Colombia’s president heads to U.S. amid cancer fears, delicate time for peace

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos (center) announces on Tuesday that he will be traveling to the United States amid fears that his prostate cancer has returned.
Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos (center) announces on Tuesday that he will be traveling to the United States amid fears that his prostate cancer has returned. Colombian Presidency

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos is traveling to the United States Wednesday for medical tests amid fears that his prostate cancer has returned. The trip comes at a sensitive time, as the administration is trying to win approval for a modified peace deal with the country’s largest guerrilla group.

In a brief statement from Bogotá’s Santa Fe Hospital, Santos, 65, said the news that his cancer might have returned had caught him by “surprise.” He first underwent prostate surgery in October 2012, when he said a “small tumor” had been removed during surgery. At the time, he said there was a “97 percent chance” that he was totally cured.

Adolfo Llinás, the head of the medical center, said that Santos had come in for a routine checkup when doctors found elevated levels of prostate-specific antigen, or PSA, a protein used to track prostate cancer.

Llinás said Santos would travel to the Johns Hopkins cancer center in Baltimore for additional tests not available in this Andean nation.

“When we know the results of all the studies and define a course of treatment, the president has asked us to let the public know,” Llinás said.

Santos said he will have the tests Thursday and return to the country Friday. He said he hoped to take advantage of the trip to attend an event at the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington and host a dinner for Vice President Joe Biden.

New Peace Deal

The whirlwind trip comes just days after Santos announced that his negotiators had hammered out a modified peace deal with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, guerrillas.

Santos won the Nobel Peace Prize this year for his efforts to end the nation’s half-century conflict, even as the initial deal was narrowly rejected during an Oct. 2 plebiscite.

On Saturday, negotiators in Havana signed a new deal, saying they had listened to their critics and incorporated revisions.

But even as they were asking the nation to get behind the revised accord, opponents accused the administration of shutting them out of the process by not giving them a chance to weigh in on the new document.

Rafael Guarín, a former deputy minister of defense who campaigned against the initial deal, said the new draft didn’t address many of his concerns.

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On Tuesday, as he finished reading the 310-page document, Guarín said that there had been many modifications but that the two elements that, in his mind, were the most objectionable, remained: Under the deal, FARC leaders accused of genocide and other crimes against humanity will have access to sentences other than jail as long as they confess and provide reparations. And FARC leaders will be able to run for political office even as they’re serving their sentences. (In addition, during two electoral cycles starting in 2018 the FARC will be guaranteed at least 10 legislative seats.)

By not giving critics a chance to study the language before it was signed for the second time, the Santos government wasted an opportunity, Guarín said.

“The administration said they were going to share the advances they were making in the negotiations,” he said. “But when the president announced that this was the definitive agreement, he threw the possibility of a national consensus in the garbage.”

Negotiators did tighten the language around critical issues. Now, for example, the agreement states that the area where FARC leaders will face five- to eight-year “confinement” will never be larger than a vereda, or a municipal subdivision.

Vote or Congress?

They’ve also closed loopholes.

While the previous agreement required the FARC to make reparations to victims, under the current iteration the group has to provide an inventory of all their possessions and assets to be used in that effort. Failure to do so would mean they’d lose the alternative-sentencing benefits.

At a conference Tuesday, government negotiators said that they had made every effort to incorporate changes suggested by their critics, but that there were certain issues that couldn’t be touched: particularly the FARC’s participation in politics.

“This is the final deal,” said Peace Commissioner Sergio Jaramillo. “And there’s really no more room for negotiation.”

Colombia’s long-running conflict has cost more than 220,000 lives and forced more than six million to flee their homes.

Interior Minister Juan Fernando Cristo said the administration will be meeting in coming days with critics to “inform them” of the modifications and try to reach an agreement on how to ratify the deal. He said this second draft might not go up for a vote, but rather be passed by a pro-Santos congress.

“We need to look forward and find the best way to ratify the deal,” he said, “in a way that creates the least amount of polarization.”