National Security & Defense

Colombian Plans, Part II

Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos (Reuters photo: Jaime Saldarriaga)
Two presidents, a plebiscite, a prize . . .

Editor’s Note: In our December 19 issue, we published a piece by Jay Nordlinger called “Getting to Peace in Colombia: A controversial year.” This week in his Impromptus, Mr. Nordlinger is expanding upon that piece. For Part I of the series, go here.

Succeeding Álvaro Uribe as president was Juan Manuel Santos, a member of an old, distinguished political family. Until recently, the Santos family owned a major newspaper in Colombia, El Tiempo. The president’s great-uncle, Eduardo Santos, was himself president, from 1938 to 1942. The (current) president’s cousin, Francisco Santos, was vice president under Uribe.

And Santos himself — Juan Manuel Santos, the current president — was a defense minister under Uribe.

I have written about political families before. In early 2015, when the question of Jeb Bush was hot, I wrote a piece about “dynasties,” particularly in America (here).

Just the other day, I was reading about Shinzo Abe, the prime minister of Japan. One of his grandfathers was prime minister. The other grandfather was a legislator. The current prime minister’s dad was foreign minister.

And so it goes, the world over. There is nothing (necessarily) wrong with it — not in democratic countries, there isn’t.

Anyway, a topic for other times . . .

‐I am in Bogotá, talking with Uribe. I ask whether Santos was a good defense minister. Uribe answers at length. He makes clear, but does not explicitly say, that Santos was not especially relevant. Uribe was his own defense minister. He was consumed, night and day, with the defense of the country: with the defeat of terrorist groups.

Uribe recounts several occasions when, in his telling, Santos was hesitant, and boldness was called for. He recounts these occasions in considerable detail.

He also says that he allowed Santos to take credit for certain successes, giving the defense minister a political leg up.

Santos was elected president in 2010 — and he was elected on an Uribist platform. He vowed to continue the policies of the previous eight years, which had decimated the FARC. Which had allowed Colombia to breathe again.

‐Once he assumed the office of president, something curious happened: Santos had a change of mind and heart. Either that or long-submerged views were at last on display. Where Santos was hard-line before, now he was soft.

Uribe points out that Santos had been an ardent critic of Hugo Chávez, the strongman next door in Venezuela. But, as president, Santos drew Chávez close, calling him “my new best friend.”

Santos was unwilling to criticize Chávez, says Uribe, because Santos was determined to negotiate with the FARC — come what may — and Chávez was their backer and ally. Their patron, in effect.

To the FARC, Santos made one concession after another. In a big one, he stopped spraying the coca fields, allowing those fields to resurge.

I ask Uribe: “What do you think accounts for Santos’s change of mind and heart? What explains it?” Uribe gets quite cross with me, saying he is tired of “personal questions.” (I had thought them rather political.) But he is willing to bear with me a bit longer . . .

‐Santos began his negotiations with the FARC in Oslo — home of many a mediation. Think of the Oslo Accords between the Israelis and the Palestinians. It is in Oslo, of course, that the Nobel Peace Prize is given. After the signing of the first Oslo Accord, the Norwegian committee gave the prize to three of the principals: the Israeli prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin; the Israeli foreign minister, Shimon Peres; and the Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat.

In the peace process between Colombia and the FARC, Norway served as a “guarantor.” There was one other guarantor: Cuba. And the negotiations soon moved to the Cuban capital, Havana, where they would remain.

In addition to the two guarantors, each party had a “facilitating” or “accompanying” country. The Santos government’s was Chile; the FARC’s, unsurprisingly, was chavista Venezuela.

‐To virtually everyone I meet in Bogotá, I pose a question: Why sit down with these brutes and killers — the FARC — in the first place? Why? Why should civilization have to sit down with barbarism? Is the FARC simply too difficult to defeat militarily, even though they are now a relatively small band?

As Mary O’Grady wrote, President Santos “treated the FARC as the moral equivalent of the democracy.”

From different Colombians, I get different answers. But the consensus seems to be something like this: The cost of finishing off the FARC in the field would be very high — high in blood and treasure. If you can finish them off by other means, do so. Do it with a treaty, if you have to. But make that treaty as workable and palatable as possible.

‐One great advantage of the FARC has always been geography. Colombia is chockablock with mountain ranges and jungles — areas to which terror groups can retreat, and in which they can hide. The terrain is their friend, not the government’s.

There was a time, pre-Uribe, when the government never set foot in large swaths of Colombia. The state simply ceded those areas to others — namely, guerrillas and terrorists.

Consider this, too: The FARC has plenty of money, through their trafficking in cocaine. And they have enjoyed the support of Venezuela and other chavista governments in South America.

So, it may be astounding that a group as small as the FARC could menace and, to a degree, hold hostage an entire country — an entire big, proud, democratic country. But there you have it.

‐The FARC is now led by Rodrigo Londoño, who has been Santos’s counterpart in the peace process. Londoño’s nom de guerre is Timoleón Jiménez, and his nickname is Timochenko. He has been a FARC terrorist and trafficker since he was a teenager. He was trained in the Soviet Union and Cuba. His nickname comes from the famous Soviet military commander, Marshal Semyon Timoshenko.

Let me pause for a historical tidbit: Stalin’s son Vasily married several women, one of whom was a daughter of Timoshenko. He may have married a daughter of Foreign Minister Molotov too. This is uncertain.

(If you’re interested in this kind of thing, try my Children of Monsters: An Inquiry into the Sons and Daughters of Dictators.)

Here is a tidbit of greater moment: The U.S. State Department has a bounty on the head of the FARC’s Timochenko — $5 million, to be specific. Will this bounty be dropped, post-deal? Don’t know . . .

‐In Bogotá, there is much talk about the mindset of President Santos. About, to be blunt, his ego. Look, it’s natural to want the Nobel Peace Prize — many have in the past, and many will in the future. I learned this, along with much else, when preparing my history of the prize.

It’s also natural for a head of state such as Santos to want to be a star in the broader world: a future secretary-general of the United Nations, perhaps.

More bluntness: Did Santos tailor his peace calendar to the Nobel calendar? Many think this is obvious.

The prize is announced in October — the first or second Friday of the month — and bestowed on December 10 (as you have heard). The government scheduled the plebiscite for October 2. Santos may well have thought — he can be excused for thinking — “After the vote will come a victory lap. A victory lap in Oslo.”

Thank you, dear readers, and I’ll see you tomorrow for Part III, our final installment.

A word from the National Review Store: To get Jay Nordlinger’s new collection, Digging In, go here.

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