Colombian President Santos 'Waging War Is More Popular than Negotiating'

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos in his office in the presidential house in Bogota: "You can't settle a 50-year conflict in 52 weeks."
Juan Arredondo/ DER SPIEGEL

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos in his office in the presidential house in Bogota: "You can't settle a 50-year conflict in 52 weeks."

Interview Conducted By Juliane von Mittelstaedt and

Part 2: 'I Would Never Accept General Impunity for the Guerrillas'

SPIEGEL: But the biggest fear many people have is that FARC won't be punished. Former President Uribe's party, your main adversary, alleges that you'll grant impunity to the rebels.

Santos: I would never accept general impunity for the guerrillas! Unfortunately, my rivals are spreading all kinds of suspicions for political reasons that are absolutely not true. They've tried accusing me of agreeing to dismantle the army, of jeopardizing private property, of giving the pensions of policemen to the guerillas -- all kinds of lies. What they want is for people to be afraid of peace. But I hope they will understand that the best thing that can happen to us after three generations of suffering is peace. I've not lived one single day of peace in this country, and 90 percent of people here say the same thing. We have gotten used to living in a war -- we don't even react to massacres.

SPIEGEL: Why are so few Colombians emotionally engaged by the peace talks?

Santos: My rivals have been quite effective in sowing the seeds of skepticism around the peace process. Waging war is much more popular than negotiating, because there you need to compromise. I knew my political capital would suffer during the peace process. If you ask people whether they'd like the FARC to be in parliament, they'll say no. It's the same thing with giving them legal benefits in the courts. But if you show them the whole package, they'll say yes.

SPIEGEL: But at the same time support for your main rival, the candidate of Uribes' party, is growing. Could the election bring an end to the peace talks?

Santos: I'm quite confident that we'll win. The big difference between me and my rival is that he insists in ending the peace process at once. People will have to decide if they want to continue this war or not by voting. And in the end, I think, the extreme right is a minority.

SPIEGEL: Recently, a hacker who had been leaking your emails and details of the negotiations in Havana was detained. He used to work for your rival's campaign.

Santos: I hope the judicial authorities will soon take care of those responsible -- both materially and intellectually -- for these crimes.

SPIEGEL: You promised a referendum on the peace agreement. What happens if a majority rejects the treaty?

Santos: More than 70 percent of Colombians want peace. The rest are afraid of the price to be paid. But even they will realize that their worst fears will not come true. I'm quite optimistic that Colombians do back an agreement with the FARC.

SPIEGEL: During the 1980s, a number of rebels demobilized and founded a party, the Patriotic Union, but in the following months, 3,000 of its members were killed. How do you prevent an event like this -- that could start another cycle of violence -- from happening?

Santos: At that time, the paramilitary and the narcos had Colombia on its knees. Colombia is a different country today. The state is now present in every single corner, the drug lords are in jail or dead. So we have the means to guarantee the security of FARC politicians.

SPIEGEL: The army has thus far rejected negotiations with the rebels. Are you certain that the military will back you now?

Santos: I have the complete support of the military. I personally served in the navy. And, for the first time, two generals are on the negotiating team. But there may be a few pro-Uribe soldiers who don't want the war budget to be cut.

SPIEGEL: Members of the military have also committed human rights abuses. Is it possible that some fear prosecution and are therefore opposed to the peace process?

Santos: If we are giving judicial benefits to one part, we should give them to the other part as well, of course.

SPIEGEL: FARC was founded 50 years ago as a social movement, because Colombia has an extremely unfair distribution of wealth. What are you doing in order to address the roots of the civil war?

Santos: It was shameful that, after Haiti, Colombia was the second most unequal country in Latin America. But we've achieved some things; the inequality is coming down, and coming down fast. The growing economy has provided us with the funds to finance a very progressive social policy that has reduced extreme poverty. We have the lowest inflation rate of all Latin-America countries and the highest growth rate. During the last two and a half years, the country has created more employment than any other country in the region. We are also planning a huge investment in infrastructure -- more than $25 billion (€18 billion) for highways, railroads, ports and airports. We have a balanced budget and our debt continues to go down. We have a big market that is growing because we are elevating people out of poverty and into the middle class. We have negotiated free trade agreements with Europe, the United States and many other countries.

SPIEGEL: But if the violence increases again, investors could quickly turn their backs on Colombia.

Santos: The conflict hasn't even ended and investors are already coming in masses. Economists calculate that our current growth of 4.5 percent could be increased on average by 2 percent after the end of the conflict. Plus the construction projects would add another 1.5 percent to growth. Even by conservative estimates, we could achieve the same per capita income as Spain within 20 years. If we don't need to fight the guerillas anymore, we could concentrate on fighting criminal gangs and small mafias. And we know how to do it. For many years, they said the drug lords in Colombia were unbeatable, but all the same, we've eliminated all the big capos (as the drug lords are called in Colombia). The homicide rate is as low as it was 40 years ago and the kidnapping rate has dropped to the level of 1964. Now we'll be able to bring down the street criminals specializing in extortion and robbery.

SPIEGEL: Are you considering negotiations with ELN, the second guerilla group?

Santos: Oh, yes.

SPIEGEL: If there is peace, you'll be able to save a lot of money. Where do you plan to apply those funds?

Santos: To social housing, education, health, jobs and sustainable surroundings. Those are my priorities. I want to see Colombian youth become the best-educated in Latin America by 2025.

SPIEGEL: Let's take a glimpse at the future: Could you imagine a former guerrilla at some point getting elected as Colombia's president?

Santos: At this moment, I don't think people would back the old-fashioned Marxist-Leninist ideas of FARC. But I do hope that the rebels will continue to pursue their agenda by legal means and not through violence.

SPIEGEL: President Santos, we thank you for this interview.


Discuss this issue with other readers!
4 total posts
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peskyvera 05/21/2014
1. optional
Any word as to why Colombia has allowed itself to become a US military outpost???
Fer 05/24/2014
2. optional
Peskyvera - your lack of familiarity with the conflict and Colombia-U.S. relations is remarkable!!! The problem is not ending the conflict. The issue is keeping Colombia from becoming a populist state if the FARC and their cronies are included in the political processes.
broremann 05/26/2014
3. Colombia
I fear the drug business is too lucrative for the FARC to give up from social revolutionaries to drug traffickers it is a sad history when easy money gets involved
spon-facebook-10000407706 06/29/2014
4. Colombia will champion this wordcup 2014
If we agreed to a cease-fire there would be a reason for FARC to prolong negotiations eternally. And if by any chance those talks fail, I don't want to be seen by history as another president who was naive and stupid and gave the guerrillas all the opportunity to gain strength and keep fighting. I know that a lot of people don't understand how we can be talking in Havana while simultaneously fighting in Colombia. But in that respect, I follow the words of former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin: I fight terrorism as if there was no peace process, and I negotiate the peace process as if there was no terrorism.
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