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Colombia: Is Santos’ re-election the best hope for peace?


The second round of Colombia’s election on June 15 saw incumbent Juan Manuel Santos narrowly beat off the challenge of his right-wing rival Oscar Ivan Zuluaga and win a second term.

Santos managed to rally support on the left to win 50.9 percent of the vote. Zuluaga who had won the first round, and who had been backed by former President Alvaro Uribe, won 45 percent. 

President Santos. Photo: WikimediaBoth Santos and Zuluaga had placed the peace process which the government had instigated at the end of 2012 with the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) at the centre ofelection debates. 

Colombia’s civil war which started in May 1964 is one of the longest running in the world.  It has cost the lives of some 200,000 people with many hundreds of thousands more wounded and displaced. 

Writing in Canadian newspaper The Globe and Mail, Ken Frankel noted that ‘the candidates framed the peace process as the essential issue and forced citizens to decide something that many preferred not to confront’.

Santos sought to present the vote as a choice between ‘the end of war or war without end’. 

While Zuluaga had stated that he would not row back from and suspend or terminate the talks, he had promised to impose tougher conditions on the FARC. 

Santos’ electoral chances were boosted by the news that the government had reached an accord with Colombia’s second largest revolutionary group, the Ejército Liberación Nacional (ELN), to begin peace talks.

After his victory Mr Santos told his supporters ‘This is the generation of peace. Millions of Colombians have chosen hope over fear’.

Whether winning 51 percent of the vote constitutes a mandate for Santos is a moot point.  It is clear that many Colombians retain a degree of scepticism towards the peace talks.

A Thorny Peace Process

The peace negotiations have been held in Havana with Norway and Cuba acting as guarantor nations.

The negotiatorsWhile the negotiations have been long and complex, the two sides have never before made as much progress.

There does seem to be a willingness on both sides to bring an end to Latin America’s longest running conflict. 

As the International Crisis Group have observed, ‘the government realises military means alone cannot end the conflict and [the] FARC appears to recognise that the armed struggle permits survival but little else’. 

The talks have centred on five main issues: agricultural development and land reform; political participation; the drug trade; victim reparations; and demobilisation and ending the conflict.  There is then the question of how the accords will be implemented and managed.

Farc flagBy the time of the election, the government and the FARC had reached agreement on land reform (agreed in May 2013), political participation (agreed in November 2013), and most recently on the drug trade (agreed in May 2014).

The Colombia Reports website notes that the agreement on land reform encompasses land use, the formalisation of property, the institution of territorially-based development programmes, the provision of social development programmes pertaining to health, poverty, education and housing, and the need to provide a stimulus for agricultural production.

Reports on the agreement on political participation note that it includes proposals for an opposition statute and security protocols which will guarantee the status and safety of opposition movements, including any movement that may emerge from the FARC.   

In relation to drugs, reports indicate that the government haS agreed to cease the damaging practice of aerial spraying of herbicides while the FARC have agreed to end their ties to the drug trade. 

As the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) observe, for this to happen, rural communities will need to be incentivised to cease production of the coca and poppy plants that sustain them.  Crop substitution programmes will need to be increased in order to fill the gap.


The question of reparations and justice are likely to be the thorniest element of the talks.

The two sides have agreed to establish a truth commission to investigate possible human rights violations, and they have also agreed to hear the demands of victims’ families.

The Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) report Ending 50 Years on Conflictnotes that reparations and crimes cannot just focus on the actions of the FARC but must also include the actions of others actors such as right-wing paramilitaries and the country’s own armed forces. 

Any agreement on these issues must strike a fine balance between the need to hold those responsible to account, whilst at the same time ensuring that the actors involved remain ‘on board’ with the very idea of the peace accords. 

Any agreement on punishment would also not only have to satisfy the Colombian people, it would also have to satisfy the International Criminal Court in the Netherlands. 

Scepticism and Suspicion  

While opinion polls indicate that the majority of Colombians support the peace process and support dialogue with the FARC, there is considerable scepticism about to the final conclusion of any talks.

Many within Colombia continue to believe that the talks will ultimately fall apart.  Such scepticism is fuelled by the knowledge that the government and the FARC have been here before. 

This is the fourth time that the Colombian government and the FARC have entered into negotiations. 

The last peace talks took place between 1999 and 2002.  Those talks failed after the FARC kidnapped both Senator Jorge Gechem and presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt. 

There were also suspicions that the FARC had simply used the peace talks to re-arm.

This is why the Santos government has continued to carry out military operations against the FARC even while the talks in Havana have been taking place.

The Painful Past

Santos has said that any final agreement will be put to the people in a referendum.

Even if agreement is reached between the FARC and Santos’ government the path to reconciliation will be long and difficult.

Many Colombians clearly feel very uncomfortable with the idea that those who have committed crimes might escape punishment for what they have done. 

As Ken Frankel notes, Colombians be asked to ‘endure the complications of implementing a peace agreement in a country where the strands of innocence, complicity, self-protection and self-aggrandisement are uncomfortably intertwined at all levels of society’.

Former President Uribe has accused the government of effectively offering the FARC an amnesty, a claim that Santos denies. 


De-mobilising the 8000 or so fighters that the FARC has under arms and re-integrating them into society will also prove to be a challenge.

Many of those fighters will be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.  Reintegration will take time, money and expertise. Fighting is all many of them will have known.

Paramilitaries in action. Photo:Justice for ColombiaThe Colombian government would need to demonstrate that it has learnt from its past experience of demobilising armed groups. 

Many of the right-wing paramilitaries that were demobilised in 2005 ended up in criminal gangs. 

The FARC’s demobilisation could leave a vacuum in rural areas particularly.

The government will want to make sure that such a vacuum is not filled by disenchanted former FARC guerrillas, drugtraffickersor paramilitary organisations.

Another problem might revolve around the role of the army.  Colombia’s armed forces will have to adjust to a new post-conflict reality and will have to re-define itself. 

The Role of the United States

The US has given the Colombian government $9 billion since 2000.  Most of that money has been used to fight the FARC. 

WOLA advocates the US increasing its aid to Colombia.  That aid should be used to bolster the economy and to facilitate the building of civic institutions.

The US will have a key role in encouraging the peace process.

American politicians have certainly been making encouraging noises in this regard. 

On a visit to Colombia at the end of May, Vice-President Joe Biden said ‘Just as we supported Colombia’s leaders on the battlefield, we support them fully at the negotiating table’. 

WOLA reports that the State Department received a letter supporting the peace process sent from 62 Republican and Democratic members of Congress.

Statements of support from US politicians and from the state department do serve to defuse potential interventions from those who are resistant to the peace process as it is currently configured.

WOLA argues that the US might need to adjust its policy as some of the agreements made between the government and the FARC (for example, the cessation of aerial spraying) go against current US thinking.


After half a century of fighting, Colombians’ scepticism is understandable. Many Colombians have never known a time when the government have not been fighting the FARC.

Colombia’s civil war has seen some terrible crimes committed.  There is a realisation on both sides that this is a war that cannot be won. 

That said the peace talks still have a way to go and the issues that remain to be discussed are certainly among the most difficult.  It remains to be seen whether the negotiators can see the talks through and bring this long-running conflict to an end.

Santos’ re-election does ultimately represent the best chance for the peace process to succeed.

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