President Juan Manuel Santos said Colombians would accept a deal granting unelected guerrilla leaders seats in Congress if it brings an end to a conflict that has left 220,000 dead.
The war against the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, is the biggest “brake” preventing the Andean nation from realizing its full potential, Santos said in an interview yesterday. With peace talks continuing in Havana, Santos said an accord that will need to be approved in a national vote could be ready before presidential elections in May.
Voters would pass a referendum containing unpopular measures such as the transformation of the FARC into a political party and special treatment in the justice system for crimes committed by guerrillas, as part of a package that ends half a century of bloodshed, Santos said. The process is complicated by opponents who “extrapolate and magnify” some issues in order to frighten the public, rather than weighing them as part of a pact that brings peace, he said.
“I was very aware since the beginning that it would be very difficult to sell to public opinion,” Santos, 62, said in his office at the presidential palace in Bogota. “But I can assure you that if you have a sensible package, people will accept it. People are tired of war.”
Since he was elected in 2010, Santos’s government has tracked down and killed the group’s top two leaders and dozens of its mid-level commanders, weakening one of the world’s oldest guerrilla groups. Still, the FARC continues to control swathes of territory and mount attacks on army patrol and oil pipelines. The government rejected the FARC’s offer of a ceasefire during the talks, to prevent them from regrouping.
On Aug. 25, the guerrillas killed 13 soldiers near the Colombian border with Venezuela, according to El Tiempo, Colombia’s biggest newspaper, which was controlled by Santos’ family until 2007.
The rebels also stepped up attacks on the oil industry, which accounts for more than half of the country’s exports. The Ministry of Defense reported 138 attacks on oil pipelines in the first eight months of this year, up from 119 in the same period a year ago.
After the failure of the last peace talks in 2002, Colombians elected President Alvaro Uribe, who advocated a hard line against the FARC. Under his presidency, the government strengthened its armed forces and, backed by U.S. military aid, retook territory from the guerrillas. Santos was Uribe’s defense minister from 2006 to 2009.
The Colombian peso has rallied 47 percent in the past decade, the best performing major currency in Latin America. Colombia’s IGBC stock index has gained 552 percent in local currency terms over the same period, compared to a 228 percent gain for Brazil’s benchmark Ibovespa index.
“We’ve been a country that has been at war for more than 50 years, 220,000 people have been killed in the most difficult circumstances,” Santos, who studied at the London School of Economics and Harvard University, said. “If we are able to take that out of the Colombian scenario then we can unleash much more potential.”
Santos declined to say how the peace negotiations are proceeding, citing the government’s agreement with the FARC that details discussed at the table won’t be mentioned in public.
As talks continue, Santos’s approval ratings have plunged to a record low after students and truck drivers joined farmers in nationwide protests amid growing discontent with the economy.
The number of Colombians with a favorable image of Santos dropped to 21 percent at the end of August from 48 percent in June, according to a Gallup poll published by Caracol Radio and El Tiempo newspaper.
Economic growth quickened to 4 percent or more in the second quarter from 2.8 percent in the previous three months, led by a jump in agricultural output and public works spending, Santos said. The official report is due Sept. 19.
Internal polls obtained by the Presidency show that his popularity has more than doubled since the height of protests last month, Santos said. He declined to say whether he will run for a second term, saying that this would curb his “room for maneuver.” He has until the end of November to announce his decision.
Meanwhile, Santos said the peace talks are his priority.
“It might be wishful thinking,” he said. “But I am optimistic that we will reach an agreement before the elections.”