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War And Peace Riding On Colombia Elections

As Colombia prepares to elect a president, voters must choose between a candidate willing to make painful concessions with FARC guerrillas and a hawk keen on the status quo.

A FARC fighter in Toribio, Colombia
A FARC fighter in Toribio, Colombia
Camilo Olarte*


Inside the most conservative political discourse in Colombia, associated with former President Álvaro Uribe Vélez and his partisans, there is a hidden segment of Colombian society that refuses to recognize its debt to the victims of a civil war that has afflicted Colombia since the 1960s.

This segment is like a state unto itself — a mean little country inside our country. It jealously defends its privileges and espouses Machiavelian government, applauding its mythified figurehead Uribe when he rides roughshod over public institutions. The presidential candidate Óscar Iván Zuluaga is but his shadow, sliding along the ground and always within Uribe's reach.

It is difficult to understand how Colombia, which has suffered a conflict of some 50 years that claimed millions of victims, could contemplate losing a historic opportunity to attain peace. In a second round of voting on June 15, Colombians will decide who will govern for the next four years. It will be either Zuluaga, the candidate of the pro-Uribe Democratic Center who won most votes in the first round, or President Juan Manuel Santos, who is seeking re-election. But more crucially, the vote will determine whether to suspend or continue peace talks with the violent Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), which much of the West considers a terrorist organization.

"I shall order a temporary suspension of the Havana process on Aug. 7," Zuluaga said after his first-round victory, referring to his first act if elected president. Days later he moderated his rhetoric to win some support from the Conservative Party, whose candidate had been knocked out in the first round. That was hardly surprising, given the Uribe party's proven tendency toward expediency. Now, just days before the second round, he is back to being hawkish and talking tough.

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Óscar Iván Zuluaga — Photo: Marco Antonio Melo

Álvaro Uribe, the great grandson of a poet, is good at exercising the "power of grammar," as journalist Mario Jursich once wrote. He has a talent for neologisms such as Castrochavismo — a threatening mix of Cuba's Raul Castro and Venezuela's Hugo Chávez, which Uribe says may befall Colombia if the FARC is forgiven. Dividing the country further and fueling fanatical postures, it is a term intended to play on the fears of so many undecided voters, and it has hurt the Santos campaign. The "Castrochavista government" has allegedly made unacceptable concessions to theFARC in all areas, and all behind the people's back.

Perverse pronouncements

The Santos government is right-wing, economically liberal, moderately reformist and as far removed from the Cuban and Venezuelan models of socialism as it could possibly be. But while the economy has grown and poverty has fallen during Santos' four-year term, his administration has failed to shed the great vices of Colombian politics — quid-pro-quo-style politics and corruption, which saw their deplorable heydey under Uribe.

Now Uribe and his followers have accused Santos of "treason" for accepting that there is a war inside Colombia, with all that this implies. As president, Uribe promised to remove the FARC with the stroke of a pen, to crush them and do away with the world's oldest guerrilla force — despite the fact that no force of this size has ever disappeared without prior negotiation. In his rhetoric, he replaced the words "war" and "armed conflict" with "terrorist threat," the same euphemism Zuluaga has been repeating these days.

[rebelmouse-image 27088049 alt="""" original_size="2896x1944" expand=1]

Juan Manuel Santos and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton — Photo: State Department

No armed conflict means no legitimate enemy, which makes concessions difficult. Uribe's movement will make none. It has already opposed, to the satisfaction of big landowners and paramilitaries, a compensation law for victims and restitution for stolen lands. The victims, whose voices are starting to be heard, may well perceive the election as a referendum on their plight and, most assuredly, survival. Fifty of their spokesmen and leaders have been killed in the past decade. They can expect to be buried beneath all the words coined by a political doctrine that detests dissent.

While Uribe's movement has somehow survived so many scandals and perversions associated with his government, the areas where the conflict is concentrated cast more votes for Santos and continued talks in the first round.

Sadly, the Santos administration has failed to communicate to the public the agreements attained over two years with the help of international advisers. It has reached accords in three of the five main negotiating areas, which means we are near — so near — even if, as the president has said, "nothing is agreed on until everything is." All of this can go overboard with Zuluaga.

The country must see through Uribe's discourse, and realize that despite the FARC's horrible crimes and brutality, it exists because this is a starkly unequal and exclusive country at war with itself. Certainly the peace process must make concessions to the FARC, but more so to the Colombian countryside it abandoned a half century ago. Santos seems to be the only candidate prepared to compromise, and Colombia has the opportunity to change its history if peace is signed. Otherwise, it should be ready to keep counting the dead.

*Camilo Olarte is a Colombian engineer and journalist and a Mexican national. He is currently a correspondent in Mexico for América Economía.

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FOCUS: Russia-Ukraine War

How Vulnerable Are The Russians In Crimea?

Ukraine has stepped up attacks on the occupied Crimean peninsula, and Russia is doing all within its power to deny how vulnerable it has become.

Photograph of the Russian Black Sea Fleet headquarters with smoke rising above it after a Ukrainian missile strike.

September 22, 2023, Sevastopol, Crimea, Russia: Smoke rises over the Russian Black Sea Fleet headquarters after a Ukrainian missile strike.

Kyrylo Danylchenko

This article was updated Sept. 26, 2023 at 6:00 p.m.

Russian authorities are making a concerted effort to downplay and even deny the recent missile strikes in Russia-occupied Crimea.

Stay up-to-date with the latest on the Russia-Ukraine war, with our exclusive international coverage.

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Media coverage in Russia of these events has been intentionally subdued, with top military spokesperson Igor Konashenkov offering no response to an attack on Russian Black Sea Fleet headquarters in the Crimean city of Sevastopol, or the alleged downing last week of Russian Su-24 aircraft by Ukrainian Air Defense.

The response from this and other strikes on the Crimean peninsula and surrounding waters of the Black Sea has alternated between complete silence and propagating falsehoods. One notable example of the latter was the claim that the Russian headquarters building of the Black Sea fleet that was hit Friday was empty and that the multiple explosions were mere routine training exercises.

Ukraine claimed on Monday that the attack killed Admiral Viktor Sokolov, the commander of Russia's Black Sea Fleet. "After the strike on the headquarters of the Russian Black Sea Fleet, 34 officers died, including the commander of the Russian Black Sea Fleet. Another 105 occupiers were wounded. The headquarters building cannot be restored," the Ukrainian special forces said via Telegram.

But Sokolov was seen on state television on Tuesday, just one day after Ukraine claimed he'd been killed. The Russian Defense Ministry released footage of the admiral partaking in a video conference with top admirals and chiefs, including Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, though there was no verification of the date of the event.

Moscow has been similarly obtuse following other reports of missiles strikes this month on Crimea. Russian authorities have declared that all missiles have been intercepted by a submarine and a structure called "VDK Minsk", which itself was severely damaged following a Ukrainian airstrike on Sept. 13. The Russians likewise dismissed reports of a fire at the headquarters of the Black Sea Fleet, attributing it to a mundane explosion caused by swamp gas.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov has refrained from commenting on the military situation in Crimea and elsewhere, continuing to repeat that everything is “proceeding as planned.”

Why is Crimea such a touchy topic? And why is it proving to be so hard to defend?

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