Can Santos Finally Make Peace in Colombia?

Can Santos Finally Make Peace in Colombia?

After one of the nastiest presidential campaigns in recent memory, Colombians savored a few moments of civility on Sunday night, when they reelected President Juan Manuel Santos to a second four-year term. Santos’s notably inclusive victory speech — replete with references to Pope Francis, the late Colombian icon Gabriel García Márquez, and the nation’s convincing World Cup win the day before — followed gracious remarks by his defeated opponent, Óscar Iván Zuluaga. Santos’s challenger had topped a field of five candidates in the first round on May 25, but lost by a margin of nearly six points to Santos in the run-off vote.

But the "feel good" post-electoral atmosphere proved ephemeral. Shortly after the candidates delivered their respective speeches, former president Álvaro Uribe, who had handpicked Zuluaga to represent his Democratic Center party in the election, weighed in. He sharply attacked Santos, accusing him of the "worst corruption in history." His catalogue of charges included vote-buying, illegal campaign ads, and other alleged abuses that essentially stem from the advantages of incumbency.

Of course, for Uribe — who takes a seat in the Colombian Senate next month, just weeks before Santos is inaugurated on August 7 — the vote was a resounding defeat. In fact, Santos’s success in his uphill battle for reelection can in part be attributed to making the second round a referendum on the confrontational, polarizing, anything-goes style politics of his immediate, two-term predecessor.

Even some Colombians grateful to Uribe for weakening rebel groups and reasserting state authority during his eight years in office feared the possible costs of a restoration of his rule behind the figure of Zuluaga. They worried that, with the strong-willed and relentless Uribe back in the driver’s seat, democratic institutions would suffer and relations with their neighbors — which had improved over the past four years — would once again be strained. (There is little question that the rest of Latin America, along with the United States and Europe, were quietly cheering on Santos.)

It is tempting to ignore Uribe’s antics and conclude that, with just 19 of the country’s 102 senators, his party will not be much of a factor in Colombian politics. After all, Santos will still enjoy a majority in Congress and should be able to carry out his agenda of social reforms. But the former president remains a formidable force, commands a hard-core constituency, and excites the kind of the passions the more aloof Santos does not.  

The country’s divisions, both ideological and geographic — Santos won handily in the capital of Bogotá (where he came in third in the first round) and the coasts, while Zuluaga was strong in the coffee-growing regions and Medellín, Colombia’s second city and Uribe’s hometown — crystallized around the fundamental issue of the peace process with the five-decade FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) insurgency and, announced just last week, the far smaller ELN (National Liberation Army).

For Santos and his supporters, the ongoing negotiations with the FARC in Havana, Cuba, have been the central campaign issue. They view the process as the best way to end the country’s enormously costly internal war. Those who backed Zuluaga and Uribe, meanwhile, insisted on much stricter preconditions (such as ending recruitment of minors and ceasing criminal activity) that would have seriously complicated the talks. The schism is hardly trivial, and boils down to whether Colombia is seen as experiencing an armed conflict that calls for a negotiated solution, or whether it is under threat by a group of terrorists that needs to be subdued.

Santos’s ability to give the peace issue a sharper, more concrete focus and generate enthusiasm — if not for him personally than for the wider cause — helps account for the impressive reversal in the Bogotá battleground from the first to the second round. Most crucially, Santos succeeded in getting support of key, leftist leaders in the capital, including the current mayor Gustavo Petro and especially the popular presidential candidate of the Alternative Democratic Pole (and also former mayor) Clara López Obregón, who had garnered over 15 percent in the first round. Although the left has made it clear that it differs sharply with Santos on an array of economic and social issues, and that it will not give him a blank check during his second term, the prospect for a peace agreement (and fear of Uribe’s return, bringing with it the "war without end") trumped any policy disagreement.

In the final vote, Santos also relied on the activation of what is known in Colombia as "la maquinaria" (the machinery). This consists of a set of political structures — including the principal parties but also unions and business associations — that had backed his reelection bid but had been surprisingly dormant in the first round, perhaps the result of overconfidence. With an economy growing at nearly 5 percent, that complex apparatus, loyal to Santos, was well lubricated. In the end, it got out enough of the vote to make the difference. As the experience in Latin America over the past quarter century has shown, it is difficult to defeat a sitting president at the polls (it has only happened twice since 1990).

In 2010, Santos won with the support of Uribe and the right, but was ferociously accused of "betrayal" as soon as he embarked on a peace process with the FARC and relaxed tensions with the late, populist Venezuelan president, Hugo Chávez. This time, however, he owes his election at least in part to sectors of the left. With their support, however, there is now enormous pressure on Santos to finally negotiate an agreement with the FARC, and possibly the ELN, by the end of year. Expectations are high for him to go full steam ahead, without hesitation.

With the left now in a stronger political position because of the centrality of peace talks, the bargaining power of the FARC has been somewhat enhanced. Critical and thorny questions on the agenda, such as reparations for victims and justice for the FARC’s past crimes, still need to be addressed and resolved. In his victory speech, Santos’s message to the FARC was that they need to negotiate seriously and in good faith — that this was a moment of "decision." This may be their last opportunity to accept a peace deal. The FARC, though, are notoriously hard to predict, and have made more than their share of mistakes in the past.   

Moreover, for Santos the problem is that, by all measures, a significant number of Colombians remain dead-set against what they see as the excessively lenient terms and conditions that could well be negotiated. Santos has promised to submit any final accord to a national referendum or "consulta popular" (what might be regarded as the "third round" of this electoral cycle). His gamble is that, once the agreement is ironed out, most Colombians — eager to see the conflict end and move on in peace — will eventually come around. Whether it will work out the way the government envisions (especially with Uribe in the Senate, pounding away) remains to be seen.

Much is at stake, not only for Colombia but for Latin America and the United States as well. If it succeeds, the peace process could bring to an end to the Western Hemisphere’s only remaining armed conflict. To be sure, expectations should be kept in check. Although it would not mean an immediate end of violence and the drug trade, the effective implementation of wide-ranging accords would give a significant boost, both economically and psychologically, to South America’s second-largest country and Washington’s closest ally on the continent. 

Antonio Navarro Wolff, a respected leftist polit
ical figure and former leader of the M-19 guerrilla group (which demobilized under a 1990 peace agreement), has noted that the decisive factor in every Colombian election since 1998 has been how best to manage the country’s armed conflict. This time, Santos and Zuluaga/Uribe were only too happy to take contrasting positions on that issue.

But, as polls consistently reveal, though Colombians no doubt want the conflict to end, peace is far from their highest priority. Of greater concern are improvements in health, education, crime, and unemployment. For Navarro, the ongoing war has postponed serious consideration of these issues that should be at the forefront of the national debate. He and others, keen to move on, are already looking to 2018.