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Colombia peace deal: US's quiet role signals new tone in Latin America

John Kerry played a facilitation role in the months leading to Thursday's cease-fire, setting a new tone for US-Latin America relations after decades of imposed policies.

Christophe Ena/AP
US Secretary of State John Kerry, shown here in Paris last month, took time out of the diplomatic spotlight to quietly facilitate negotiations between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).

When Secretary of State John Kerry accompanied President Obama on his historic trip to Cuba in March, marking a momentous turn in US-Cuba relations, Mr. Kerry made a point to step outside the glaring spotlight and quietly lend his support to another peace process in Havana.

He stopped by the negotiations where the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) had been trying since 2012 to reach an accord to end Latin America’s longest-running armed conflict. As the world focused on Mr. Obama’s handshake with Raúl Castro, Kerry met with both sides in the Colombia talks and reassured FARC representatives in particular with pledges of a US commitment to help Colombia build a sustainable peace.

When the Colombian government and the FARC marked reaching a historic cease-fire and "end of conflict" with a ceremony in Havana on Thursday, Kerry was not on hand.

But his personal commitment and determination to see the US play a positive role were key, say State Department officials and regional experts.

Moreover, some experts say Kerry’s approach to the Colombian peace talks point to a new US role in the region: one that is more focused on support, where once there was imposition.

"In the past, the US might even come up with the draft peace accord to impose on the sides, but this is different," says Eric Farnsworth, vice president of the Americas Society and Council of the Americas in Washington. "And it has struck a lot of people as a new day in Latin America when the US says, 'It’s up to you guys to do this deal, but we will do what we can to support it.' "

It did not go unnoticed that Kerry "held lengthy meetings with both sides [of the peace talks] in Havana," a senior State Department official says, speaking on condition of anonymity. "It’s our understanding that those meetings had a very positive effect in pushing the two parties forward."

A facilitating role

Kerry is no stranger to tough negotiations, but he is better known for the grueling discussions with his Iranian counterpart, Javad Zarif, that kept him in the limelight for more than a year and which eventually led to the Iran nuclear deal a year ago.

But officials say Kerry made a conscious decision to keep a low profile in the Colombia talks, even while recognizing that the US – the Western Hemisphere’s superpower, with a long and sometimes controversial history of support for the Colombian government – would play a significant role in determining the peace talks’ success or failure.

"The US is not a party to these negotiations; these talks are between the government and the FARC. Our role was to support," says the senior State Department official. "It was a deliberate strategy to play a more low-key role, and both parties appreciated that we were there to help both sides," the official says. "It really was a facilitating role."

Mr. Farnsworth says this new approach to the region appears to come from various quarters of the administration – he notes that Vice President Joe Biden and others have described US Latin American policy as "not what can we do to the region, but what can we do with the region."

He certainly sees that shift in Kerry’s approach to the Colombia peace talks.

"Kerry’s involvement has been judicious," Farnsworth says. "There was no heavy-handed, day-to-day involvement, instead it was the US making it clear from the outset that this was for the Colombians to work out. What he did do was to pledge that the US was ready to be a facilitator," he adds, "and then he demonstrated that with things like his meetings in Havana."

But Kerry was "clearly interested in … helping to get a deal if he could," says Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington.

"The Cuba opening was managed from the White House, but the other big issue in the region was the Colombian peace process, and Kerry was clearly interested in playing a role in that and helping to get a deal if he could," says Mr. Shifter. "He recognized that would be a part of his legacy in this hemisphere."

US involvement key for FARC

Shifter says a US commitment to support not just the talks but any peace accord issuing from them was particularly important to the FARC, which he says sees the US as the one power that can hold the Colombian government to its commitments.

The FARC were "keen on hearing the US would hold the government to a commitment to provide security to the demobilizing guerrillas," Shifter says. "The investment and support of the US as the world superpower meant something to FARC leaders."

Both the Colombian government and the FARC say they are confident that after Thursday’s cease-fire, a final peace accord ending more than 50 years of war can be reached before the end of July. But both sides also say a final accord will only start the difficult process of implementation.       

Farnsworth of the Americas Society says he’ll be looking for the supportive approach Kerry took to the negotiations to extend to implementation of a peace accord.

"In the past we’ve too often seen implementation become sporadic and problematic," he says. "With Colombia let’s hope the US keeps to its commitments and provides the guidance," he adds, "and if things start to veer off in the wrong direction the US comes in and says, 'Wait a minute, guys, we need to get this deal back on track.' "

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