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Nasty campaign done, Colombia vote hinges on peace

June 13, 2014

BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) — The man who hopes to unseat Juan Manuel Santos as president was seething.

“It’s not possible to respect you. You don’t have the stature,” said Oscar Ivan Zuluaga, close enough to land a punch and looking as if he wanted to, as he confronted Santos in the final televised debate ahead of Sunday’s election.

“Calm down. Calm down,” urged Santos, palms up at his lectern.

Colombia’s nastiest presidential campaign in years has focused largely on a single issue: Santos’ prescription for ending the nation’s half-century-old guerrilla conflict.

The patrician, U.S.-educated incumbent says peace is near after 18 months of slow-going talks in Cuba that he had hoped to wrap up months ago. Zuluaga, a former finance minister who never misses a chance to remind voters of his small-town roots, accuses Santos of selling the country out to an insurgency that is already on the ropes.

The hand-picked candidate of former President Alvaro Uribe, who remains a powerful political player, Zuluaga won the most votes among the five candidates in the election’s first round on May 25.

Zuluaga has set what appear to be impossible conditions for continued peace talks if he wins: The rebels must halt all military activity, and some would essentially have to agree to jail time.

With Colombia’s enduring conflict claiming more than 200,000 lives and stunting an industrious nation’s economic growth, outsiders might think the peacemaker would have an edge.

But this is Colombia, where “peace is a strange land,” says political analyst Leon Valencia, a former National Liberation Army rebel who put down arms two decades ago.

The very prospect of a peace accord has divided the country in half, with most opinion polls calling the race a dead heat.

Uribe and Zuluaga say the peace Santos is negotiating would mean “terrorist murderers” entering Congress. Santos denies he would let war criminals to go unpunished.

The irony is that Santos, first as Uribe’s defense minister and then in his initial two years as president, wielded an increasingly effective U.S.-backed military to badly weaken the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, killing the band’s top leaders and flattening jungle camps with precision airstrikes.

The only Colombian who can take as much credit is Uribe himself, who took Santos’ peace talks as a personal affront and has been wielding Twitter like a Gatling gun against his former defense chief.

Zuluaga’s foes say he is nothing more than a puppet of Uribe, who was elected to the Senate in March and for whom he served as finance minister.

Valencia says Zuluaga’s supporters don’t care. For them, he says, they “like that he is a puppet and not someone who is going to betray Uribe like Santos did.”

This past week, Santos won important endorsements and may have regained some momentum. He got the backing of 80 top business leaders and announced exploratory talks with the National Liberation Army, Colombia’s No. 2 rebel band. The United States and European Union already back his negotiations with the FARC.

On Friday, the brother the FARC commander whose 2011 killing was ordered by Santos publicly endorsed the president and forgave him for the death of Guillermo Leon Saenz, better known by his nom-de-guerre Alfonso Cano.

“This war isn’t good for us,” said Roberto Saenz, a Bogota city councilman.

Santos is opposed by Colombia’s cattle ranchers and palm oil plantation owners, beneficiaries of a deal Uribe made with far-right paramilitaries that dismantled their militias. Large landholders had by then consolidated control over territory that the militias had largely rid of rebels while driving at least 3 million poor Colombians off the lands. They dislike Santos’ peace pact because it would facilitate the return of stolen lands.

One problem for Santos is that the FARC talks have slogged on. The sides have reached framework agreements on agrarian reform, the dismantling of the illegal drug trade and rebel political participation. But analysts including Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue think tank, say Santos could have done better at communicating the gains and building public support.

The peace process also “ranks low on most Colombians’ lists of priorities,” Shifter noted. A Gallup poll early this month found less than 5 percent of respondents to believe the FARC will be the next president’s main problem.

Spreading the benefits of a growing economy is more important to many Colombians. Economic growth averaged 4.5 percent annually during Santos’ four years and 2.5 million jobs were added, Finance Minister Mauricio Cardenas says, but analysts say the president has done little to improve education, health care and infrastructure.

As for Colombia’s conflict, supporters of Uribe want a decisive strongman to finish the job of decimating the FARC, even if his presidency also was marred by scandals — including extra-judicial killings of innocent farmers to boost military body counts, illegal spying on judges and journalists and funneling of agricultural subsidies to well-heeled ranchers..

Sunday’s election isn’t really about Zuluaga and Santos, political scientist Marcela Prieto says. “It is about who fears Uribe versus who fears the FARC.”


Associated Press writers Libardo Cardona and Cesar Garcia contributed to this report.

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