BOGOTA, Colombia -- With less than two months to go before Colombia’s May 25 presidential election, Óscar Iván Zuluaga is scrambling to clench second place along with former Bogotá Mayor Enrique Peñalosa. Unless there is a sea change in polls, one of the two men is likely to face President Juan Manuel Santos in a June run-off.
Zuluaga, a one-time mayor and minister of finance, has a powerful ally: former President Álvaro Uribe (2002-2010) and his Centro Democratico party. Uribe remains popular here despite being hounded by scandals, and many credit him with helping Santos win the 2010 presidential race. But Santos and Uribe are now enemies and Zuluaga is counting on the former president’s appeal to win Colombia’s top spot.
On his way to South Florida on a fund-raising trip this weekend, Zuluaga agreed to talk to the Miami Herald about Colombia’s peace process with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, guerrillas, the troubles in Venezuela and his powerful and controversial political ally.
Q What’s the message you’re taking to the Colombian community in Miami?
A I want to evaluate how they see the country, present my presidential platform and program, and find mechanisms to engage them so that Colombia can benefit from all the experience and knowledge they’ve gained from their years living outside the country.
Q Colombians in the United States tend to support former President Alvaro Uribe. I would think that would be good for your campaign. Do you get that sense when you travel there?
A Without a doubt, Colombians living abroad saw some of the greatest benefits during the Uribe administration. The majority of them left the country because of security fears and they see that Uribe helped rescue the nation. He helped make Colombia an international player again… They have much more affinity for the political proposals of our Centro Democratico party.
Q Has Colombia changed enough that it’s time for them to come home?
A In a globalized world, what’s important is the flow of investment. They can stay living in the United States but invest in Colombia, build businesses here. There are opportunities under the [U.S.-Colombia] free trade agreement for many small businesses [in the United States] to be channels into the U.S. market…Colombians in the United States can support the country in two ways: they can invest in Colombia, and they provide an entrance into the U.S. market.
Q One of the major issues of this campaign is the peace process with the FARC guerrillas. Progress has been made, but some polls show support declining for the talks in Cuba. What would you do to revive confidence in the negotiations?
A What Colombians want is for the process in Havana to represent a dignified and stable peace. What we have now is a leap into the void — it’s a failure…Every day the FARC are committing acts of terrorism and they are the principal drug-trafficking cartel in the world. Colombians don’t understand how the government can sit down, without any preconditions, with an organization that keeps attacking Colombians…I’m in favor of a negotiated peace but we have to set conditions: the FARC must suspend all criminal activity and that suspension has to be verified for this to be a serious process.
Q But under those conditions — ceasing all criminal activity — it’s very unlikely the talks would ever take place.
A We’ll never have peace if the [talks] stay in Havana and the government remains complacent to terrorism…That’s why Colombia has to establish clear conditions. What’s at sake here is democracy and our institutions…We can’t negotiate simply for the sake of negotiating — that’s a process that leads us to surrendering our democracy.
Q Right now, at the peace talks, they’re discussing the drug trade. You have been very vocal against any talk of legalization. What’s the solution?
A I cannot accept that Colombia’s anti-drug policy is being negotiated with the principal drug cartel in the world. I am not in favor of legalization. That is not the way forward for a country like Colombia; it’s not the way to solve our problems. Today, the principal source of insecurity in Colombian cities is areas where drugs are being sold. Entire criminal organizations are built around the local drug trade. Our proposal is to give addicts all the support and treatment that we can, and have very robust anti-drug campaigns. But for those who traffic, sell and benefit from the drug trade, we will come down on them with the full force of the law.
Q How do you see U.S. drug policy right now? On one hand the U.S. is asking countries like Colombia to stay tough on drugs, but on the other hand, U.S. states are legalizing marijuana.
A U.S. states have a degree of autonomy and are making their own decisions…But Colombia cannot do anything different than defend its internal policies. We cannot legalize drugs just because it’s fashionable. It has to be the product of an internal debate and conviction of the society.
Q During the two-month political crisis in Venezuela, some have criticized President Santos for not being more vocal. If you were president how would you have handled it?
A I reject Colombia’s complicit silence on Venezuela…The responsibility of any president is to defend democracy and democratic values. That’s what’s at stake in Venezuela. That’s why Colombia needs to take an energetic stand, because the risks to Colombia from a Venezuelan dictatorship are great. And we’ve been warning people that the peace process in Havana is the door for the Castro- Chavista [Cuban-Venezuelan] regime to enter Colombia.
Q Do you think Colombia’s response to the Venezuelan crisis is conditioned on the fact that Venezuela is one of the guarantors of the peace process in Cuba?
A Without a doubt. All of the [Colombian] government’s actions pass through Havana. The country’s national agenda is being set in Havana.
Q Is peace in Colombia possible with the instability in Venezuela?
A Colombia’s peace is conditioned on democracy in Venezuela. We share a 2,500 kilometer border….Ranchers in Arauca, Colombia are being extorted by FARC terrorists and have to pay their bribe in Venezuela. In Catatumbo [northern Colombia], illicit crops are expanding and there’s a corridor where the FARC move between Venezuela and [Colombia]…That’s why we need democracy in Venezuela so they will help fight terrorism and drug trafficking, two big enemies of any democratic system.
Q The head of your party and your political mentor, former President Alvaro Uribe, has been questioned about his ties to paramilitary groups and he’s facing more than 200 allegations in the congressional accusatory commission. What’s your opinion about these accusations and the investigations?
A In Colombia, President Uribe has constantly been attacked. It’s practically standard procedure for anyone in the opposition. But President Uribe has never run from the allegations. He has an explanation for everything…President Uribe saved Colombia. He pulled it out of the claws of terrorism and returned faith and hope. And it was his policies that helped [President Santos] win the election [in 2010.] That’s the reach of his leadership.
Q Is Uribe’s political reach long enough to make you president?
A Without a doubt. I’m proud to be the candidate of Uribismo but I am going to win with the vote of all Colombians.
Q If Uribe does face formal charges and an investigation would you, as president, guarantee that you would not interfere?
A Colombia’s justice system is autonomous and I will respect it as I have for the entirety of my public and private life. I’m a man who believes in institutions.