That diplomatic relations are set to resume between the United States and the Castro government wasn't the only big story to come out of Cuba on Wednesday. Starting midnight December 20, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the hemisphere's longest-standing leftist insurgency, will enter an indefinite, unilateral—albeit conditional—ceasefire, rebel commanders announced in Havana.
The FARC leadership has been gathered in Cuba for over two years now, negotiating a peace accord with the Colombian government that would bring an end to 50 years of open rebellion. Up until this point, however, both parties had continued hostilities, even in the midst of talks.
"We think we've started on a definitive path toward peace," reads a statement released by the guerrillas, who asked that various international and independent bodies monitor the ceasefire. "It's now or never."
Though the rebels were expected to announce a temporary suspension of military operations for the duration of the Christmas holiday season as they have in the past, the "indefinite" part of the ceasefire came as a surprise. Just last month, negotiations seemed to be on the verge of potential collapse. Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, who championed the peace process in his recent successful re-election campaign, withdrew government delegates following the rebel " kidnapping" of Brigadier General Ruben Dario Alzate in the northwest of the country, a decision that marked the first unscheduled break since the start of talks in November 2012. (The general was traveling in a rebel-controlled zone without protection.)
Coming in the aftermath of the FARC's humanitarian-supervised handover of General Alzate, the first general captured by the rebels in their history, and the ensuing resumption of dialogue, the ceasefire announcement is already being heralded as a turning point in the historic peace process.
But buried in FARC's statement is a caveat: "This unilateral ceasefire, which we hope will be prolonged in time, will only end if it is determined that our guerrilla structures have been the object of an attack by the military." If the Colombian military does not reverse its current position, in other words, the ceasefire could be fleeting at best.
Facing increasing domestic pressure from right-wing opponents and his military, President Santos stated as recently as Tuesday that "the power of the military offensive will continue until will be bring an end to this conflict." Santos, having repeatedly turned down FARC requests for a bilateral ceasefire, has yet to respond to the ceasefire announcement. Government peace talks spokesmen contacted for this article were unavailable for comment.
"I don't think they can call off the military completely unless they get more clarity from the FARC about what 'hostilities' mean," Adam Isacson, senior Colombia expert at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), told VICE.
During last winter's unilateral ceasefire, independent observers confirmed that, with some minor exceptions, the FARC leadership was able to rein in its various guerrilla fronts. Throughout talks, human rights groups have denounced the FARC's continued use of land mines, child recruits, terrorist attacks on infrastructure, and other controversial tactics. As Isaacson points out, "It's so hard to verify if those kind of 'hostilities' are being carried out or not."
Thus far, FARC and government negotiating teams have agreed on three of six formal agenda items, including rural development, drug production, and political participation. Still left to discuss are victims reparation, disarmament, and a broader peace agreement. Currently, the talks have centered around "de-escalating" conflict violence and hearing from victims groups.
The Colombian armed conflict has claimed over 220,000 lives and displaced almost 6 million people. The majority of human rights violations have been committed by right-wing paramilitary groups allied with the government. Neo-paramilitary successor groups formed following the paramilitary demobilization of the early 2000s are still the greatest victimizers in the conflict.
The latest victims group to travel to Havana asked both sides for "acts of peace." To that end, the rebels are calling on the government to respond in kind to their unilateral ceasefire.
"No more circus, no more exhibitions of uncontrolled force," reads the rebel statement. "No more paying debts with the sacrifice of other people's lives."
Steven Cohen is a freelance journalist based out of Colombia and former editor of Colombia Reports.