Cautious optimism swept Colombia on Friday as leaders of as many as 12,000 Marxist rebels unexpectedly embraced a peace proposal unveiled by President Ernesto Samper's 3-month-old government.
Authorities said a first round of talks could begin in February or March aimed at ending South America's oldest war.
"This opportunity could well be the last in many years to put an end in a peaceful and honorable way to the fratricidal struggle that has done so much harm to Colombia," Atty. Gen. Orlando Vasquez said as he offered to serve as a mediator in future talks.
A spokesman in Mexico for the largest rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, said the organization welcomed the government's peace initiative.
Colombian governments have been at war for 30 years with the FARC, the National Liberation Army, or ELN, and other smaller groups.
Every government in the last decade has tried and failed to make peace with the rebels. Officials said the reason for optimism now lies in Samper's decision to take an approach that is radically different from previous administrations.
In outlining his proposal, Samper said he will negotiate before a cease-fire is established. And, in a departure from the last government's austere free-market economic policies, Samper is emphasizing land redistribution and a large spending program for housing, health and education.
In addition, Samper vowed to rein in human rights violations by the military and right-wing paramilitary squads that have been blamed for hundreds of political killings in recent years.
"The peace process that we will begin to prepare is directed at bringing a conclusive end to the war," Samper said in his peace proposal speech in Cauca, one of Colombia's most conflict-ridden states. "Colombians should be warned that while the peace process lasts, acts of violence will continue to occur."
The previous administration of President Cesar Gaviria signed agreements with three rebel organizations, encompassing more than 3,000 guerrillas, and convoked a constitutional assembly to address political participation and other issues raised by the rebels.
But Gaviria's attempts at reconciliation with the two largest groups broke down over cease-fire violations. After a failed round of talks in Mexico in 1992, warfare resumed.
After Gaviria's neo-liberal policies, which critics said deepened poverty for millions of Colombians, the Samper government is emphasizing social investment that appeals to the guerrilla groups.
In addition to increased spending on social programs, the new government is committed to distributing more than 1 million hectares of land to poor farmers.
Given their growing sense of international isolation in an increasingly non-Communist world, the guerrillas may now be willing to settle for an expansion of these policies rather than an all-out socialist solution, analysts say.
A tougher stand on human rights abuses is also directed at gaining the guerrillas' trust.
FARC formed a legal political party, the Union Patriotica, during a truce in the mid-1980s, only to watch hundreds of its members assassinated by death squads in subsequent years.
Samper has said he is placing human rights offices in all military garrisons and is pushing through Congress approval of the Second Geneva Protocol on treatment of civilians, prisoners and wounded in time of war.
He is considering asking the Red Cross to verify whether human rights are being respected in regions of conflict and has asked the guerrillas for a similar commitment to international conventions.
"The Samper government has accepted that there is a very real problem with human rights and has made an important political decision to eradicate those violations," said Daniel Garcia Pena, a member of the government's peace commission.
"That and a unilateral commitment to crack down on paramilitary groups as part of a larger policy on private security groups and gun control are indications to the guerrillas that the government is speaking seriously to their concerns."
There is no guarantee that the guerrillas will follow through with the peace process in the long run.
FARC runs a profitable business in cocaine and heroin smuggling, and ELN is heavily involved in the businesses of kidnaping and extortion, especially against the oil industry.
That means that guerrillas legally re-entering society could not necessarily expect to live as well as they have illegally, analysts say.
But with significant increases in terrorist acts, kidnaping and theft this year, the Samper government seems desperate for a global solution to its criminal problem. It is trying to work out political arrangements for guerrillas and judicial ones for drug traffickers.
The country's largest business associations have also been receptive, offering to set up a fund to help the guerrillas return to civilian life.
Given that degree of flexibility from key elements of Colombian society, the guerrillas may now have a unique window of opportunity they cannot afford to pass up, analysts said.