JFP 8/30: Ecuador upbeat on Assange talks; cutting Pentagon vs. Social Security
Just Foreign Policy News, August 30, 2012
Ecuador upbeat on Assange talks; cutting Pentagon vs. Social Security
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Go Straight to the News Summary
I) Actions and Featured Articles
Cut Pentagon Budget, Not Social Security & Veterans' Benefits, Save 380,000 Jobs
Some people want to "save" the government $145 billion over 10 years by cutting Social Security, veterans' benefits, and federal pensions. A much better idea is to cut the bloated Pentagon budget instead. Not only would that protect Social Security and veterans' benefits and make it harder for the Pentagon to occupy other people's countries, it would save 380,000 jobs.
1) Talks have resumed between Ecuador and Britain over Julian Assange, and Ecuador said it was optimistic of a deal that would prevent him being extradited to the U.S., Reuters reports. "I'm convinced we'll find a way out ... I'm hopeful because the global mood that the Julian Assange case is generating will help us to find a way out," Ecuador's Foreign Minister Ricardo Patino said. Patino told Reuters he was optimistic that Britain would agree to compromise on Ecuador's demand that Assange be given written guarantees he would not be extradited from Sweden to any third country. President Correa has said that if Britain and Sweden agree not to extradite Assange to the U.S., Assange would decline Ecuador's asylum offer and hand himself over to Swedish prosecutors.
2) Five Australian soldiers were killed in southern Afghanistan within hours of one another on Wednesday and Thursday, three of them at the hands of a turncoat Afghan soldier, the New York Times reports. Insider attacks on coalition forces that have left 45 dead this year at the hands of the Afghan security forces or other Afghans working with them. 15 members of the international coalition have been killed in insider attacks this month, 12 of them American. Earlier this year, Australia announced it would withdraw its troops by the end of 2013 - one year ahead of schedule.
3) In the weeks following the May 11 DEA shooting of civilians in Ahuas, US and Honduran officials made statements criminalizing the victims, Miskitu communities and local authorities, writes Annie Bird of Rights Action in Alternet. In response, the Miskitu indigenous federation requested that CEPR and Rights Action undertake an independent investigation. The report was released August 15. On August 27, Honduran Human Rights Commissioner Ramon Custodio announced that his commission had completed its investigation and intends to request that the US House and Senate Judiciary Committees investigate the shootings.
4) The Washington Office on Latin America says the Labor Action Plan agreed upon by Colombia and the U.S. to improve labor rights in Colombia has "only led to cosmetic changes," says Colombia Reports. "Sadly, since the plan was put in place in April 2011 we've seen that over 30 trade unionists have been killed and another 480 have received death threats," said Gimena Sanchez of WOLA. Sanchez said there have been "big reprisals" against workers who tried to organize under the plan, including mass firings and the killing of a prominent union leader.
5) Two Americans who were wounded when gunmen, including federal police, fired on an American Embassy vehicle in Mexico last week were CIA employees sent to help with the drug war, the New York Times reports. The incident casts doubt on U.S. efforts to improve the federal police, the NYT says. Some Mexican lawmakers said they would press for a full explanation of what the CIA and other U.S. agencies were doing in Mexico.
6) Western officials said that while the new IAEA quarterly report on Iran shows Iran continues to flout Security Council resolutions calling for a suspension on enrichment, there is no sign of a "game-changing" acceleration in the program that would warrant military action, the Guardian reports. Alarmed by claims by Netanyahu that the report showed Iran was "continuing to make accelerated progress toward achieving nuclear weapons while totally ignoring international demands", US and European governments took the unusual step of giving briefings, before IAEA inspectors presented the report to member states, to play down its significance, the Guardian says.
7) An ultra-Orthodox Jewish party in Israel's coalition government is wary of plans for possible military strikes on Iran, Reuters reports. Reservations by Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the top spiritual authority for the Shas party, could be an obstacle to any attempt by Netanyahu to get security cabinet approval for hitting Iran's nuclear sites. "He believes the price would be too high, and for an action that may not achieve its goal," said a person briefed on discussions inside the Shas party. Yosef, a former Israeli chief rabbi, gave a sermon Saturday calling for next month's Jewish holidays to include prayers for the destruction of Iran, "those evil ones who threaten Israel.".
8) A judge from Ecuador's highest court has rejected an extradition request for a former police investigator from Belarus who has been jailed since June, and ordered that he be freed immediately, Reuters reports. Aliaksandr Barankov's case attracted attention after Ecuador granted political asylum to Julian Assange. Barankov had argued he could be killed if sent back to Belarus. Barankov says he fled Belarus after uncovering an oil-smuggling ring involving senior government officials. "I'm happy. They saved my life," Barankov said.
9) Honduran authorities announced the National Police have busted a rare, makeshift cocaine laboratory in a remote region near the Atlantic coast, AP reports. A DEA agent said such labs are rare.
10) 74 percent of Colombians support talks to end the armed conflict with the FARC, the Washington Post reports. A key issue in the talks will be guarantees of safety for demobilized guerillas who participate in politics, the article notes: in the 1980s and early 1990s, hundreds of members of the Patriotic Union, a leftist political party partly created by FARC leaders, were gunned down by death squads.
11) According to a Colombian radio report, the governments of Cuba and Norway, as guarantors, and those of Venezuela and Chile, as co-guarantors, will support the talks, EFE reports. The agenda for the dialogue, according to the document published by RCN, includes the issues of "comprehensive agrarian development policy," "political participation," "end of the conflict," "solution to the problem of illicit drugs," "victims" and "implementation, verification and endorsement." The text discusses a "bilateral and definite" ceasefire and cessation of hostilities, the laying-down of weapons and reincorporation of the guerrillas into society and politics as an opposition force.
1) Ecuador upbeat about deal to end Assange standoff
Eduardo Garcia, Reuters, Wed Aug 29, 2012 3:43pm EDT
Quito - Talks have resumed between Ecuador and Britain over the fate of WikiLeaks' founder Julian Assange, and Ecuador's government said on Wednesday it was optimistic of a deal that would prevent him being extradited to the United States.
"I'm convinced we'll find a way out ... I'm hopeful because the global mood that the Julian Assange case is generating will help us to find a way out," Ecuador's Foreign Minister Ricardo Patino told Reuters in an interview in Quito, confirming talks resumed in London on Wednesday.
Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa has granted Assange asylum and says he shares Assange's fears that he might be sent from Sweden to the United States to face charges over WikiLeaks' publication in 2010 of secret U.S. cables.
Correa fumed at a veiled British threat to enter the embassy to arrest him but said over the weekend that the threat had been lifted and he considered the "unfortunate incident" over.
Assange remains trapped in the embassy, but both sides have said they want to talk. In a sign of thawing tensions, Ecuador's Vice President Lenin Moreno met Foreign Secretary William Hague on Wednesday during a visit to London for the Paralympic Games. Both governments said they discussed the situation with Assange.
Patino told Reuters he was optimistic that Britain would agree to compromise on Ecuador's demand that Assange be given written guarantees he would not be extradited from Sweden to any third country.
"It's possible that Great Britain could seek to move forward with the guarantees, because they have repeatedly said that they don't want to provide the safe-passage (so Assange could leave the embassy and fly to Ecuador)," Patino said.
"The option of the guarantees is possibly more feasible ... We should get clear, written guarantees from the countries with which we're negotiating."
In an interview last week, Correa told Reuters he was skeptical the British and Swedish governments would shift their stance on Assange, but that it would be "perfectly possible", in theory, for them to grant Assange the assurances he wanted.
Correa said that if Britain and Sweden agree not to extradite Assange to the United States, he would decline the asylum offer and hand himself over to Swedish prosecutors.
2) 5 Soldiers' Deaths in Afghanistan Mark Australia's Worst Toll Yet
Richard A. Oppel Jr. and Matt Siegel, New York Times, August 30, 2012
Kabul, Afghanistan - Five Australian soldiers were killed in southern Afghanistan within hours of one another on Wednesday and Thursday, three of them at the hands of a turncoat Afghan soldier, making it the deadliest period in a decade of fighting here for one of the United States' staunchest allies.
Two soldiers died when their UH-1 Huey helicopter crashed in the Baghran district of Helmand Province on Thursday morning, NATO officials said. They said they did not know what caused the crash, which left other soldiers injured as well.
Three other soldiers were killed on Wednesday night when an Afghan soldier turned his gun on them in Oruzgan Province, the latest in a rash of insider attacks on coalition forces that have left 45 dead this year at the hands of the Afghan security forces or other Afghans working with them.
The attack happened at a fuel depot when a member of the Afghan National Army shot the Australians and then fled the base, coalition officials said. The international force command said that the motive was unclear and that it was investigating.
With 1,550 troops in Afghanistan - most of them in Oruzgan - Australia has the largest non-NATO military presence in the American-led coalition here. The only other Australian military fatality in Afghanistan this year was in July. Last year, 11 Australian service members were killed here, according to data from Icasualties.org.
The five new deaths stunned Australia. Prime Minister Julia Gillard called it "the most awful news" for the country.
"This is a very big toll," Ms. Gillard said during a visit to the Cook Islands, where she said she would cut her trip short to return to Canberra, the Australian capital. "This is our single worst day in Afghanistan."
She said insider attacks like the one that killed the three Australians were "corrosive of trust" and difficult to deal with.
This year, Ms. Gillard announced that Australia would withdraw its troops by the end of 2013 - one year ahead of schedule - citing what she said were security improvements in Afghanistan, while also acknowledging the unpopularity of the war.
With the latest deaths, 15 members of the international coalition have been killed in insider attacks this month, 12 of them American.
NATO officials blame Taliban infiltrators posing as Afghan soldiers or police officers for about 1 in 10 of the recent insider attacks. A somewhat larger proportion, officials believe, is tied in some way to broader Taliban influence, like coercion. But most of the shootings are seen as stemming from cultural or personal disputes.
3) Militarizing the Police and Killing Natives: How the US Drug War Is Ripping Honduras Apart
Human rights organizations investigating a deadly raid where DEA agents killed four people found a peaceful indigenous community under siege.
Annie Bird (Rights Action), Alternet, August 29, 2012
Since the Central American peace processes began 25 years ago, a tremendous effort has been made to remove militaries from policing, an effort now apparently being reversed in the US's increasingly militarized and multinational war against drugs.
On May 11, the US Drug Enforcement Administration led an operation that ended in the deaths of four indigenous Miskitu villagers on the Patuca River near the town of Ahuas, Gracias a Dios, Honduras. US and Honduran officials claimed the boat that came under fire was part of a trafficking operation. Neighbors, local authorities and human rights organizations claimed they were innocent bystanders.
Though the US Embassy provided technical assistance for the Public Prosecutors' investigation, little probing occurred. In the weeks following the shooting US and Honduran officials made statements criminalizing the victims, Miskitu communities and local authorities.
In response, the Miskitu indigenous federation, MASTA, requested that two Washington-based organizations undertake an independent investigation. Through witness testimony, and interviews with Honduran and US Embassy officials, Rights Action and the Center for Economic and Policy Research brought into focus a disturbing picture of a peaceful indigenous community ripped apart by the US drug war. This disturbing picture has been created by the transfer of counter-insurgency strategies used in Afghanistan to Central America and a regional push to create militarized police forces.
The report was released August 15. Then, on August 27, Honduran Human Rights Commissioner Ramon Custodio, highly criticized for his role in the June 2009 military coup and coverup of abuses that followed, announced that his commission had also completed its investigation and intends to request that the US House and Senate Judiciary Committees investigate the shootings.
Survivors of the shooting explained that the boat had taken lobster divers to a commercial fishing boat in Barra Patuca, about six hours away. They brought passengers on the return trip, including two families moving to Ahuas from Roatan, a diver who had been treated for decompression sickness and family members of divers.
Just moments before arriving in Ahuas, the boat driver saw an apparently unmanned boat float by, and the passengers were awakened by low flying helicopters that soon opened fire on them. Survivors and the wounded explain they struggled to get to shore while two helicopters dropped security forces just 20 meters away at the town's boat landing. Hilder Lezama got a call from a survivor who had swam to shore and borrowed a neighbors' telephone to tell him that his mother, the 53-year-old boat owner, was wounded in the river. He hurried to the landing, just as the helicopters descended.
The first helicopter dropped what appeared to be Honduran police, though some spoke mostly English, and were described as "gringos." A second helicopter landed, and stayed on the ground for over two hours. All on board were white English-speaking men--even the door gunner and pilots. All wore tan camouflage with American flags on their shoulders. To one resident who had studied near the Soto Cano Airforce base where the US Army Joint Task Force Bravo is stationed, the outfits looked like US army uniforms.
In early August, the State Department issued a report explaining it was "carefully limiting assistance to special Honduran law enforcement units, staffed by Leahy-vetted Honduran personnel who receive training, guidance and advice directly from U.S. law enforcement and are not under [Juan Carlos] Bonilla's direct supervision," while it investigates allegations that the current director of Honduran police had directed a death squad in 2002.
This description appears to fit the TRT and a new security force being created as the State Department issued the report, the Intelligence and Special Security Response Groups Unit (TIGRES). Though it's unclear whether the force has received training, guidance and advice directly from the US government, the team's mandate closely matches US strategic interests in the region.
According to Honduran press, the TIGRES will live in military barracks, be commanded by military and police officers, and report directly to the Minister of Security, though they will report to the Minister of Defense in times of war. The force will focus on intelligence, information and communications technology; areal and maritime combat; control of population and territory; and combating organized crime, drug trafficking, and illicit association. The TIGRES will operate with "embedded" justice officials, public prosecutors and judges.
The day the law to establish the new force was presented, July 26, Honduran officials announced the Inter American Development Bank (IDB) would fund the force with a $57 million loan. Two hundred TIGRE agents were already in training, scheduled to be completed in August.
The IDB loan is one of 22 planned for Central America within the framework of the Central American Regional Security Strategy of the Central American System for Regional Integration [SICA], an initiative spearheaded by the Inter American Development Bank and the US Department of State. A group of friends was created to promote the strategy, including Chile, Colombia, the US, Canada, the OAS, the United Nations and others.
Chile, Colombia and the US are playing a hands-on role in implementing the strategy, which clearly promotes the use of the military in policing. Chile's Carabineros--a militarized police force renowned for forming death squads and reprimanded by the Inter American Commission on Human Rights in October 2011 for excessive use of force in recent student protests-- are working closely with SICA and the OAS to reform the region's police forces. The US has partnered with Colombian police who are training Central American police and military in a new center located in Panama.
4) Colombia-US Labor Action Plan led only to 'cosmetic changes': WOLA
Adriaan Alsema, Colombia Reports, Wednesday, 29 August 2012 07:41
The Labor Action Plan agreed upon by Colombia and the U.S. to improve labor rights in Colombia and decrease impunity for perpetrators of crimes against unionists has "only led to cosmetic changes," said think tank Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) Tuesday.
In the Washington-based organization's podcast, WOLA Gimena Sanchez expressed to be positive that "the labor situation has gotten more attention ... in the recent history of Colombia" and "the creation of the Labor Ministry" which has focused more on rights abuses in sectors wher workers have been most vulnerable.
"However, up until now, the Labor Action Plan has only led to cosmetic changes and not to major results," said Sanchez, "The situation in Colombia needs requires many years for there to be the structural changes needed for that plan to be implemented"
"Sadly, since the plan was put in place in April 2011 we've seen that over 30 trade unionists have been killed and another 480 have received death threats," the human rights advocate said.
Additionally, "since [United States President Barack] Obama was in [the Colombian city of] Cartagena in April announcing that the FTA was moving forward we've seen some big reprisals against the sectors in the Labor Action Plan."
"For example, we have seen mass firings of workers in the port sector who were trying to organize and who basically put their belief in the Labor Action Plan as the way forward for them," Sanchez said, stressing that a prominent union leader was among unionists killed and there had been a "crack down" against workers for oil company Pacific Rubiales who had demanded improved labor rights.
5) Americans Shot in Mexico Were C.I.A. Operatives Aiding in Drug War
Randal C. Archibold and Eric Schmitt, New York Times, August 28, 2012
Mexico City - The two Americans who were wounded when gunmen fired on an American Embassy vehicle last week were Central Intelligence Agency employees sent as part of a multiagency effort to bolster Mexican efforts to fight drug traffickers, officials said on Tuesday.
The two operatives, who were hurt on Friday, were participating in a training program that involved the Mexican Navy. They were traveling with a Mexican Navy captain in an embassy sport utility vehicle that had diplomatic license plates, heading toward a military shooting range 35 miles south of the capital when gunmen, some or all of them from the Federal Police, attacked the vehicle, Mexican officials have said.
The Mexican Navy said Tuesday in a statement that an American was driving the vehicle and that during the attack the captain, who was handling logistics and translating for the men, remained in the back seat calling for help on his cellphone.
The men were wounded, the Navy said, when the rain of bullets managed to tear through the car's protective armor. It was unclear if the Americans, who officials said were unarmed, were specifically targeted, if the shooting was a case of mistaken identity or if there was some other reason that the vehicle was ambushed. Mexican prosecutors have detained 12 federal police officers and have said no theory can be ruled out.
The notion that a squad of federal police officers would attack an embassy car could be another blow to the developing trust and cooperation between American counternarcotics personnel and their Mexican partners.
Through programs like the $1.6-billion Merida Initiative, the United States has spent millions of dollars on training and equipping the federal police.
Eric Olson, an expert at the Woodrow Wilson Center's Mexico Institute in Washington, said the shooting could only sow some doubts about the police, and at best pointed to a lack of communication among Mexico's military and the police. "This seems to suggest there isn't better communication between the various elements of the Mexican government," he said. "One fundamental issue is the lack of trust."
Lawmakers, instigated by the left, have hauled Mexican government officials before Congress for sometimes testy hearings and after the newspaper La Jornada first reported the C.I.A. involvement on Tuesday, some politicians said they would ask for a thorough explanation of the American role here. "It's is time to speak clearly and for us to know what institutions are intervening in what specific way in our country in regard to security,' said Iris Vianey Mendoza, a senator from the left-leaning Party of the Democratic Revolution.
This latest episode has caused Mexicans to reflect on the quality of the federal police force, which had achieved growing respect but which has been tarnished by recent corruption scandals. "The thing that really worries me," said Gabriel Guerra, a political analyst who has worked with the three major parties here, "is that we are seeing the unraveling of what was supposed to be the main achievement in the fight against organized crime, which was the creation of a trustworthy national police."
6) Report on Iran's nuclear capabilities to show increase in enrichment equipment
International Atomic Energy Agency to put more pressure on Tehran as concerns are raised over country's nuclear aspirations
Julian Borger, Guardian, Wednesday 29 August 2012 13.35 EDT
The latest International Atomic Energy Agency report on Iran's nuclear programme due out on Thursday is expected to say that Tehran has rapidly increased the quantity of equipment at an underground uranium enrichment plant but has not started using the new machinery to produce nuclear fuel.
The IAEA quarterly report will say that more than 300 centrifuges have been installed at the fortified cavern at Fordow, near the city of Qom, but are not yet spinning, and the rate of uranium production has not risen since the last report in May.
Western officials said that while the new IAEA quarterly report on Iran shows that the Tehran government continues to flout Security Council resolutions calling for a suspension on enrichment, there is no sign of a "game-changing" acceleration in the programme that would warrant the military action threatened by Israel.
Alarmed by claims by the Israeli prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, that the report showed Iran was "continuing to make accelerated progress toward achieving nuclear weapons while totally ignoring international demands", US and European governments took the unusual step of giving briefings, before IAEA inspectors presented the report to member states, to play down its significance.
Western officials believe that while Iran is steadily increasing its capacity to make nuclear weapons in the future, its leadership has not yet made the political decision to do so. Tehran insists its programme is intended entirely for generating electricity and producing medical isotopes.
The Obama administration is particularly nervous that Netanyahu might order attacks on Iranian nuclear facilities at the height of the US presidential campaign in the hope of drawing Washington in, under pressure from pro-Israeli public opinion. A White House spokesman, Tommy Vietor, broke precedent by commenting on the expected report before publication by insisting "there is still time and space" for diplomacy in the long-running nuclear stand-off.
Iran has now produced about 190kg of 20% enriched uranium, which would be enough for one nuclear warhead if further enriched. But nearly 100kg of that total has been converted into reactor fuel plates – these would harder to turn into material for a bomb.
"It's more of the same," said Jim Walsh, an expert on the Iranian nuclear programme from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, arguing that Iran's desire to install more of its centrifuges underground was understandable under threat of air strikes. He added that Iran had already entered a "zone of immunity" in Israeli terms, because if it did want to make nuclear weapons, it would probably be too late to stop it militarily. "You can't bomb the knowledge out of their heads and you can't destroy Fordow."
7) Religious Israeli government party wary of war with Iran
Dan Williams, Reuters, Thu Aug 30, 2012 8:48am EDT
Jerusalem - An ultra-Orthodox Jewish party in Israel's coalition government is wary of plans for possible military strikes on Iran, political sources said on Thursday.
Reservations by Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the top spiritual authority for the Shas party, could be an obstacle to any attempt by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to get security cabinet approval for hitting Iran's nuclear sites.
"He believes the price would be too high, and for an action that may not achieve its goal," said a person briefed on discussions inside the Shas party, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Israeli leaders have long weighed the possible benefits of striking Iran with the operational and diplomatic risks, and officials say Netanyahu's inner council of nine senior ministers is split - a harbinger of deadlock should he seek a vote.
Yosef, a 91-year-old former Israeli chief rabbi, gave a sermon on Saturday calling for next month's Jewish holidays to include prayers for the destruction of Iran, "those evil ones who threaten Israel".
Though often hawkish in tone, Yosef has in the past broken with Israeli ultra-nationalists by calling on Israel to cede occupied land for peace with the Palestinians and spare lives.
8) Ecuador court refuses to extradite Belarussian dissident
Aliaksandr Barankov, whose case attracted attention after Quito granted Julian Assange asylum, to be freed from jail
Associated Press, Wednesday 29 August 2012 03.22 EDT
Quito - A judge from Ecuador's highest court has rejected an extradition request for a former police investigator from Belarus who has been jailed since June, and ordered that he be freed immediately.
Aliaksandr Barankov's case attracted attention after Ecuador granted political asylum to the WikiLeaks founder, Julian Assange, earlier this month.
Judge Carlos Ramirez of the national court of justice found the political refugee status granted to Barankov to be justified, according to a court official.
Barankov, 30, had argued he could be killed if sent back to his former Soviet bloc homeland, where President Alexander Lukashenko has been nicknamed "Europe's last dictator".
Barankov says he fled Belarus after uncovering an oil-smuggling ring involving senior government officials, including relatives of Lukashenko.
"I'm happy. They saved my life," an overjoyed Barankov said by phone from jail. His Ecuadorean girlfriend had notified him just moments earlier.
Barankov's case came under scrutiny when Ecuador announced it was granting Assange asylum, deeming that he ran the risk of being unfairly tried if extradited to the US, where he could face the death penalty.
The Ecuadorean president, Rafael Correa, said he would not comment on the Barankov case until the court ruled. But his deputy foreign minister said the government would treat the case with the same respect for human rights that guided it in considering Assange's asylum request.
9) Honduran National Police bust cocaine-processing laboratory in remote mountain region
Freddy Cuevas and Martha Mendoza, Associated Press, August 29
Tegucigalpa, Honduras - Honduran authorities announced Wednesday that the National Police have busted a rare, makeshift cocaine laboratory hidden in a remote, mountainous region near the Atlantic coast as part of their U.S.-backed anti-drug efforts in Central America.
In March 2011, Honduran police busted a cocaine lab in what the U.S. State Department described as the "first of its kind" in Central America in recent years. The labs process relatively cheap cocaine paste from South America into higher priced, more pure cocaine destined for the U.S.
While Honduras is a major transit point for drugs heading from South America, Drug Enforcement Administration special agent Jeffrey Todd Scott in Washington said Wednesday that such labs are rare.
"While this is one of the first labs we've identified in Honduras, we're always concerned when we find any operational lab," he said. "We'll continue working with our counterparts to investigate and dismantle such sites as they are discovered."
Political analyst Robert Naiman, who studies drug policy in the region, said Honduras offers an "attractive location" for traffickers because its law enforcement agencies are plagued with corruption. "Unfortunately, I fear this development will be used to justify further militarization of U.S. drug policy in Honduras," he said.
10) Colombia exploring peace talks with FARC
Juan Forero, Washington Post, August 28
Bogota, Colombia - The Colombian government says it has embarked on "exploratory talks" with rebel commanders to end one of the world's oldest armed conflicts, a hit-and-run guerrilla war that is fueled by the cocaine trade and leaves hundreds dead every year.
President Juan Manuel Santos's brief announcement in a nationally televised address prompted cautious optimism Tuesday in a country where polls show that 74 percent of people support talks to end the conflict. Though in recent years Colombia has become more peaceful and attracted record levels of foreign investment, terrorist attacks and combat are not uncommon in the countryside far from the biggest cities.
The president did not reveal details of the talks. But RCN Radio in Bogota and Venezuela's state-run television network, Telesur, reported that Santos and negotiators from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) had agreed to begin official peace negotiations in Oslo in October. Colombian media had also reported that discussions between the two sides had been secretly taking place in Cuba.
The FARC is engaging in talks with an adversary its commanders appear increasingly open to trusting: Santos, scion of a politically influential family that once ran Colombia's most important newspaper. Though Santos was a hard-line defense minister in the government of his predecessor, Alvaro Uribe, he has shown that as president, he can be politically flexible in order to bring the rebels to the negotiating table.
His government repaired broken relations with Venezuela's leftist president, Hugo Chavez, whom the FARC views favorably. Santos also pushed through reforms designed to compensate victims of political violence and return land to thousands of people displaced by armed groups, including the right-wing militias that collaborated closely with military units. The FARC leadership viewed all those gestures positively.
Carlos Lozano, editor of the communist newspaper Voz and an activist who has had contacts with FARC commanders, said the guerrillas will need the state to protect them from reprisal killings as the group engages in negotiations. In the 1980s and early 1990s, hundreds of members of the Patriotic Union, a leftist political party partly created by FARC leaders, were gunned down by death squads.
"The state must ensure safety, that they're not killed," Lozano said, referring to the FARC leadership. "But the state also has to guarantee them political space in which to operate."
11) Colombians Learn First Details on How Peace Dialogue Will Go
EFE. August 29, 2012
Bogota – Colombians learned on Wednesday the first details about how the peace dialogue between the national government and the FARC guerrillas may go, a process that has sparked great expectations but also fear and rejection.
Amid the government's caution at engaging in such a dialogue with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC – and Bogota has only confirmed having "exploratory" contacts with the leftist rebels – RCN radio station released on Wednesday the text of the agreement to "begin direct and uninterrupted talks" with a commitment to "put an end to the conflict as an essential condition for the building of a stable and durable peace."
The document, consisting of four pages and six general points, establishes that the delegates of the government of President Juan Manuel Santos and the FARC initially will hold the talks in Oslo and later move them to Havana, which will be their permanent seat.
The governments of Cuba and Norway, as guarantors, and those of Venezuela and Chile, as co-guarantors, will support the talks, according to the RCN report.
"It's a very balanced group of countries," Leon Valencia, the director of the Corporacion Nuevo Arco Iris, or CNAI, a research center for conflict and peace, told Efe by telephone.
He said that the involvement of Cuba, which has hosted several Colombian peace dialogues, and Venezuela, which has facilitated meetings with similar aims, "gives (the FARC) a lot of confidence" in the process.
Norway and Chile also provide "a lot of confidence" to the Colombian government, Valencia said.
The CNAI director also said that Bogota has gotten along well with and been well-accepted by Cuba and currently has a "good relationship" with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.
The agenda for the dialogue, according to the document published by RCN, includes the issues of "comprehensive agrarian development policy," "political participation," "end of the conflict," "solution to the problem of illicit drugs," "victims" and "implementation, verification and endorsement."
In addition, the text discusses matters such as a "bilateral and definite" ceasefire and cessation of hostilities, the laying-down of weapons and reincorporation of the guerrillas into society and politics as an opposition force.
Meanwhile, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, who is in Tehran participating in the non-aligned summit, expressed through his New York office his satisfaction at the announcement of the exploratory talks between Bogota and the FARC, and he offered his mediation to help arrive at a resolution of the country's internal conflict.
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