Why President Santos is putting his place in Colombian history at risk

The generalized viewpoint among Uribe’s followers is that peace will not be achieved by negotiating with “a bunch of terrorists”

FARC delegates offer a press conference in Havana, on March 21.
FARC delegates offer a press conference in Havana, on March 21.STR (AFP)

The Colombian author José Eustasio Rivera wrote in his classic novel ‘La Vorágine’ (translated into English as ‘The Vortex’) that the main character in the story “staked his life on violence and lost it.” Juan Manuel Santos is gambling with something just as valuable as life, if not more so: his place in history, his ability to end the violence that has been tearing the Colombian nation apart for more than half a century.

November 19, 2012 marked the beginning of the visible part of a tense, protracted drama: the peace talks with the FARC guerrillas in Havana. These negotiations have self-confidently been defined in the following convoluted terms: “General agreement for the termination of the conflict and the construction of a stable, lasting peace,” as though a happy ending were assured. But closer inspection reveals that this headline conceals two very different goals: the end of the conflict, meaning an end to hostilities, and establishing peace, which does not necessarily ensue from the former achievement.

The month of February was relatively ill-fated for President Santos: social protests were intensifying, the government’s economic policies were raising serious questions; people’s perception of public security was deteriorating; former president Álvaro Uribe was going up and down the country thundering – and tweeting – against talks that the public was starting to view with growing skepticism; and to top it all off, there was a noticeable fall in the president’s popularity ratings. As Jorge Restrepo wrote in Semana, it was “the perfect storm.”

The three major questions that Colombians would like to know the answers to right now are: 1) Whether a peace deal will be signed; this is probably a necessary condition for Santos’s re-election, and it would exorcize the idea, defended by some, that violence is part of the country’s DNA. 2) Whether the success or failure of the negotiations will end up being favorable to President Santos or his predecessor Uribe, in a war that has reached extreme verbal violence. 3) If peace should prevail, whether public opinion will accept the impunity with which many guerrilla members would return to political life, even those with blood on their hands.

There will not be a winner, but two leaders who have lost points before History"

Claudia López, a journalist and political scientist who makes superhuman efforts to keep a balanced distance from both the president and his great foe, puts the matter in terms that seem to coincide with the fears of many Colombians: “Peace will not be signed in Cuba, only the end of war. That is the bare minimum condition to spend the rest of our lives building peace.” This is the gulf that polarizes political life in Colombia. “Santismo,” a sentiment that is still gelling, and “Uribismo,” unyielding and non-transferable, continue to take aim at each other while the battered body of Colombia lies at their feet.

Marta Lucía Ramírez, who hopes to be the conservative party’s presidential candidate (while remaining in the shadow of Uribe, who cannot run personally for constitutional reasons) criticizes the confrontation itself: “There will not be a winner, but two leaders who have lost points before History. Colombia needs a government whose priority is institutionality, a government that guarantees the rule of law.” For the woman who was defense minister under Uribe, peace is not so much a signature as a project: “There will only be peace when we have a state where the most important things are the safety of all Colombians, justice, law and education.”

The generalized viewpoint among Uribe’s followers is that peace will not be achieved by negotiating with “a bunch of terrorists,” and the most impassioned critic of what he himself calls “the deceit and treason perpetrated by power” is Pacho Santos, who was Uribe’s vice-president and is now a wannabe presidential contender, just like Marta Lucía Ramírez and half-a-dozen other hopefuls. “There will be an agreement, but there will be no peace,” he says, forecasting a schism within FARC, the guerrilla group that was once Marxist and which these days aids and abets the drug trade while taking home its own cut. “Drug traffickers need strong cover, and they can recruit FARC elements that refuse to accept peace.”

Speaking from a position that is meticulously distant from both extremes, Roberto Pombo, editor of Colombia’s most important daily, El Tiempo, agrees that a deal will be signed, but that “the drug trade will continue to generate violence,” an opinion that is shared by his most outstanding competitor, Fidel Cano, editor of El Espectador, the great newspaper of Bogotá.

There will only be peace when we have a state where the most important things are the safety of all Colombians"

But why does the signing of a peace accord seem relatively feasible? Alfredo Molano, a political scientist and a specialist in linguistic folklore, explains it with great conviction: “There will be peace, but it will be the peace of the defeated. All the war strategies, all the state strategies and all the guerrilla strategies have failed. The FARC has a generation of leaders who are more cityfolk than countryfolk, and in the armed forces the chiefs are also more professional, and they were not trained during the Cold War.” The most widely accepted view is that since Uribe’s double mandate (2002-2010) the guerrilla group has been in constant retreat. Former president Ernesto Samper, leader of the liberal party and these days closely associated to Santos – although he always maintained good relations with Uribe – gives the former president credit for the fight against the insurgency and adds: “The FARC know that this could be their last chance to achieve a political end to the conflict.” Lastly, the historian Jorge Orlando Melo sums it up dramatically: “The FARC know that if they don’t sign, they will die in the jungle.” The Uruguayan-Colombian analyst Laura Gil agrees that the guerrilla’s fate is sealed.

On Thursday, Uribe Vélez posted a message on Twitter warning of “the imminent announcement” of a preliminary agreement in Havana “with the narco-criminals” on the issue of land restitution and agrarian reform. And it seems clear that if there is an agreement, the face-off between the leader from Antioquia and the president will end favorably for the latter. Pacho Santos, in Colombian-establishment style (he is first cousin to Juan Manuel Santos) wrote in the Medellín-based publication El Colombiano: “[The president] is trying to keep up the fiction that he is preserving Uribe’s legacy, when all Colombians know and feel that he has betrayed the ideas that got him elected.” It is true that Juan Manuel Santos won the 2010 elections by depicting himself as Uribe’s heir apparent, while Uribe, displaying exacerbated optimism, chose to see in his successor a clone of himself, almost a presidential delegate. But Santos quickly proceeded to ‘de-uribize” himself with all the determination of someone cleansing themselves of a contaminating substance. Just 48 hours after taking his oath of office, Santos began a “brotherly” diplomatic thaw with Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez – who passed away on March 5 – paving the way for the talks in Havana under the patriarchal eye of Castroism; he re-established lucrative trade relations for Bogotá, which these days feed around half of Venezuelans; he abandoned the agreement to maintain seven US military bases on Colombian soil; and he proclaimed himself a diplomatic mediator for Latin American conflicts; in short, he displayed behavior that was at the opposite end of the spectrum of the rigidity shown by his predecessor and inherited from the days of the Cold War.

The editor of Colombia’s most important daily, says that a deal will be signed, but that “the drug trade will continue to generate violence

The dispute could be compared to a middle-distance race. Alfredo Molano believes that “if Santos manages to get the signatures before the elections – the president wants to do so before November – Uribe would emerge greatly weakened. And the FARC are willing to favor the victory of “Santismo” in exchange for some flexibility at the negotiating table.” Oscar Collazos, a Barcelona-based novelist of Colombian descent, is even convinced that “peace would intensify the confrontation, because the implementation of the agreements in the countryside and the legal framework for the political participation of the guerrillas” would create a friction that many foresee as intolerable. Everything is at the “let’s see” stage, notes the independent journalist María Teresa Ronderos: “If the negotiations break down, we shouldn’t underestimate Uribe’s ability to resuscitate politically.”

The former president’s great argument in this war within a war is that the nation cannot tolerate the impunity with which not just insurgent leaders but the vast majority of anonymous guerrilla assassins would return to the fold of civilian life. Pacho Santos proves to be his leader’s best test pilot: “A small part of the country reluctantly accepts [this impunity]. And the cost for the government will be immense, because it had always asserted that there would be no impunity.”

Marta Lucía Ramírez is even more forceful: “It is impossible for society to accept that nobody is going to jail.” Truth is, even the FARC know that somebody will have to take the fall.

Pombo, the journalist, adopts a view that could be described as critical realism: “If violence dwindled noticeably, public opinion would accept the necessary dose of impunity.” Meanwhile, the historian Melo says that “in order to disarm, the FARC will have to obtain some degree of impunity, as well as material resources for social change.” Former president Samper, while admitting that “the public is not prepared to assimilate impunity,” adds that “it is so sensitive to the need for peace that it would understand the application of formulas of transitional justice,” which, in the inexhaustible field of Colombian lawmaking, means convictions that are handed down but not served. Anything goes, or just about, like Molano says: “Faced between the shedding of blood and forgiveness, the people will eventually yield and support some flexibility to end the war.” On a different note of legal reflection, Professor Pedro Medellín, a resident of Spain, is the only source who said that there can be no impunity because “Colombia signed the Rome Treaty – which excludes such arrangements – and victim reparation is essential to the peace process.”

Ernesto Samper is certain that with an agreement on the agrarian issue, 30 percent of the negotiation is concluded, and therefore Santos will have taken an important step toward re-election, which nobody doubts he desires even if he acts like he needs to be asked twice. Even the canonical left as represented by Jorge Robledo (also, in best Colombian fashion, a leading member of the establishment) makes a point of criticizing Santos just as much as Uribe, yet it must certainly prefer a victory by the incumbent because its party, Polo Democrático Alternativo, would view a victory by Uribe’s people as a step back in the modernization of the country.

The dispute could be compared to a middle-distance race

But Juan Manuel Santos, aware that the public’s patience is not infinite, recently brought together his 16 ministers, high-ranking officials as well as his wife, María Clemencia Rodríguez, in Hatogrande to entreat them to, as the trendiest Bogotá dwellers would say, “reset” their relations with public opinion. The president told them that this was “a time to build, not to divide and sow the pessimism of some people who remain mired in the past, selling us a Colombia that’s condemned to another 50 years of violence.” It is easy to guess who he was referring to. What he promises in return is a country that will be “Justo, Moderno y Seguro (Fair, Modern and Safe), a phrase whose Spanish acronym, JSM, coincides with – guess whose initials?

The most Spanish of Colombia’s journalists (and most Colombian of Spain’s), Daniel Samper, who is brother to Ernesto – in the Colombian establishment, everyone is a friend or a relative – defines the Santos-Uribe conflict like an incurable cyst in history, and says it will not conclude until “one of the two reaches the count of 10 lying flat inside the ring.”

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