Cuba plays critical role in Colombia peace deal

 

Alan Gomez, USA TODAY

 

Cuba may seem an unlikely peace broker given its history of leading and inspiring armed revolutions.

 

But Cuban leaders Fidel and Raúl Castro traded in their military fatigues for business suits long ago, culminating in a new role in Latin America that made Cuba the ideal choice as the host and facilitator of the peace negotiations between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.

 

The Castro brothers not only maintained good diplomatic relations with other government leaders throughout the region, but their history as rebels fighting through the mountains of Cuba has also endeared them to insurgent movements.

 

"Cuba is the ultimate revolutionary icon in Latin America," said Cynthia Arnson, director of the Latin American Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. "It is the country with the greatest credibility among guerrilla movements in the region. And all the Latin American countries have perfectly fluid, friendly relations with Cuba."

 

That helps explain why the historic peace accord announced Wednesday to end the longest-running armed conflict in the Western Hemisphere took place in Havana. There are many other reasons why Cuba played such an important role in ending the conflict that's killed more than 220,000 Colombians.

 

For the first few decades after Fidel Castro assumed power in 1959, he sent Cuban soldiers around the world to help fight in armed revolutions. Cuban fighters, sometimes joined by Ernesto "Che" Guevara, fought alongside revolutionaries in Angola, Bolivia, El Salvador, the Congo and elsewhere.

 

In recent years, Castro and his brother have urged rebels to use more peaceful means to gain power.

 

That helped foster a wave of leftist leaders who rose through the electoral process, from Venezuela to Bolivia to Brazil. Dan Restrepo, a former adviser to President Obama on Latin America, said Castro urged the FARC to follow that lead, even penning a book in 2008 showing how Hugo Chávez rose to power in Venezuela employing those same means.

 

"Fidel famously wrote that book as an argument to the FARC that this isn't how you gain power in the Americas anymore," said Restrepo, now a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. "You gain power by engaging in the political process, and you guys should do the same."

 

Four years later, when Colombian leaders were secretly gauging whether the FARC would participate, Castro stepped in again. According to the Colombian newspaper El Tiempo, Castro directed a Colombian emissary who spent three days meeting with the FARC's maximum leader, Timoleón Jiménez, known as "Timochenko," to ensure the rebels would participate in the negotiations.

 

"Given their role as inspiration (to the FARC), Castro saw that there was utility in being part of the end as well," Restrepo said.

 

Hosting the peace negotiations also served as a public relations boon for the communist government.

 

Many of the Latin American leaders the Castros helped bring to power have either died or been deposed. The death of Chávez, the electoral loss of Argentina's former president Cristina Kirchner and Dilma Rousseff's forced removal from the presidency in Brazil left Cuba with fewer friends and a diminishing influence in the region, said Adam Isacson of the Washington Office on Latin America.

 

"Some of the leaders that most wanted to be in the photo with Cuba because of its symbolic power are gone," said Isacson, who has been visiting Colombia for nearly 20 years. "And the ones that are left are distracted by their own internal problems."

 

Isacson said the good publicity for Cuba from hosting the peace talks also helped its relationship with the United States, well before President Obama decided to re-establish diplomatic relations with its Cold War foe. For the past few years, the State Department has cited Cuba's role in the peace talks in determining whether Cuba belongs on the State Sponsors of Terrorism List. Cuba was removed from the list last year.

 

Holding the negotiations in Cuba also had practical day-to-day advantages.

 

The last time Colombia tried to broker a peace deal with the FARC, a process that fell apart in 2002, the two sides created a demilitarized zone that became a source of contention. Now, with many FARC leaders operating out of neighboring Venezuela, travel to and from Colombia would have been difficult, making Cuba an easy meeting point.

 

Restrepo said the fact that Cuba is an island with a state-run media apparatus provided the perfect setting for delicate peace talks that needed to remain secret. The end result is a deal that may finally bring peace to Colombia's war-torn rural areas. And it puts Cuba back on the diplomatic map.

 

"Cuba has always been a country that has sought to punch above its weight in the international arena," Arnson said.

 

 

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