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Santos: “The key is how much justice can be sacrificed in the name of peace”

The newly re-elected Colombian president discusses the continuation of the FARC talks

Juan Manuel Santos, the newly re-elected president of Colombia
Juan Manuel Santos, the newly re-elected president of ColombiaREUTERS

Juan Manuel Santos wants to be the Colombian president who signed a peace deal with the country’s guerrillas after five decades of war, millions of people displaced and 220,000 deaths.

His re-election on Sunday guarantees the continuation of the talks that his government began with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrilla movement in November 2012. But two delicate and complex matters remain up in the air: victims and disarmament.

Colombians are very divided over how this peace should be accomplished. Nearly seven million voters backed Santos’ challenger, Oscar Iván Zuluaga, who promised a tougher stance against the guerrillas and warned that Santos would make too many concessions.

Sitting inside his office at the Nariño House presidential palace, Santos spoke to EL PAÍS about his vision for the next four years.

One of the hurdles was the fact that FARC members considered themselves victims and not executioners”

Question. How do you assess your re-election? What are your priorities right now?

Answer. My campaign was based on the need to continue and successfully complete the peace process, in the face of a campaign that claimed that this was not the most convenient roadmap. It was also based on continued reforms to our economic model, to the social aspects of it. The results tell us that the nation agrees with both proposals: peace and social progress. Our priority is adding momentum to the peace process and introducing additional reforms.

Q. Nearly half of all people who voted did not vote for you, and half of all registered voters did not even vote. How are you going to bring together such a polarized country?

A. Just like any leader brings his country together when he takes office: by considering himself the president of all Colombians, not just of one sector. There is a polarization at certain levels and in certain leaders, but I am convinced that if people who voted for Óscar Iván Zuluaga are given correct information about, say, the peace process, they will immediately support it. But they were exposed to a dirty war, to a bunch of lies. They were told that we were handing the country over to the communists, to the Castro-Chávez supporters; they were told that we would reduce the army to the bare minimum; they even said that the police would come under the orders of the FARC. That scared more than one person.

People were told that we were handing the country over to the communists”

Q. What is this peace without impunity that you are promising? What exactly do you mean?

A. That for the first time, the victims are going to be at the heart of the solution to the conflict, and that we are going to respect their rights within the framework of a transitional justice. This justice determines that the victims have the right to the truth, to reparation, to justice, and to not have the crimes committed against them repeated. This guarantees that there will be no impunity, an accusation I’ve been dealing with for the last three years. That is categorically impossible. First, because a week ago the victims were recognized by the FARC, for the first time in history. This means that their rights are going to be respected by the other party, and that paves the way for a deal. Also, our own Constitution and international treaties signed by Colombia do not allow us to conduct the kinds of amnesties we had in the past, where the slate was wiped clean.

Q. Many people do not understand what transitional justice is, but they do understand that FARC chief Timochenko is going to sit in Congress, a message that was conveyed by supporters of former president Álvaro Uribe, who took a tough stance against the guerrillas. Did something fail in the way you explained the negotiations to the Colombian people?

A. The lies left a mark on a lot of people with the message that we were going to hand the country over to communism and that the FARC was going to be in charge of the police. Now that we’ve won, it will be easier to combat the lies. We are going to be more proactive in the search for peace and I will intensify my own role in this process.

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Q. People are wondering if there are going to be prison terms for the guerrillas. You once said in a debate that there would be convictions for individuals responsible for crimes against humanity.

A. Yes, but there are different definitions of prison. That’s what’s being negotiated right now. But that is a secondary issue compared with the general process. Some individuals have chosen to focus on certain aspects of the process in order to scare people. Peace is much more than the definition of what prison is or isn’t. Peace is no more killing, no more victims, no more pain in a country that has suffered so much in the last 50 years.

Q. The negotiation will address the topic of the victims. What is the most complicated part of it?

A. One of the hurdles was the fact that FARC members considered themselves victims and not executioners. But that all changed when they recognized their victims 10 days ago. This is an extremely important step in the solution to the conflict. Now we can move on to victims’ rights, a truth commission and to establishing what happened. And to justice: how much justice can be sacrificed in the name of peace. That is the crux of the problem. I hope to find a reasonable balance for the Colombian people, who will ultimately accept this.