National Security & Defense

Colombian Plans, Part III

President George W. Bush presents Álvaro Uribe with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009. (Reutersphoto: Jason Reed)
Dizzying events in a South American land

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 has expanded upon that piece. For the first two parts, go here and here. The series concludes today.

As you have heard, President Santos and the FARC announced their peace agreement on August 24. It was 297 pages long. Given that the plebiscite was scheduled for October 2, there would be five and a half weeks of debate on the agreement — five and a half weeks of campaigning.

Santos was in charge of the Yes campaign, naturally — the campaign urging the adoption of the deal. And Álvaro Uribe, his predecessor as president, was in charge of the No campaign.

Repeatedly, Yessers said something like this: “This is your last and best chance for peace. You may not like the deal, and you definitely don’t like the FARC. Who does? But this is it. It’s now or never. This is the last train from the station. If you pass up this opportunity for peace — this opportunity for an end to 50 years of conflict — you won’t get another one.”

No-ers responded, “That’s not true. You don’t have to swallow this. There can and must be a better deal. This deal gives away far too much to the FARC.”

Like what? Like amnesty, and seats in Congress, and money.

‐The Yes campaign had many advantages. In his discussion with me, Uribe goes through them.

The government got to frame the question — the question that the public would vote on. The Yes campaign vastly outspent the No campaign. Yes had many more television ads than No. What’s more, the Santos government was able to pressure Colombian governors and mayors, saying, “If you want money from Bogotá, you will have to support Yes.”

Then there was the international environment, says Uribe: The powers-that-be were solidly for Yes and against No. “Do you understand how difficult this campaign was for us?” asks Uribe. “Against President Obama? Against the pope? Against the United Nations? Against the European Union? Against Spain? Do you understand how important Spain is for our countries, as our oldest brother?”

‐Also, there was this: A vote for a peace agreement is very attractive. Carlos Holmes Trujillo, a diplomat, politician, and Uribe ally, emphasizes this point to me. Everyone wants peace. It is natural in every (normal) human being. The idea of peace, after decades of strife and bloodshed, is tantalizing.

That’s why the No campaign took care to argue that a vote against the August 24 agreement was not a vote against peace; it was a vote against a particular agreement — a bad one, an agreement that was unnecessarily and outrageously lenient toward the FARC.

‐Colombian society was split. Everyone has family and friends who were for the agreement, and family and friends who were against. There were many nose-holders: people who voted Yes, detesting the deal (and detesting the FARC).

‐The momentum was entirely in favor of Yes. Everyone expected Yes to win — even the No-ers expected a Yes win. But the Yes campaign lost. The No campaign won, by that narrowest of margins: 50.2 percent to 49.8 percent.

Why? Why did Yes lose and No win? I will list four reasons, the last of which is by far the most important.

First, Santos is an unpopular president. An expert explains to me that presidents here are usually popular. Colombians like to support their president. In Peru, the opposite is true. Santos is an unusually unpopular Colombian president.

Second, this deal was not a government-wide deal, or an establishment-wide deal: It was a deal fashioned by Santos and his camp with the FARC. The rest of the political world had not “bought in,” to use modern jargon.

Third, voters hated the idea of giving money to FARC fighters. What had they done to earn it, except commit murder and mayhem? Here I am, working my butt off, trying to provide food and shelter for my family, barely making it, and they’re giving these terrorists money? No way.

You could argue — many do — that the government must give the guerrillas some money to start with, else they have no incentive to leave the field — leave the incredibly lucrative cocaine business — and try to build a legitimate life.

In any event, on to Reason No. 4 …

People hate the FARC. Hate, hate, hate the FARC. People who voted Yes hate them. People who voted No hate them. For a half a century, the FARC has inflicted immense pain on millions of Colombians. People want peace, heaven knows. But this deal … the government had given these killers so much …

‐When the voters rejected the deal on October 2, it was reasonable to assume that the Norwegian Nobel Committee would turn elsewhere — that they would not award a Colombian Nobel. But the committee was not deterred. On October 7, they announced that they were giving Santos the prize. They were doing so “to encourage all those who are striving to achieve peace, reconciliation, and justice in Colombia.”

The president had his victory lap after all.

But hang on: Where was Timochenko, the FARC leader? Why was he not sharing the prize? If the Yes campaign had succeeded — would he have? There is speculation about that here in Bogotá. And the thinking is, Timochenko would indeed have been a co-laureate if the Yes campaign had succeeded.

And then there would have been fury — fury on the part of the broad, FARC-hating public. (There was some fury on the left throughout the world that Timochenko was ignored by the Norwegian committee.)

A terror leader has shared the peace prize before — think of Arafat. Gerry Adams, the Sinn Féin chief, was left out of the 1998 prize, which went to two other Northern Irishmen for the Good Friday Agreement.

If you would like to read a piece by me, placing the 2016 Nobel in historical context, go here.

‐After the committee in Oslo made its announcement, President Santos was clearly determined to have a new agreement — something to brandish — by December 10, when the Nobel ceremony would occur. His negotiators worked ’round the clock in Havana, with the FARC team. And by November 12 they had a deal: a new deal. This one was “much better,” said the government’s chief negotiator, Humberto de la Calle.

Huh. Evidently, the original agreement was not the last chance after all.

President Santos himself said, “Looking back, the result of the plebiscite gave us a chance to come together, and I want to express gratitude once again for the positive disposition and the goodwill of all stakeholders,” particularly those who voted No.

‐Incidentally, everyone I meet respects Humberto de la Calle. This includes die-hard No voters. They say he was virtually the only one on the government side who was sensitive to Uribe and the No camp.

‐The new deal was 310 pages — up from 297 — and included some 50 modifications. These were fairly modest in scope. Notably, the FARC made a commitment to declare and surrender its assets, from which victims could be paid compensation. Yet the FARC would not budge on the question of amnesty, even for its most flagrant criminals.

Santos and Timochenko signed the deal on November 24 in Bogotá’s Teatro Colón, with a pen fashioned from the shell of a bullet.

‐President Santos may have praised the October 2 plebiscite for bringing people together — but he sure as hell didn’t risk another one. He placed his new deal before Congress, where he had the votes. At the end of November, the deal was ratified in the senate, 75–0, and in the house, 130–0.

Why the unanimity? Uribists and No-ers walked out, in protest of what they regarded as a sham.

‐The editors of the New York Times, representative of a soft Left worldwide, have called Álvaro Uribe a “spoiler.” But “we are not enemies of peace,” says the man himself. “We are concerned for the future of our democracy.” He also says that a bad deal with the FARC sets a bad precedent. Other terrorist groups in Colombia — for example, the National Liberation Army (ELN) — will want the same deal, giving them little incentive to curb their outrages.

‐In the course of our conversation, Uribe speaks movingly about drugs and their effects on people. “Self-control is one definition of humanity. Narcotics create alienation, and when people become alienated, they lose their freedom to exercise self-control. The laws of self-control are the laws of freedom. Therefore, narcotics are the enemies of human freedom.”

Everyone knows that is true, right? Everyone who has seen the effects of drugs on people knows — must know — it is true.

‐Uribe also speaks movingly about the tragedy — the horror — unfolding next door. “The people of Venezuela are suffering. They are hungry. They have lost their freedoms, the rule of law, the independence of institutions. And the international community has not acted to protect the democracy in Venezuela, to protect the people of Venezuela. That is what we need at this moment.”

‐As you recall, Uribe received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from George W. Bush in 2009 — in January 2009, just before Bush left office. Where does it live, that medal? “In my house, very close to Medellín.”

Uribe remembers when Bush told him he would receive the award. It was at a meeting in Peru in November 2008. “Uribe, mi amigo,” said Bush — “necesito que hablemos.” (“Uribe, my friend — we’ve gotta talk.”) He gave Uribe the news. “I almost fainted,” says Uribe.

The medal “reminds me of my duties,” says Uribe, “my duties to the rule of law.”

Juan Manuel Santos has the Nobel Peace Prize from the Norwegian Nobel Committee. Uribe has the Medal of Freedom from Bush. Which is more desirable?

“For my fellow Colombians who have supported us, and for my family,” says Uribe, “the Medal of Freedom is the top award.”

You could argue for the Nobel Peace Prize too. What I mean is, it’s men such as Uribe who forge peace. Without his devastating war against the FARC — without his determination to defend democracy and freedom — no suing for peace by the FARC; no disbandment of the FARC, on terms good or bad; no peace …

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


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