- By José R. CárdenasJose R. Cardenas was acting assistant administrator for Latin America at the U.S. Agency for International Development in the George W. Bush administration.
The results of last Sunday’s first round in Colombia’s presidential elections have dealt a stunning blow to the government’s ongoing peace negotiations with the narco-terrorist Fuerzas Armadas de Revolucionarias Colombiana (FARC). President Juan Manuel Santos, who basked in international acclamation when he announced the opening of talks almost two years ago, was evidently unsuccessful in an obviously more important detail: failing to convince the Colombian people of the merits of negotiations with the guerrilla group that has tormented Colombian society since the mid-1960s.
Santos finished second to challenger, Oscar Zuluaga, a protégé of former President Álvaro Uribe and fierce critic of the FARC talks, who garnered 29.3 percent of the vote to Santos’s 25.7 percent. The runoff will take place June 15.
The vote means fully 75 percent of Colombian voters expressed no confidence in Santos. Certainly there were other factors involved — Colombia’s economy continues to boast solid numbers, so that probably wasn’t one of them — but the peace negotiations were the signature issue in the campaign. And, in this, Santos was deeply wounded by former President Álvaro Uribe’s fierce opposition to the negotiations. Uribe, who is still wildly popular, considered them a betrayal of his legacy by his former Defense Minister Santos.
What happens on June 15 in Colombia still remains just too close to call. A post-first-round poll shows Santos and Zuluaga virtually tied at 38-37 percent, respectively.
Zuluaga, however, received a boost from the endorsement of third-place finisher Marta Lucia Ramirez, who won 15.5 percent. In exchange for her support, Zuluaga agreed to temper his rejection of the FARC talks by adding a series of eminently reasonable conditions to continue them, including that the FARC commit to ending attacks on the population and infrastructure.
That deft move undercuts Santos’s misleading "peace versus war" counter-attack against Zuluaga. It also throws the ball back into the FARC’s court. The group is desperate to keep the talks alive after years of military setbacks that began under Uribe. Frankly, they need the talks more than the government does.
That is how most Colombians see it as well. All Colombians want peace, but their skepticism of FARC motives and aims is well grounded. The terrorist group is reviled in Colombia and it was evidently too much for the people to see them at the table with government negotiators in Cuba no less (that is, when not sunning themselves on yachts in the Caribbean) in talks that have dragged on for 18 months. It is no wonder they said, "no más."
In the eyes of the average Colombian, peace won’t be attained by granting impunity or carving out special political participation for narco-terrorists. It will only come when the FARC admits defeat, is demobilized and disarmed, and when members that have committed human rights abuses are held accountable by the Colombian judicial system. That is not the direction they saw things going in Havana and that explains last Sunday’s first-round vote.
The United States has a decided interest in what happens in Colombia. The American taxpayer has invested some $9 billion there to support that country’s war against drug trafficking and terrorism. It is crucial that the tremendous gains there over the past decade are not threatened by the policy equivalent of a Hail Mary pass. The Obama administration has rightly been cautious about embracing too closely Santos’s outreach to the FARC — and that circumspection has just been vindicated by Colombian voters.