombia, a couple dozen political science students have closed their textbooks and are focusing instead on the television.

They are intently watching a live feed from the press conference of the Colombian government and FARC peace talks negotiators from Oslo, in what are historic face-to-face discussions that will resume again in Havana, Cuba, on November 15 to try to end Colombia’s nearly 50-year bloody armed conflict.

All students, in their 20s, have grown up knowing nothing different than their country at war with the FARC rebels.

On Thursday, Al Jazeera spent time at two major universities in Bogota speaking to students about how they see the opening phases of the peace talks. The idea was to get a better sense on how Colombia’s youth – whose voice is often muted from the discussions of war and peace – see the future they will be living.

“If they put all the topics on the table and look for a profound transformation in Colombia, I say I hope so!” student Leonardo Rodriguez told Al Jazeera’s Alessandro Rampietti. 

“As a young person the peace talks give me hope about a better professional future, a better level of security that if I am going to give my opinion or if I have a critical point of view, I will not be threatened. If I am going to another part of the country to visit a family member, or to work in the countryside, I won’t be next to paramilitaries or the guerilla thinking that they will kidnap me or that I will disappear,” Rodriguez said.

Fiery speech

“The FARC continue to say that they will cooperate, but they are demanding too much. Everyone wants peace, but the government is not going to find it through dialogue.

– Kevin Mier, a student

What struck many students here was the fiery speech in Oslo by Ivan Marquez, the FARC lead negotiator, who railed against what he said was Colombia’s over-spending on the military and social injustice.

“Marquez spoke about topics that are not discussed at a macro level in Colombia, and that is why it was important,” said student Oscar Farias.

“He explained the problem of land that we have in Colombia, the problem of social inequalities…. I think it’s important that Marquez mentioned these things because in the mainstream media in Colombia we are never given these opinions. Not even from the leaders of the political left,” Farias said.

(The government negotiators reaffirmed that both sides had agreed that the peace discussions would focus solely on land reform, ending the armed conflict, drug trafficking, political participation and rights of the victims. Colombia’s lead negotiator, Humberto de la Calle, said any other issues would need to be discussed by the FARC after they lay down their weapons and formally enter the political arena).

But Pedro Valenzuela, a conflict resolution professor who watched the press conference with the students, said the Marquez speech clearly laid out fundamental fault lines going into the negotiations.

“[The FARC] were very much opposed to the position of the government in terms of the model of development and I think that’s going to be a very controversial issue as the process advances. I don’t think it’s going to be an easy process,” Valenzuela said.

Opinion split

Outside of Universidad de los Andes, one of Colombia’s most prestigious universities, students seemed cautiously optimistic, but also divided.

“I don’t think the peace process is going to work,” Kevin Mier, a student, told Al Jazeera’s Maria Elena Romero. “The FARC continue to say that they will co-operate, but they are demanding too much. Everyone wants peace, but the government is not going to find it through dialogue.”

Maria Camila Segura, another student, disagreed: “To solve the armed conflict in Colombia any option is valid. If this is what the government thinks is best, I support that. We have to wait and see if it works.”

Bernardo Martinez said that previous, failed peace talks – which occurred when he was barely a teenager – left him with a “wait and see” approach.

I think these are historic times in Colombia we now have to start this peace process without thinking about the past. Because we can not continue with 50 or 60 more years of internal conflict.

– Alejandro Forero, a student

“We hope that everything goes well, but we are cautious because of what happened with the previous peace process of more than a decade ago,” Martinez said. “But I believe both sides are committed to this now.”

Most Colombian youth grew up with the scars of the conflict with the FARC – an inescapable part of the national conscience.

But the younger generation also seems less restrained than the older generation by past failures at peace, and perhaps more willing to try new avenues that could fundamentally change the countries trajectory.

“I think these are historic times in Colombia,” said student Alejandro Forero. “We now have to start this peace process without thinking about the past. Because we cannot continue with 50 or 60 more years of internal conflict.”

The students shared varying degrees of optimism over the peace talks. But they all agreed that no matter what the outcome of the negotiations, they are the ones who will be living with the fallout.

Follow on Twitter:  Gabriel Elizondo @ElizondoGabriel, Alessandro Rampietti @Rampietti, and Maria Elena Romero @MarBrazil

Source: Al Jazeera

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