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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.

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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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