“The problem with Colombia is that we’ve been fighting a war for three generations and we simply got accustomed to it. What I’m trying to tell the Colombian people is, ‘Wake up. We have to be a normal country.’”
That was the opening volley from Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos during a wide-ranging and unusually frank interview last week in New York. But there’s one slice of our conversation you won’t hear on WLRN.
It was something Santos would only discuss off-the-record, embargoed, because he was saving it for his speech to the U.N. General Assembly a couple days later. To wit: Santos’ government and Marxist guerrillas known as the Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces, or FARC, had just decided to publish the confidential details of what they’ve so far agreed on during peace talks.
Santos is convinced that making that minutiae more transparent will thwart “the enemies of the peace process,” both left and right, who he said are spreading “lies and nonsense” about the negotiations. (One recent example: false but widespread rumors that a peace accord will put Colombian police under FARC commanders.)
Disarming the hyper-partisan “misinformation machine,” Santos insisted, will accelerate the talks, which are being held in Havana and are aimed at ending a 50-year-long civil war that has killed 220,000 people and made refugees of five million more.
Only time, and a signed peace agreement, will prove whether Santos is right. But neutralizing the "nonsense" does matter – and it's a reminder of why these peace talks themselves matter, not just for Colombia but for Latin America and the western hemisphere.
That's because there’s more at stake in Colombia than making an eternally war-torn country “normal” for once. This is also about Latin America kicking one of its most destructive habits: polarized, zero-sum politics.
Civics in the United States today may seem impossibly divided. But Washington is still a friendly interfaith fish fry compared to much of Latin America. And it’s no coincidence that the region’s most developed countries, like Brazil and Chile, are also places where people are discovering that liberalism and conservatism, socialism and capitalism, can be not only compatible but complementary.
As Santos stressed in our interview, “Colombia is the only Latin American country with an armed conflict left over from the Cold War.” If Colombians can halt that carnage by discrediting the ideological intolerance that drives it – and the ideologues, from right-wing ranchers to left-wing revolutionaries, who wouldn't mind driving it forever – it could help change a continent as well as a country.
That’s still a tall “if.” Even Santos acknowledged that the negotiations are at their “most difficult and most crucial moment.”
Since the talks started almost two years ago, the parties have agreed on three of the five main agenda points: The land reform issues at the historic heart of the conflict (Colombia has long been South America’s most unequal society); FARC participation in politics; and an end to the billion-dollar drug trafficking that has financed the rebels all these years.
Yet what remains – formulating justice for the conflict’s innumerable victims and a disarmament plan for the guerrillas, not to mention how to implement all of this – is arguably the hardest part.
A lot of Colombians look at their current economic boom – South America’s fastest growth and annual foreign investment of $17 billion – and ask, "Who needs peace?" But Santos, who in Miami last year called the war “a mule in the middle of the road” that blocks Colombia's real potential, believes a truce is the only real ticket to development.
Even skeptical voters ended up agreeing with Santos this year, handing him a second four-year term to see the peace process through.
Achieving that has and will continue to require political needle-threading skills. Santos has to convince the left that he trusts the FARC. But he has to assure the right – including the large Colombian diaspora in South Florida, who Santos complained “has bought the black propaganda that I am giving away the country to the communists” – that he doesn’t trust the guerrillas at all.
I asked Santos, for example, if he really believes the FARC – who he conceded is arguably the world’s largest narco-cartel – can morph into a legitimate political party.
“I believe we still have enough command and control by the FARC leaders,” he said, “that enough of these people will abide [and] make this successful.”
But later I asked why he rejects the FARC’s demands for a cease-fire during the negotiations. It would, he insisted, “create a perverse incentive for the FARC to simply drag their feet. We have learned… how they take advantage of cease-fires, and I don’t want history to say, ‘Oh, Santos was another president who was naïve.’ ”
That's the fine line Santos and Colombia are walking: between being naïve and being resigned to war.
Other excerpts from the Santos interview:
On questions about the talks being held in communist Cuba - and Venezuela's role: "The world is not perfect. Yes, Venezuela and Cuba are helping us, because precisely they have credibility with the FARC. And I really don't understand people who criticize...What is the alternative? Should I simply declare war on Venezuela?...When you go down to the nitty gritty, for me it's very clear that sometimes realpolitik is necessary in situations like the one we are living in Colombia."
On including the conflict's victims in the peace talks: "What we have discovered is that the victims...are even more willing to forgive than the normal population. [That indicates] there's a much larger possibility of reaching an agreement."
On Colombia's still gaping economic inequality: "I'm having some trouble with some people because I want to prolong the wealth tax. But I know most of the people agree with me [because] poverty in Colombia has gone down the past four years almost 4 percent."
On Colombia's potential peace dividend: "Many studies say the [economic] growth of the country will go up two points. Half of Colombia is like the West before you conquered half the United States. [Now] we have the opportunity to use technology to take a leap forward in our development, and if we have peace, this will be much easier."
On how Colombian peace would strengthen Latin America's new Pacific Alliance trade bloc and benefit Miami: "Miami has a tremendous [trade] relationship with Colombia but also Peru, Chile, Mexico. These countries are the best [economic] performers in the whole of Latin America. The north of Colombia is closer to Miami than New York. There is tremendous potential to increase trade both ways."
On the legacy he hopes to leave, with or without a peace accord: "I want to leave a Colombia that is much more just than the Colombia I found. I would not have run for re-election if it wasn't for the peace process."
Tim Padgett is WLRN's Americas editor. You can read more of his coverage here.