Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, 62, is an economist and journalist. Prior to taking office, he worked at his family's daily El Tiempo newspaper in Bogota and held several government cabinet post, including that of defense minister under conservative former President Alvaro Uribe. The two had a falling out after Santos' 2010 election, when he announced that he would conduct peace talks with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the left-wing guerrilla group. Since the end of 2012, the government in Bogota has been negotiating with FARC in Cuba to end the civil war that has been raging in the country since 1964, claiming close to a quarter-million lives and displacing around 6 million people.
The upcoming presidential elections, set to take place on May 25, will also be a vote on the future of the peace process. Santos is currently leading in polls, but his opponent from Uribe's party, Oscar Ivan Zuluaga, who categorically rejects negotiations with the guerillas, is gaining ground. Shortly after conducting an interview with SPIEGEL, FARC and Colombia's other main rebel group, the smaller National Liberation army (ELN), announced on Friday they would begin a unilateral cease-fire until after the election. The government and FARC negotiators also announced a deal to jointly combat illicit drugs, one of the country's most contentious issues.
SPIEGEL: President Santos, you may be on the brink of ending the world's longest conflict. Is a peace deal with FARC imminent?
Santos: Today I'm more optimistic than I was a year ago -- and a year ago I was more confident than the year before. We've made unprecedented advances. But for a conflict that is this complex it is not easy to find a solution. We'll finish this process hopefully within this year.
SPIEGEL: You previously stated that a deal could be possible by the end of last year. Why is it taking longer?
Santos: I've been very careful not to give definite deadlines. I had hoped to finish negotiations before the beginning of the election period, but I was too optimistic. You can't settle a 50-year conflict in 52 weeks.
SPIEGEL: You are negotiating without a lasting cease-fire agreement. Do you worry that a small incident could disrupt the process?
Santos: I made the decision not to accept a cease-fire before signing a peace contract. 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.
SPIEGEL: Is Rabin one of your role models?
Santos: We have been preparing this peace process very carefully for more than 20 years. I have been relying on international counselors since the very first day, people who have been very closely involved in the IRA negotiations in Northern Ireland, Israeli-Palestinian talks, the process to end the civil wars in Central America.
SPIEGEL: As a defense minister under your predecessor, Alvaro Uribe, you inflicted serious losses on the guerillas ....
Santos: ... and even more during the last four years as president. But there are times for making war and times for making peace.
SPIEGEL: Has it not been possible to bring down FARC and ELN by military means alone?
Santos: No, it's not possible to exterminate them. If this process fails, we'll have another 20, 30 or 40 years of war.
SPIEGEL: What would happen in that the case?
Santos: I've been careful not to weaken the military. We would continue fighting as we have so far. But I must say that this time I've got the impression that the guerilla leaders are really willing to reach an agreement. If that wasn't clear, I would not continue negotiations.
SPIEGEL: Months ago, you announced an agreement on two of six sections of the negotiations, the question of land and political participation by FARC. Will there be soon a new breakthrough?
Santos: I don't like to generate too many expectations. The logical order dictates that we should finish an agreement on the third point soon. How soon, I cannot tell. It is a very difficult issue that I personally introduced to the agenda: drug-trafficking. If we reach an agreement on this point, for Colombia, for the region and for the whole world, this would be extraordinary. For decades, Colombia has been accused of being the world's principal provider of cocaine. If this comes to an end, it would be a dramatic change for our country -- which has been suffering more than any other from the consequences of drug-trafficking.
SPIEGEL: Do you really believe that FARC will give up this lucrative business?
Santos: They will have to. We have ways of monitoring their crops and their transport lines. Yes, I believe they could commit themselves to cutting off all connections to drug-trafficking.
SPIEGEL: What happens if some forces within FARC don't demobilize and continue as drug-traffickers and extortionists?
Santos: Of course, some of their people might continue the business on their own, because as long as we have people in New York, Berlin and Madrid sniffing coke, drug-trafficking will remain attractive. We have studied the effectiveness of their commando control, and found that it has been maintained to a very high degree. If their leaders commit to abandoning the narco business, then most of them will go along with it.
SPIEGEL: Do you think that 100 percent of the guerillas might go along?
Santos: I don't like to make predictions about that. In every process like this, some people stay behind. But then they would just be criminals, not politically motivated insurgents.
SPIEGEL: Many guerilleras don't have any formal education and have been living in the jungle since childhood. How can they integrate into civil society and find jobs?
Santos: When there is peace, we'll, of course, need a lot of international help. The post-conflict period will be as complicated as the negotiations themselves. But we have been learning how to deal with demobilized organizations. Furthermore, the Colombian economy is very strong. We have one of the highest rates of growth in Latin America. There will be jobs.
SPIEGEL: Another difficult issue is how to address the crimes committed by FARC. The victims are pushing for the perpetrators to be tried in court, but that could take decades and would deter the rebels from laying down their weapons. How do you intend to bring justice to Colombia?
Santos: Colombia is probably the first country to begin repairing the damage to victims before the end of a conflict. We restitute land to peasants who have been displaced by violence or pay them reparations. At this moment we have restituted damages to more than 360,000 people. Moreover, international law has the term "transitional justice" ...
SPIEGEL: ... which means that reconciliation and investigations take place while the justice system concentrates on the most severe crimes.
Santos: Yes. It is necessary, because we can't bring all perpetrators to trial. The key question is: Where do you draw the line between peace and justice? If you ask the victims, they want more justice; if you ask the potential victims, they want more peace.
'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.