The world’s eyes may have been trained on the World Cup this weekend, but a different heated contest also took place in South America on Sunday night. In Colombia, incumbent president Juan Manuel Santos, who has made “peace” talks with leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas the center of his campaign, was reelected in a runoff. He defeated his assertive challenger, Oscar Ivan Zuluaga, a staunch opponent of the negotiations, by a margin of 51 to 45 percent.
On paper, there were striking similarities between the two candidates. Both represent center-right parties, and both are economists by trade. They also served for a time in the same presidential administration, that of Alvaro Uribe, who was president from 2002 to 2010. From 2006 to 2009, Santos was defense minister; from 2007 to 2010, Zuluaga was the minister for finance and public credit. Generally speaking, the two candidates were in broad agreement over how to manage Colombia’s economy. The race, instead, was essentially a referendum on Santos’s conciliatory policies towards the FARC guerillas, or, in unfortunate popular parlance, the FARC “rebels.” (To call them mere “rebels” romanticizes them and obscures what they really are: terrorists, who have kidnapped and killed civilians by the thousands.)
Strangely, Santos had long been tough on FARC; when he was defense minister, the Colombian government initiated a number of aggressive moves against the terrorists, including the famous campaign that liberated the kidnapped French-Colombian politician Ingrid Betancourt and some 14 additional hostages. When he was elected president in 2010, Santos continued to take the fight to the guerillas, and under his leadership, the Colombian military succeeded in killing some of the group’s most notorious terrorist leaders. But in 2012, Santos reversed course and initiated unconditional talks, which have been taking place in fits and starts over the past two years in Havana. Santos also pursued a rapprochement with the leftist government of Venezuela, which had long backed the guerillas.
There are six primary matters that Santos hopes to hash out in his final settlement with the guerillas. So far, they’ve agreed to deals on three: land and rural development, drug trafficking (which FARC says it will end), and the future political participation of the guerillas. Remaining to be hammered out are agreements on the rights of the victims of FARC terrorism, disarmament, and the implementation of the agreement itself. Achieving a settlement won’t be easy. Nonetheless, Santos is bullish on the talks. FARC “has agreed to follow the rules of democracy,” he said last fall.
It is the future of these peace talks on which the election hinged. Santos vowed to continue his overtures, and made “peace” – or his version of it - the slogan of his campaign. Zuluaga, by contrast, ran as a staunch opponent of Santos’s gentle approach to FARC. While not against the possibility of talks per se, Zuluaga advocated much more stringent conditions on the terrorists – in particular, that they renounce violence and dispose of their large cache of weaponry before talks could proceed. (There are still nearly 10,000 FARC fighters, and they continue to control a vast arsenal.)
Zuluaga’s tough position on the “peace” talks gained him an interesting backer: former President Uribe, Santos and Zuluaga’s old boss, who is now a senator and still a wildly popular political figure in Colombia. Uribe loudly endorsed Zuluaga, arguing that “future generations will be pained by the current weakness of negotiations with terrorists.” But apparently Uribe’s endorsement wasn’t enough to overcome Santos’s strong support from the organized Left, particularly trade unions. These organized supporters numbered about a million – enough to provide Santos with his margin of victory. (The candidates were separated by about 900,000 votes.) But Santos knew that it was the peace talks that really mattered when it came to voting time. “This is the end of more than 50 years of violence in our county,” Santos boasted at his victory rally Sunday night.
Maybe. But it’s important to bear in mind the character of the guerillas that Santos is dealing with. For 50 years FARC has trafficked in narcotics, as well as kidnapped and murdered thousands of innocent civilians. All told, more than 200,000 people have been killed in the conflict. There are serious questions as to whether it is wise to allow people like that into positions of power without them serving any form of punishment. As Zuluaga put it during the campaign, “Those who have committed crimes against humanity must of course pay a punishment. They cannot be rewarded with political representation.” To do otherwise is to set a very dangerous precedent indeed.
Moreover, one must remember that the last time that a Colombian government pursued peace talks with FARC, from 1999 to 2002, the strategy backfired terribly. At that time, the Colombian government granted the guerillas control over an area the size of Switzerland, which they proceeded to use as a launching pad for vicious attacks on Colombian society. FARC also used the newfound territory to vastly expand their drug production and smuggling operations, and to build up their supply of weaponry. In sum, FARC guerillas are not people who have shown that they can be trusted – and they were only strengthened and emboldened the last time the Colombian government pursued “peace.”
The irony is, things had been going quite well for Colombia after the 2002 debacle. Under Uribe’s leadership, the country became adept at attracting foreign investment and exploiting the country’s bountiful natural resources, particularly crude oil. Colombia also vigorously pursued free-trade deals. Santos, thankfully, has left Uribe’s economic policies more or less intact, and consequently, throughout Santos’s first four-year term, Colombia averaged impressive 4.7 percent annual economic growth. Inflation, long a scourge of Latin American economies, is now running at a healthy 1.9 percent. This, of course, is occurring in a region not known for particularly stellar economic management – indeed, the contrast with economically sputtering Brazil, Argentina, and, most prominently, Venezuela is notable. But a failed deal with FARC, one that either pulls the country leftward or that renews violence, could see those gains slip away.
Still, with his electoral mandate in hand, Santos will press ahead with unconditional peace talks in the months ahead. Colombians should hope they don’t backfire. While the Colombian national soccer team did win its match against Greece this weekend, if President Santos is not careful, the country could be in for a profound defeat in the coming years.
Jaime Daremblum, who served as Costa Rica’s ambassador to the United States from 1998 to 2004, is director of the Center for Latin American Studies at the Hudson Institute.