Magazine | December 19, 2016, Issue

Getting to Peace in Colombia

Álvaro Uribe in September 2014 in New York City (Leigh Vogel/Getty Images for Concordia Summit)
A controversial year

Bogotá — Álvaro Uribe has the air of a head of state, the air of a man around whom things revolve. And, to a degree, that is still true. Uribe is a senator in the Colombian congress. But from 2002 to 2010, he was president of the country. Those were eventful years. The year 2016 has been another one. And Uribe has been in the thick of it all.

For the past four years, the Colombian government, headed by President Juan Santos, has engaged in a peace process with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. This group is known by its Spanish acronym, FARC. On August 24, the two sides announced an agreement. That agreement was then put to a national plebiscite. The No campaign — the campaign urging the rejection of the agreement — was led by Uribe. The Yes campaign, naturally, was led by President Santos. On October 2, the vote took place: and Yes lost by an extremely narrow margin, 50.2 percent to 49.8 percent.

The day of the voting was a Sunday. The next Friday morning, the Norwegian Nobel Committee in Oslo made an announcement: The Nobel Peace Prize would go to Santos, for his efforts. The president remarked, “I accept the award with great humility and as an assignment to keep working for peace.”

Álvaro Uribe, too, is a worker for peace. But his ideas are quite different from those of Santos, his successor.

Uribe should have been an American politician: He was born on the Fourth of July (1952). His hometown is Medellín, which became notorious around the world for a drug cartel. I ask Uribe, one morning in the capital, Bogotá, “Did you ever think that your city would be infamous? What did that feel like?” He answers that he was particularly happy to help Medellín during his time as president. In only his third week in office, he dispatched a military battalion to a certain section of the city: Commune 13. The people in this area, says Uribe, had “lived in captivity, because of all kinds of narco-terrorist groups.” He rid the commune of the groups — which indeed must have given him special satisfaction.

For a brief time in 1982, he was mayor of Medellín. The next year, his father, Alberto, was murdered by the FARC. Uribe’s career-long fight against the FARC is national, humane, and patriotic, of course. But it is not unreasonable to suppose that it is personal, too.

The FARC was founded in 1964, when Communist groups were proliferating in Latin America: They wanted to emulate what Fidel Castro and his forces had done in Cuba. The FARC was, and is, proudly Communist. But along the way these guerrillas became the kings of cocaine. They are narco-terrorists as well as Communist revolutionaries. For more than 50 years, they have terrorized Colombia: killing, kidnapping, enslaving, etc. A catalogue of their crimes would make sensational reading, which I will forgo.

More than 220,000 people have been killed, and more than 8 million displaced, in this . . . conflict? What should we call it? The term “civil war” is used around the world, including by the Norwegian Nobel Committee. But it is radioactive here in Colombia. To many people — not all of them hard-liners, by any means — it is offensive and obnoxious.

Uribe is one such person. Colombia is the oldest democracy in Latin America, he says, and groups such as the FARC operate against this democratic Colombia. The FARC has no more than 6,000 members; Colombia has 50 million people. This long, long conflict has been a menacing of society by terrorists. A friend of mine in Bogotá says, “Civil war? A classic one would be the Spanish Civil War, in the 1930s: brother against brother, neighbor against neighbor. A society split down the middle. Colombia is something else. We are talking about hit-and-run attacks by narco-terrorists.”

In the late 1990s, the governments of Colombia and the United States joined forces against them in what was known as “Plan Colombia.” On the Colombian side was President Andrés Pastrana and on the American side President Bill Clinton. They tried various measures: military, diplomatic, and social. Pastrana engaged in a peace process with the FARC, which went nowhere. The “narcos” grew in power and wealth. By 2002, the FARC had something like 20,000 members. According to some, they were on the verge of taking the whole country.

It was in this atmosphere that Uribe was elected president. He vowed to defeat the FARC and give Colombians their society back. He began a policy he called “democratic security,” which insisted on the rule of law — the law of the state, not of the narcos, who were a law unto themselves. The policy also insisted that the Colombian state had the right and the responsibility to govern every inch of the country. No more would swaths, large and small, be ceded to the terrorists.

Uribe was willing to negotiate with them, and he did so — but on strict conditions. For one thing, they would have to cease their attacks before talks could begin. In the FARC, he found no partner.

So he took the fight to them, unrelentingly. In this, he had a full partner in Washington, President George W. Bush. Uribe is grateful to Bush, saying, “He trusted me,” through good days and bad. Crucially, Bush agreed to Uribe’s request that the United States sell Colombia “smart weapons,” to deploy against the FARC and other narcos. “This was the tipping point for us,” says Uribe. “It changed the equation against terrorist groups.” I think of what Churchill said in early 1941: “Give us the tools, and we will finish the job.”

Uribe, with Bush, did not quite finish the job, in that the FARC was still alive by the time he left office in 2010. But the FARC was greatly weakened, greatly diminished. They were in such a reduced state that they would soon be willing to talk disbandment. George W. Bush left office in January 2009. In his last week, he hung the Presidential Medal of Freedom around the necks of three heads of state, three close allies: Tony Blair of Britain, John Howard of Australia, and Uribe.

Succeeding Uribe as president was Juan Santos, who belongs to an old, distinguished political family in this country. Until recently, they owned a major newspaper, El Tiempo. The president’s great-uncle, Eduardo Santos, was himself president, from 1938 to 1942. The incumbent’s cousin, Francisco Santos, was vice president under Uribe. And the incumbent himself was a defense minister under Uribe.

“Was he a good defense minister?” I ask the ex-president. He makes clear, but does not explicitly say, that Santos was not especially relevant. Uribe was his own defense minister. He also recounts several occasions when, in his telling, Santos was hesitant, and boldness was called for. In any event, Santos was elected president on an Uribist platform. He vowed to continue the policies that had decimated the FARC.

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

He 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.

Norway served as a “guarantor” of the peace process between Colombia and the FARC. 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 Venezuela.

Here is a question that I have, for everyone I meet in Bogotá: Why sit down with these brutes and killers in the first place? Is the FARC simply too difficult to defeat militarily, even though they are now a relatively small band? As Mary Anastasia O’Grady, the expert on Latin America at the Wall Street Journal, wrote recently, President Santos has “treated the FARC as the moral equivalent of the democracy.” From what I can tell, the consensus is this: The cost of finishing off the FARC in the field is just too high — too high in blood and treasure. If you can finish them off with a treaty, do it. But make the treaty as workable and palatable as possible.

One great advantage of the FARC is 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. Also, the FARC has plenty of money, through their trafficking in cocaine. Moreover, they have the support of Venezuela and other chavista governments in South America.

It may be astounding that a group as small as the FARC can menace and, to a degree, hold hostage an entire large, 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. And 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. Whether this bounty will be dropped, in the event of the FARC’s disbandment, remains to be seen.

In Bogotá, there is much talk about the president’s mindset, and in particular his ego. It is natural to want the Nobel Peace Prize — many have in the past, and will in the future. It is also natural for a head of state such as Santos to want to be a star in the world: a future secretary-general of the United Nations, perhaps. 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 (the date of Alfred Nobel’s death). Santos may well have thought, “After the plebiscite will come a victory lap — a victory lap in Oslo.”

As you have heard, Santos and the FARC announced their agreement on August 24. It was 297 pages long. There would be five and a half weeks of debate before the plebiscite on October 2. The Yes campaign said, “This is your last and best chance. If you don’t take this chance for peace, there will not be another.” The No campaign said, “That is not true. There can and must be a better agreement. This agreement gives away 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, Álvaro Uribe goes through them. The government got to frame the question — the question that the public would vote on. Also, the Yes campaign vastly outspent the No campaign. And had many more television ads than the No campaign. Furthermore, 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?”

Finally, there was this: A vote for a peace agreement is very attractive. The idea of peace, after decades of conflict, is extremely attractive. That is why the No campaign took care to argue that a vote against the agreement was not a vote against peace but a vote against a particular agreement — a bad one, a deal that was unnecessarily and outrageously lenient toward the FARC.

By that narrow margin, in a shock vote, the public agreed. When I ask people why the No campaign won, they cite the sin of amnesty and other issues — but ultimately they say, “People simply hate the FARC. People who voted Yes, people who voted No — we all hate the FARC, who have caused us so much pain and misery.”

Once the voters rejected the agreement, it was reasonable to conclude that the Nobel committee would not turn to Colombia but elsewhere: Santos did not get his victory, and therefore would not get his victory lap. But the committee indeed turned to Colombia — to Santos — saying that it wished to “encourage all those who are striving to achieve peace, reconciliation, and justice in Colombia.”

What if the Yes campaign had succeeded? Would the Nobel committee have divided the prize between Santos and his counterpart, Timochenko? There is speculation about that in Bogotá. If the committee had done this, Colombians in all likelihood would have reacted in fury. As it was, many on the left throughout the world were furious that Timochenko was denied half of the prize.

In the wake of the prize, Santos was clearly determined to have a new agreement — something to brandish — by December 10, when the Nobel ceremony takes place. 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. 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.

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.

Uribe and his allies are opposed — opposed to the new deal as to the old. They say it does not represent a national agreement: the kind of agreement that Colombians in general can endorse or swallow. So, will Uribe lead the new No campaign? There is not to be a campaign, or a second plebiscite. One was enough, for the Santos government. This new agreement will be ratified by Congress, where Santos has the votes.

The editors of the New York Times have dubbed 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.”

I ask him about the Medal of Freedom, from George W. Bush. Where does it live? “In my house, very close to Medellín.” He 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 have to talk.”) He gave Uribe the news. “I almost fainted,” says Uribe. Santos may have the Nobel Peace Prize, but Uribe has that medal. “It reminds me of my duties,” he says, “my duties to the rule of law.” He also notes this: “For my fellow Colombians who have supported us, and for my family, the Medal of Freedom is the top award.”

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