Many war-weary Colombians are saying they finally have what they need: a leader with the political will - and moral authority - to bring peace.
Even before President-elect Andrs Pastrana takes office on Aug. 7, he has moved quickly to keep one campaign promise: He met leaders of Colombia's oldest rebel group in the three-decade civil war and vowed to open peace talks before the year's end.
Colombians also see that US officials were quick to welcome Mr. Pastrana's election victory, though Washington had not publicly endorsed him. His meeting with President Clinton on Aug. 3 at the White House confirmed that bilateral relations have passed beyond the mutual distrust during Ernesto Samper's presidency.
Not just an antidrug agenda
Washington revoked President Samper's US visa in 1996 and imposed economic sanctions, saying that his administration was not cooperating in the war against drugs. Now it seems that peace ranks alongside drugs on the international agenda.
Last week Colombians launched a civilian peace effort with a two-day conference attended by more than 1,000 citizens, including politicians, business people, clergy, workers, professors, and students.
"This is the point of departure on the long road to peace," said Archbishop Alberto Giraldo, the conference chairman, "because it isn't only about looking for a solution to the armed conflict, but to create a culture of peace in the country."
Official contacts with leftist rebels collapsed in 1994, after allegations Samper had accepted millions from drug traffickers. The rebels called Samper's government illegitimate, and refused to talk during his four-year rule.
President-elect Pastrana's meeting was the first time a president had met guerrilla leaders on Colombian soil, and the first time in four years that the 15,000-strong Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia had shown any interest in dialogue.
A week later, Colombia's second most-powerful rebel group said that it was also ready for talks. At a meeting with Colombian civic representatives in Mainz, Germany, a spokesman for the 5,000-strong Army of National Liberation announced that it also would scale down kidnappings and attacks on oil pipelines.
Not to be outdone, the right-wing paramilitaries soon announced that they too were dedicated to a negotiated settlement.
There's no doubt that most Colombians want the fighting to stop. The question remains what kind of peace they want.
The guerrillas have called for political and agrarian reform, and a return to a state-controlled petroleum policy. Pastrana, on the other hand, believes in free markets and privatization.
"The establishment thinks that peace means a cease-fire, but the guerrillas are talking about something completely different." says Camilo Echandia, an analyst in the government peace commission. "They want a share of power. History shows that rebels negotiate when they can't achieve anything more by military means, but the Colombian guerrillas aren't losing this war."
Over the past 10 years the rebels have tripled in number and filled their coffers with the proceeds of kidnappings, extortion, and the drug trade. But they have lost political support among the people they claim to represent. If a peace process led to elections, it's unlikely rebels could maintain the influence they possess today.
"Why should the guerrillas get involved in a game they're going to lose ?" asks political scientist Rodrigo Losada.
"The fact that they are talking doesn't mean they're ready to give up the armed struggle. In the past the guerrillas have used dialogue as a space to recover their strength. The war could continue another 10 or 20 years."
The dispirited 12,000-man Army has been unable to beat the rebels, but their strength has been challenged over the past two years by growing right-wing paramilitary groups. The paramilitaries - originally funded by rich landowners tired of guerrilla extortion - have attacked the rebels' civilian support bases and driven them out of traditional strongholds.
Who'll lay down arms first?
On July 27, paramilitary leaders signed their own deal with civilian representatives, calling for a negotiated peace. But neither the militias nor the guerrillas will negotiate with the other - or lay down their arms first.
The paramilitaries say they want recognition as a political organization, but observers say that both sides have other priorities.
"This isn't an ideological struggle, it's a fight for territory," says Mr. Echandia, adding that the fighting may continue as long as the different groups can finance themselves with drug money.
The drug connection means that the international community - especially the US - will show particular interest in any negotiations. Several countries have already offered to help, and the Mainz meeting, promoted by the German government, may be the model that talks will follow.
"There is strong international pressure for peace, democracy, and human rights," says Camilo Gonzalez, a member of the Mainz team and one of the organizers of last October's "Peace Mandate," for which 10 million Colombians voted in local elections. "And peace needs democracy. If there are no changes in the structures of power, these rebel groups may disband, but others will appear."
Meanwhile, the fighting continues.
"Peace won't come tomorrow. It will take time," warns government peace commissioner Daniel Garca."The question is do we have the patience to see our hopes fulfilled?"