When Frank Pearl watches Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and Rodrigo "Timochenko" Londono, the leader of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), sign a peace agreement Monday in Cartagena, it will be the culmination of more than seven years of work to cultivate hope over the suspicion and anger sown from half a century of war.
It was Mr. Pearl, a Colombian-Canadian, who was tasked with sending the first secret messages from the government to the infamous guerrilla organization in an effort to try to start a peace process. It has consumed his life, through clandestine meetings in tiny country towns and four years of marathon negotiating sessions in Havana.
With the signing of the agreement, set for 5 p.m. local time, the FARC ceases to exist as an armed movement and becomes a political party. Its estimated 17,000 fighters are to collect at a handful of points in the country, turn over their weapons, and begin a process of integration and job training. The FARC will send members to guaranteed seats in Congress, while a series of special courts will decide on reparations from those found guilty of crimes against humanity, after they fully disclose to a truth commission. The FARC has pledged to end its involvement in narco-trafficking, a business it currently controls in Colombia.
The government agrees in the Havana Accord to carry out an aggressive campaign of rural development and reform land distribution, to address some of the inequities that the FARC says drove it to take up arms 52 years ago.
The deal that lays this all out is 297 pages long. Its length reflects the lack of trust on both sides – everything had to be spelled out, Mr. Pearl said, although the long years of talks helped both sides know each other better.
"Because we come from different worlds, we need to be open to listening and not thinking that our view of the country or the world is the only one that is valid and is the only one that is correct – because this is not about being correct, this is about finding a solution for the good of most people," he said.
"So, yes, in those conversations you begin to know the human being behind the role that everybody plays, and in those conversations you can also try to understand their dreams, their fears. By learning their stories, you understand why they have behaved in such a way – although it does not mean that we justify that."
Mr. Pearl, 54, has first-hand experience of the guerrillas: his wife's grandfather was kidnapped, and she was also targeted.
But he has long been active in the public campaign for peace. His grandmother made her way to Canada as a young woman, seeking better opportunities than Colombia offered in the early 20th century. She married a Canadian and had a son, but the marriage didn't last, and she came home to Colombia. Mr. Pearl's father grew up in Colombia, but maintained his ties to Canada, and sent each of his five children to study there. He earned an MBA from the Ivy School of Business at the University of Western Ontario and was on his way to work for McKinsey and Co. in Toronto when he heard the consulting firm was starting an office in Bogota – and he made the choice to come home, feeling his skills were most urgently needed in the country.
He spent years building a prominent private-sector career that led, one day, to a pro bono consulting job with the first lady's office – and that, in turn, led to an introduction to then-president Alvaro Uribe.
Mr. Uribe is best known for launching an aggressive effort to end the FARC problem through military means – and for his passionate opposition to the peace deal being signed Monday. But back in 2009, he asked Mr. Pearl to take on the job of running a program to reintegrate demobilized paramilitary fighters, and then made him his High Commissioner for Peace.
Mr. Pearl sought the opportunity to initiate secret talks with the FARC – and Mr. Uribe gave him the go-ahead. Mr. Pearl and his team studied Colombia's previous failed attempts to make peace with the guerrillas and made some rules: they had to have neighbouring countries on board (because it's impossible to negotiate peace when the rebels have safe haven next door); the military must be at the negotiating table, because they would not trust or enforce any deal negotiated without their involvement; and the process should be conducted in public but outside Colombia to minimize distractions.
Mr. Pearl began by using a go-between – a businessman who had grown up with a key FARC leader – to send secret messages to the guerrillas, and used the occasion of humanitarian actions such as the release of hostages, facilitated by Brazil and the International Committee of the Red Cross, to send letters back and forth.
By early 2010, they had a secret meeting planned in Brazil, whose government had promised to guard the FARC's security. But days before they were to meet, it all fell apart when Mr. Uribe and then-Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez severed relations. The FARC released a letter online saying it would not talk to the Uribe government; Mr. Pearl says his team concluded that Mr. Chavez was behind it, reluctant to lose the regional leverage he had if a peace process started without his involvement.
In June, Mr. Santos, was elected. He had been Mr. Uribe's defence minister, charged with the war on the FARC, and he talked tough about the guerrillas in the campaign. But he called Mr. Pearl on his second day in office, asking what was going on with peace talks – and asking him to maintain them. He moved swiftly to repair relations with Mr. Chavez, knowing he would be key to peace.
Mr. Pearl, meanwhile, left Colombia to earn a masters in public administration at Harvard University – but he flew back for meetings in secret all that year, not even telling his parents that he was in Colombia. He took late-night flights from Bogota to tiny towns, drove for an hour or two, met until 4 a.m. with a guerrilla emissary, and then reversed the journey. "Because that's the way you have to do it, it keeps it secret."
When the first meeting was finally set, in 2012, it happened in Cuba – the country where the FARC leadership felt safest, and, Mr. Pearl said, a country that was seeking a way to shift its image in the region.
In parallel to his work with the FARC, Mr. Pearl had also been tasked with initiating secret talks with the National Liberation Army (ELN), a second, smaller leftist guerrilla movement, and in January of 2014, they agreed to a first secret meeting in Ecuador. Those talks progressed – Mr. Pearl once spent three weeks in the Brazilian Amazon in clandestine negotiations with the ELN – and when he wasn't with the ELN, he was back on a plane to Havana.
The four years of public talks in Cuba were difficult, he says, but the public ones are in some ways the easy part. The tougher days were the ones in small rooms across the table from the government's sworn enemies. "In a secret phase, you are in the middle of a war and you sit down in a small room face to face and you talk about everything and even nasty things are said at those tables – it's very, very hard, it's very difficult," he said, rubbing reflexively at his face at the memory. "And if you stand up and walk out, you know that the conflict is going to go on without a political cost for any of the parties, because it's secret."
Colombians will vote in a national plebiscite on Oct. 2 on whether to accept the Havana Accord – current polls show the Yes side significantly ahead. Then the real work begins, said Mr. Pearl, trying to transform a sharply polarized country where divisions have only been deepened by the debate over the peace deal.
"The agreement with the FARC is going to be challenging, it's going to be difficult, but it's a tiny part of our challenges," he said. "We have a country in which three out of 10 citizens are poor, we have a justice system that doesn't work, a country where the economy is informal and linked to criminality. That's what keeps me up at night, not the FARC."
But he feels the country changing in ways that make him optimistic. "I think the younger generations are more generous than we have been and they are more aware of social issues, public issues and environmental issues," he said. "And that's why in part I have a lot of hope."
Mr. Pearl's role in the Havana process ends Sept. 30. He plans to take his three daughters to school each day, and to be there to pick them up, for the first time in their lives.
Oh, and to continue to talk to that other rebel faction waging war on the state, to persuade them to lay down their arms, as well. "I am not so pessimistic about us being able to solve that issue after Oct. 2," Mr. Pearl said with a smile.