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This Weekend, Colombia Will Decide How to End 50 Years of Violence

Sunday's presidential runoff election may determine whether the country's brutal 50-year insurgency finally comes to an end.

by Alaa al-Ameri
Jun 13 2014, 12:50pm

Image via Ministerio TIC Colombia

This Sunday, Colombians will vote in the runoff of the closest and most acrimonious presidential election in recent memory. And like any good political spectacle, the election has been punctuated by scandals.

In March, the Colombian news magazine Semana published claims that a political strategist working for incumbent President Juan Manuel Santos had received $12 million from drug lord Javier Antonio Calle Serna in return for help in negotiating favorable terms for Serna's surrender to the Colombian government in 2012. Former Colombian president Álvaro Uribe — who supports Santos's challenger, Óscar Iván Zuluaga — then made his own potentially slanderous claim that the political strategist had donated $2 million of that drug money to the Santos campaign.

Scandal in turn struck Zuluaga when one of his campaign workers was arrested for hacking Santos email correspondence and eavesdropping on the ongoing peace talks between the Santos government and the Marxist narco-terrorist group FARC. Although Zuluaga claimed he didn’t know the young hacker, Semana released video shortly before the first round of voting showing Zuluaga apparently questioning the hacker about Santos’s campaign strategy and the peace talks.

Sunday’s vote comes at a crucial moment in Colombia’s political and economic history, with the Santos government claiming to have nearly reached a peace agreement with the FARC that would end its violent 50-year insurgency. Much of the public rancor between the two candidates centers on the conduct of these peace talks.

Zuluaga supporters believe Santos is making too many concessions — for starters, he didn't demand a FARC ceasefire as a prerequisite for negotiating — in order to secure his own legacy as the man who ended half a century of armed conflict in Colombia. If he wins on Sunday, Zuluaga has said that he will freeze the talks and impose much more stringent conditions for continued negotiations — including a ceasefire. Zuluaga has effectively accused Santos of selling Colombia out to the FARC, and setting the country on a course that will end in either Cuba-style communism or Venezuela-style left-wing populist “Chavismo."

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Santos sees his peace talks as the only way for Colombia to finally put armed internal conflict behind it and build a stable, prosperous future. Not only would a genuine peace deal send the right signals to international investors, it would free up some of the 3 percent to 4 percent of GDP now devoted to military spending — proportionally among the highest in the world — and in theory allow the country to focus on tackling its poverty, economic inequality, and underdeveloped infrastructure.

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An outsider might imagine that Zuluaga and Santos come from opposite ends of the political spectrum and are fighting a clichéd Latin American battle between leftwing and rightwing ideologies. But the reality is that, until recently, they were members of the same political party and served as ministers under the same president — Álvaro Uribe. Their public perceptions in this election are arguably influenced most by their relationship to Uribe and his successful military counteroffensive against the FARC.

Uribe is supporting Zuluaga, his former Minister of Finance. Many see Zuluaga as a proxy for Uribe, who was constitutionally prevented from running for a third term, though not for lack of trying. Santos, meanwhile, came to power in 2010 largely on the strength of his service as Uribe’s Minister of National Defense from 2006 to 2009. Despite the polarization of the current presidential race, many Colombians acknowledge that the country the two candidates want to lead was saved from becoming a failed state by the man for whom they both used to work.

Santos founded his current party in 2006 in order to unite supporters of Uribe and help ensure him a second presidential term. Despite this, he is now accused of having only posed as a Uribe supporter.

Since 1964, the conflict between the Colombian government and Marxist paramilitary insurgents has killed an estimated 220,000 Colombians, while about 4 million more have been internally displaced. The poverty and inequality that were the ostensible causes for the initial rise of leftwing guerrilla armies like FARC, the National Liberation Army (ELN), and the 19th of April Movement (M-19) were exacerbated as the insurgencies plunged the country into decades of political instability and economic underdevelopment.

By the 1980s, the leftwing paramilitaries were financing their guerrilla operations by “taxing” drug production. That led to the expansion of rightwing paramilitary “self defense” forces funded by large drug cartels to defend rural economic interests against groups like the FARC. Following the fall of the powerful Cali and Medellin drug cartels in the 1990s, the FARC moved from taxing cocaine to producing and trafficking it. The rightwing paramilitaries had by then become a far more deadly force than their leftwing counterparts — they assassinated priests, trade unionists, and almost anyone suspected of leftwing sympathies — while establishing operational links with the armed forces of Colombia in their fight against the FARC and ELN.

And so the country headed toward the brink by the time Uribe was elected president in 2002, having run as an independent candidate on a platform that focused on confronting the FARC. This won him popular support in the midst of a floundering peace process initiated by his predecessor, Andrés Pastrana. When Uribe took office, the FARC had about 16,000 fighters. As a basis for negotiations, Pastrana had granted the FARC 16,200 square miles of land in southern Colombia as a safe haven where the FARC would be free from attacks by the Colombian military. The FARC used this respite to regroup, retrain, and redouble their efforts to overthrow the Colombian government. As Uribe began his first term as president, Bogota itself was under siege from FARC guerrillas in the hills surrounding the city.

But by the time he had completed his second term in 2010, the FARC had been decimated.

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Zuluaga is a faithful Uribista — a member of the rightwing political movement inspired by Uribe, and defined by a policy of military strength against the FARC and intense loyalty to Uribe himself. He has an especially strong support base in rural areas that have been terrorized by the FARC, as well as among the lower- and middle-class urban population of the main cities.

Santos founded his current party, the Social Party of National Unity, in 2006 in order to unite supporters of Uribe and help ensure him a second presidential term. Despite this, he is now accused by Uribistas of having only posed as one of them in order to ride the wave of Uribe’s popularity to the presidency himself.

Soon after taking office, Santos came under attack from Uribe, who frequently tweeted his disapproval of Santos’s policies, especially those that were at odds with Uribe’s in areas from tax reform to personal drug use. And when some of Uribe’s former political aides found themselves facing criminal prosecution for corruption and abuse of power, Uribe's animosity toward Santos only grew.

But what Uribistas see as Santos’s betrayal of Uribe, many Colombians see as his respect for national institutions, which many feel Uribe ignored whenever it suited him. Many of Santos’s current supporters voted and campaigned against him when he ran in 2010, fearing that he would continue Uribe’s cavalier approach to the law. They only began supporting him when they saw how much his approach differed from that of Uribe.

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Sunday's second round of voting — Zuluaga barely edged out Santos in the first but did not receive the 50 percent of votes needed to be officially declared the winner — sees Santos being publicly backed by prominent leftists like the mayor of Bogota, Gustavo Petro, a former fighter with the demobilized M-19 guerrilla movement, and Piedad Cordoba, a senator with the socialist Colombian Liberal Party who has been accused of having direct links to the FARC. This week the ELN also announced its desire for peace talks with the Santos government. While some see all of this as a sign that Santos is a pragmatic and reasonable leader capable of building broad alliances and bringing peace to Colombia, his opponents see it as more proof that he’s a dupe for the FARC and others among the radical Colombian left.

In answer to claims of weakness, Santos’s supporters point out his record as Minister of National Defense, during which the Colombian military dealt several of its most crippling blows to the FARC, including the killing of one of its highest-ranking members, Raul Reyes, in an air strike inside Ecuadorian territory, and the rescue of several high-profile kidnap victims. In addition, during Santos’s own presidency Colombian forces have killed FARC’s two most senior members — Víctor Julio Suárez Rojas in 2010 and Guillermo León Sáenz Vargas in 2011.

The fight between Zuluaga and Santos appears to be about the country's self-respect more than it is about any real risk that Santos will give away too much to the FARC. Uribe confronted the FARC and brought it to its knees, bringing Colombians a sense of national dignity, pride in their armed forces, and above all, hope. And so now many people want to hear the FARC surrender before talks proceed.

Given that the leftist insurgencies have cost Colombians so much for so long, it’s hard to blame them. But it’s equally hard to see much fault in the attempt to hasten the end of hostilities and allow Colombia to move past the longest internal conflict in modern history.

Follow Alaa al-Ameri on Twitter: @AlaaAmeris

Image via Flickr