Andres Oppenheimer

Colombia’s president: Vote will show ‘overwhelming’ support for peace accords


Rejecting criticism that his peace agreement with the FARC guerrillas will grant amnesty to war criminals, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos said in an interview that his country’s peace process will be a approved by a wide margin in an Oct. 2 referendum and will become a model for resolving armed conflicts worldwide.

“There is a majority and overwhelming support [for the peace accords], and you will see that in the vote,” Santos said of the referendum allowing Colombians to decide whether to support his agreement with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, and end the five-decades-old armed conflict that has left more than 200,000 dead. “They may not like the president, or the government, but there is a big majority that supports peace.”

In an interview on Friday with the Miami Herald and “Oppenheimer Presenta” on CNN en Español, Santos promised that “justice will be applied” for FARC guerrillas who are most responsible for the conflict, and talked about how the country will pay for the peace process “to end a war that has bludgeoned Colombia for 50 years.”

Here are some key portions of the interview, edited for brevity. The full interview will air at 7 p.m. Sunday on CNN en Español.

Q: What do you say to criticism from human rights groups such as Human Rights Watch that say these peace accords set a horrible precedent because they grant impunity to terrorists?

A: Human Rights Watch is the only nongovernment organization that has said that, because 100 others say the opposite. The International Criminal Court, which is the institution with the most legitimacy to talk about this issue, which was created precisely to resolve armed conflicts without granting impunity, is lauding and supporting what has been done here. The Inter-American Human Rights Commission, in charge of protecting human rights, has clearly stated that what has been done here respects human rights, and that there is no impunity, and will not be impunity, because those responsible [for war crimes] will be investigated, judged, condemned and punished.

Q: But many critics at home and abroad say that these punishments will be symbolic, and that former criminals will be able to serve their sentences on golf courses. True or false?

A: That’s what critics say. How can they come up with the idea that guerrillas will end up on golf courses? Please! That’s absurd. What’s happening is that if within any peace process there is the option of applying regular laws the way they exist, then there you won’t have peace. That’s why we will give some benefits allowed under the “transitional justice,” which was created for that purpose, in which the punishment will not be normal punishments like we are accustomed to. But justice will be applied.

Q: Your critics say that, even supposing that the war criminals won’t serve their sentences in golf courses, they will do so in very comfortable circumstances.

A: Who says they will be comfortable?

Q: Former President Alvaro Uribe, Human Rights Watch, their followers...

A: Today, on that point, that criticism has been proved invalid, because the truth has become known, and “transitional justice” is turning into a precedent for the whole world. The whole world is supporting these agreements because it is the first time in history that there is an armed conflict, and the two sides agree on a justice system and to submit themselves to that system. Never before did it happen that a guerrilla will turn in its weapons, and submit itself to a justice system in which there won’t be impunity. Those who have the biggest responsibility will be condemned. That’s something without precedent.

Q: But they may serve very short sentences...

A: Between five and eight years, with an effective restriction on their freedom of movement. It’s not a jail with bars, nor with a prison uniform, like many [critics] are wishing, but it is a punishment, a ruling, they are being convicted. And that’s a small part of this agreement. What this agreement is allowing us [to do] is to end a war that has bludgeoned Colombia for 50 years. This is a unique opportunity for the Colombian people, unique, that will allow us to stop living in war, to end the last armed conflict in the Western Hemisphere.

Q: Your critics are also objecting to the fact that the FARC guerillas will be automatically given 10 seats in Congress for the next eight years. Won’t that set a dangerous precedent for others to take up arms, thinking that eventually they’ll get seats in Congress? Shouldn’t they compete in elections?

A: They will compete. If they don’t reach a certain threshold [of representation], they will get some seats. How many seats were they given in Sri Lanka, in El Salvador, everywhere? A lot more! This is a minimum price, because that’s what a peace process is all about: that they put down their weapons and that they can continue their political struggle without violence. [Some] people say: “How can they give the guerrillas a political space?” Well, should we allow them to continue with the war 20 or 30 more years? That’s the alternative.

Q: Your political rivals say that it’s naive to think that the FARC will give up their weapons. They say that while some FARC rebels will do so, many others will join the drug cartels, or change their uniforms and join the ELN [National Liberation Army of Colombia] guerrillas.

A: That’s wrong, for the following reason. One of the points that I insisted be included in the agreement was the one about drug traffic. What’s the reason why Colombia has been the world’s biggest cocaine exporter in the past 30 or 40 years? Because of the armed conflict, because every time we went to eradicate illicit crops, the FARC received our soldiers and our policemen with sharpshooters and anti-personnel mines. And paying a huge price, we eradicated 20 or 100 or 200 hectares. And the next day, as soon as we left, they came back and replanted those crops. Now, yes, we can stop being the first world exporter of cocaine because one of the commitments they have made is to collaborate with the state to replace illegal crops with legal ones. That will be a huge benefit for the whole world.

Q: Let’s talk about the Oct. 2 referendum. Your critics say the question you will pose to voters is deceitful, and aimed at inducing people to vote in favor of the peace accords. The question you have chosen is whether they are in favor of “ending the conflict and for the construction of a stable and durable peace.” But who will vote against “a stable and durable peace”?

A: You know how the agreement is named? The essence, the clearest, the most objective, the simplest is to ask people: do you support — yes or no — followed by the name of the agreement. Tell me something clearer and objective to ask.

Q: Wouldn’t it have been more fair to ask, “Do you support the final peace agreement with the FARC?”

A: I didn’t do that precisely because, had I done that, they would criticize me, saying, “How can you ask people to choose between peace and war?” So what we did is what ethical norms required us to do, which was to ask whether they support the name of the agreement. All the experts I consulted told me that that’s the most objective thing to do, so that’s what I did.

Q: How will you fund the peace process now that it looks like the Obama administration will not be able to get congressional approval for $90 million in additional aid to help pay for the peace deal?

A: That’s not important to us, because we ourselves are financing the bulk of this entire process. You can rest assured that peace is much more profitable for the government and for Colombians than war. War has cost us a lot of money. With what we pay for four Black Hawks [helicopters], we can pay for the re-integration of the 14,000 guerrillas. So critics should not come now and tell us that we have no money for the post-conflict period. Of course we do, and much of it is already in our budgets.

Watch “Oppenheimer Presenta” at 9 p.m. Sundays on CNN en Español. Twitter: @oppenheimera

Watch “Oppenheimer Presenta” at 9 p.m. Sundays on CNN en Español