The World

Can Santos Finally Bring Lasting Peace to Colombia? 

Colombian President and presidential candidate Juan Manuel Santos.
Colombian President and presidential candidate Juan Manuel Santos shows the palm of his hand reading “Peace” as he celebrates after knowing the results of the presidential election on June 15, 2014, in Bogotá.

Photo by Guillermo Legaria/AFP/Getty Images

Colombia re-elected President Juan Manuel Santos on Sunday, choosing him over former finance minister Óscar Iván Zuluaga in the country’s closest elections in 20 years. Santos won with 50.9 percent of the vote, closer than it probably should have been considering that he was running against an unimaginative rehash of his predecessor, Álvaro Uribe Vélez, with none of the former president’s charm.

Santos was once Uribe’s defense minister, and when he took over in 2010, he was largely expected to oversee a continuation of Uribe’s conservative rule and hard-line offensive against the left-wing FARC guerillas, under policies credited by many with bringing the country’s once notorious political violence under control. Instead, he’s surprised many by pursuing negotiations with the FARC in an effort to finally bring the conflict that has plagued the country since the 1960s to a definitive close.

Zuluaga made the case that Santos’ willingness to make concessions to the FARC risks plunging the country back into the lawlessness of the pre-Uribe days.

With his slim mandate, Santos certainly has his work cut out for his second term. In spite of Santos’ gains in peace talks, a mortally wounded FARC, and a recovering economy, the armed conflict persists, and Colombia has now one of the largest populations of Internally Displaced People in the world, according to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, with an estimated 5 million people forced out of their homes at the end of 2013.

And though for the most part Colombians favor peace talks, a significant swath of the population remains skeptical of the guerrillas’ good will and of the president’s authority. These fears have been partly stoked by ex-President Uribe, who keeps busy these days flinging false accusations at his former protégé Santos on Twitter.

A key question remains: how will his government handle the FARC, the ELN (the second-largest leftist rebel group tht also joined talks), and thorny debates regarding victim reparations and reintegration of militants? In a post-conflict scenario, the main concerns are land property rights, political participation, turning the illegal crops grown in FARC-controlled areas into legal ones, and finding productive occupations for idle former fighters. (Santos is also backing a controversial plan to eliminate the military draft and replace it with a “mandatory social service that rich and poor alike must serve,” a bold initiative in a country deeply divided by class distinctions.)

Santos began exploratory talks with the FARC in 2010, and in November 2012 formal discussions took off in Havana. This time they don’t include a government ceasefire, in a sharp contrast to talks from a decade ago, which mainly allowed the guerrillas to rearm and regroup. Now even the rebel groups seemed committed, and things stayed on track after November 2011 when the Colombian army killed FARC leader Alfonso Cano. The Cuban and Norwegian governments are acting as guarantors, and a six-point agenda was laid out. Both sides have agreed to create a land bank to reallocate land, which would radically transform the Colombian rural landscape.

A more contentious point is that of disarmament of the rebels and their political participation, since in November 2013 a deal was reached that would allow for the creation of new political parties. Some fear the president will be too lenient toward ex-members of illegal armed groups, who could serve negligible prison terms after which they would be eligible for elected office. This is what happened when the government made a similar deal with the now defunct rebel group M19 back in 1989, whose political party finished third in the 1990 elections and helped reform the Colombian constitution in 1991. It’s hard imagining the FARC enjoying a similar popularity.

Last week’s elections left no true alternative for Colombia’s left or center-left, which ultimately had to side with Santos for what former presidential candidate Antanas Mockus called “an imperfect peace over perpetual war.”

Santos’ campaign rhetoric focused on moving the country away from what he called “a culture of fear, war … shortcuts” and toward a “culture of fair play, of decency, of respect towards institutions”—a blatant jab at Uribe. The once-popular former president’s image has deteriorated with the unearthing of a series of damaging scandals.

Colombian voters—at least a narrow majority of them—have put their faith in Santos’ vision of a return to normalcy, though since it’s been half a century of violence what that looks like is anyone’s guess.

Whether society is ready to conceive of and accept ex-guerrilleros and ex-paramilitaries as fellow Colombians remains the bigger question, and one for every Colombian to answer.