The Colombian president, Juan Manuel Santos, is now embarking on the decisive play of his mandate. The one which ruined the presidency of Andrés Pastrana (1998-2002); which circumstances made impossible in that of Ernesto Samper (1994-98); and which Álvaro Uribe (2002-10) also tried, though now he opposes it.
This play is the negotiation of peace with the guerrilla movement FARC - once sincerely communist, but now chiefly a drug racket. Meanwhile it revives the quarrel between Santos and Uribe about Venezuela's future. On the one hand, conciliation with her neighbors, political solution to a conflict that has smoldered for 50 years, and desire for re-election, in Santos' case: on the other, military victory over the guerrillas, alignment in ultraconservative positions on the international scene, and undoubted desire to make a presidential comeback, in that of Uribe.
Early this year, two FARC militants showed up in Bogotá, expressing the FARC's interest in "pre-talks." In the rich Colombian political language the word negotiation, and the like, can be modified at will by the addition of prepositions, prefixes, suffixes, augmentatives and diminutives.
Santos, who since his inauguration in 2010 has said that the end of the conflict must have a political character, took up the challenge. And for weeks or months there have been contacts in Havana - which, in talks with violent political movements, is like an international convention center - to decide whether to move on from the "pre" stage to actual negotiations, an idea also supported by Hugo Chávez. The probable emissaries of Santos, Frank Pearl, environment minister, and Sergio Jaramillo, security advisor, are trying to establish with their surly interlocutors a set agenda, and a division into areas for discussion.
The FARC's demands are as ill-defined as the territory it controls
The FARC's demands are as ill-defined as the territory it controls. Agrarian reform, but no one knows how much reform and how many farmers it will affect - it is hard to say if Santos is strong enough to impose a redistribution of land, even if only to return to the peasants those lands they lost in the war; a leading role for "civic movements," meaning the left in general; an affirmative policy in environmental protection, and a recovery of sovereignty in dealings with the multinationals concerning mineral rights. This last demand reflects recent developments on the Bolivarian front: Venezuela, Ecuador, sometimes Argentina and, in pre-Columbian mode, Evo Morales in Bolivia.
Ernesto Samper is cautiously in favor: "There is a convergence which allows of reasonable optimism." Most of the political forces favor the project, with the important exception of the adherents of Uribe, numerous in the Liberal party and more so in the Conservative, who see it as criminal treason to their idea of Colombia.
The struggle between the president and his predecessor will be seriously affected by whatever comes of this tentative for peace, which has to fail if Uribe is to emerge with any face at all, especially in view of the legal entanglements that loom on his horizon. General Mauricio Santoyo, who was his security chief, is facing trial in the United States, with a good chance that he may soon be looking at a lengthy jail sentence for collusion with the other terrorists, those of the paramilitary persuasion. And it would seem odd indeed if a president who micromanaged everything that went on in his administration, and liked to say that he had every little detail under control, were to know nothing of what his close military sidekick was doing.
The incommodious life the FARC lead in the jungle, together with their probable conviction that they cannot win - largely thanks to Uribe - work in favor of negotiation; but their pretension to retain their ill-gained resources rules out the possibility of middle and upper-echelon leaders, at least, being willing to face trial. This is the great risk to which Santos is exposed: the president who, with intelligent moderation, has coined the slogan: peace is victory.