Colombia's Santos squeezed between peace and politics

President Santos' predecessor in Colombia has called him a 'traitor,' attacking FARC peace negotiations, and vowing to sink him at the polls.

Brian Snyder/Reuters/File
Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos speaks at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., September 25, 2013.

Ever since President Juan Manuel Santos announced last year his intention to pursue peace talks with the country’s largest guerrilla group, he’s been under attack from his predecessor and former boss Alvaro Uribe. Over the weekend, Mr. Uribe unveiled his latest weapon in the war: a candidate to face Mr. Santos in the April 25 presidential race.

Óscar Iván Zuluaga, 54, a former mayor, senator, and minister of finance, beat out two rivals to clench the nomination for Uribe’s Democratic Center party. He called himself Uribe’s most loyal pupil and made it clear where he stands on the peace talks taking place in Cuba with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.

“Peace is not in Havana,” he said in his nomination speech. “The national agenda isn’t up for negotiation with the FARC.”

“I have never believed in this [peace] process because it’s based on a mistaken premise,” he told El Tiempo newspaper. “A legitimate state cannot sit down on equal terms with an organization that commits terrorist acts and finances itself through narco-traffic.”

Colombia’s civil conflict has dragged on for almost 50 years, claimed more than 220,000 lives, and forced millions off their land.

During his eight years in power, Uribe — with US military support — seriously weakened the guerrillas and brought normalcy back to swaths of the country that had previously been red zones. Santos was his minister of defense and won the 2010 election with pledges to follow in Uribe’s footsteps.

But Santos’ decision to embrace late Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez — one of Uribe’s bitter foes — and to pursue peace talks turned his one-time advocate into a powerful enemy.

Uribe has called Santos a “traitor,” accused him of being soft on terrorism, and is vowing to sink him at the polls.

Santos is expected to announce his reelection bid in November. If he does, it’s clear that the peace process will be front and center, said Jorge Iván Cuervo, a political analyst at the Externado University in Bogotá.

“On one side we’ll have a candidate [Santos] who says he has to be reelected to guarantee the peace process and on the other we’ll have [Zuluaga] who will say he has to be elected to stop the peace process,” Mr. Cuervo said. “This is going to put a lot of strain and inject a lot of complexity into the negotiations.”

Even without the political noise, talks were far from smooth. The government originally said it hoped to have a deal within a year. That would be this November. But the negotiating committees have only cleared one of the six-points on the peace agenda.

The government accuses the guerrillas of dragging their feet and the FARC say Santos is undermining the process by refusing to sign a cease fire.

“It’s contradictory to say that you’re looking for peace and at the same time, with an exuberant smile, hold up the heads of the rebel leaders that you’re trying to negotiate peace with,” the FARC said in a statement Monday. “Why put salt in wounds that don’t heal easily?”

The nation is also ambivalent about the process, said Javier Restrepo, director of public opinion at the Ipsos Public Affairs polling firm. While the vast majority support the dialogues, they’re wary of granting concessions to FARC leaders such as reduced sentences and the right to participate in politics.

“They want peace but they don’t like the cost of it,” Mr. Restrepo said.

But before Mr. Zuluaga can turn the presidential race into a referendum on the peace deal he has to become a serious contender. Despite decades in public office, he’s relatively obscure. Only 50 percent of people in urban areas know who he is, according to an Ipsos poll from April.

“He’s going to have to build name recognition and that’s not an easy task,” Restrepo said.

Uribe’s backing will help. He’s still one of the most popular figures in the nation — despite being hounded by allegations of corruption and ties to paramilitary gangs. An Ipsos poll from September showed him with an approval rating of 58 percent versus Santos’ 29 percent. His Center Democratic party is asking election authorities permission to use Uribe’s face on the April ballot.

But Uribe has struggled in the past to turn his personal charisma into votes for others.

Other potential rivals could also upset the balance, including former Bogotá mayors Clara Lopez and Enrique Peñalosa; and former guerrilla commander and legislator Antonio Navarro Wolff — all of whom have come out in support of the peace process.

To some extent, Santos will be squeezed between peace and politics. He needs to show the country results but without making concessions that will be used against him on the campaign, trail, said Maribel Vasquez, a researcher at The American University’s Center for Latin American and Latino Studies. The FARC may understand that calculus.

On Sunday, the day after Zuluaga was nominated, the guerrillas released Kevin Scott Sutay, a US veteran they had been holding for four months. In a communiqué, the rebels said it should be seen as an olive branch.

“We hope that this unilateral decision by the FARC — in which we asked for nothing in return — will be positive push for the peace talks,” they said.

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