This week’s Colombian voter poll had to feel like a back-handed compliment for President Juan Manuel Santos.
The new survey by the Bogotá research firm Ipsos-Napoleón Franco shows Santos with a 17-point lead over his closest competitor in his bid to win re-election in May. But Santos garners just 25 percent of the vote. Half of those polled said they were undecided or intend to cast a blank protest ballot. That’s hardly cause for cumbia dancing at the Casa de Nariño presidential palace.
Nor is another bit of voter dyspepsia the Ipsos poll found, one that may help explain why Santos isn’t exactly locking in a mandate right now. Almost 60 percent said they’re pessimistic about peace talks, which resumed in Cuba this week, to end Colombia’s half-century-long war with Marxist guerrillas known as the Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces, or FARC. It is Latin America’s last remaining cold-war conflict.
The peace picture was further muddled on Tuesday, when Santos announced a probe into allegations that right-wingers opposed to the talks, including military officials, have been hacking into his negotiating team's phone calls, emails and text messages.
Ironically, the poll and scandal news obscure the fact that the negotiations have made real progress in recent months. Since the talks started in earnest last year, agreements on the two key issues of land reform and FARC political participation have been hammered out, and both sides at least appear hopeful the rest of the agenda can come together this year.
“We have never agreed on points as transcendent as those [first] two,” Colombia’s new Ambassador to the United States, Luis Carlos Villegas, told me.
“It doesn’t mean we’re on an easy path," he said, "but we’ve never talked [about] so many aspects of the conflict as we are now.”
Until recently, Villegas had a front-row seat at the Havana talks as a member of Santos’ negotiating team. And he’s aware of one big reason Colombian optimism may be trending downward at this juncture:
Securing accords on the talks’ remaining points – including a pledge from the guerrillas to renounce their ultra-lucrative cocaine-trafficking business – will depend largely on the good will of the FARC. And there are few things Colombians have less faith in than the good will of the FARC, who are also notorious for the ransom kidnapping of civilians.
Santos' critics say he didn’t brighten the negotiating table himself recently when the Colombian military launched a new offensive against the FARC. But his backers say the army’s push reflects political necessity: It blunts accusations from Santos’ more conservative rivals that he’s mollycoddling narco-guerrillas.
And it seems to be working. The leading challenger in the May 25 presidential race, right-wing Oscar Zuluaga, a right-winger who opposes the peace talks, scores only 8 percent in this week’s poll – and the spying accusations, even if they don't touch him personally, could hurt his campaign.
But is the offensive good negotiating strategy? “The President has said we are going to the table but we won’t move away from the [battle] field,” says Villegas. “The way of ending the [conflict] is ... not through a cease-fire that will last only a couple of months.”
CARROT AND STICK
Villegas argues the ongoing military pressure is a carrot as well as a stick. It not only convinces the depleted FARC of the futility of continuing the war. It shows them that the Colombian state is no longer the laughingstock it was little more than a decade ago – before the government, with $5 billion in U.S. aid, got its act together and started knocking the guerrillas back on their heels.
That, says Villegas, should also indicate to the rebels that Colombia is now capable of reforming the epic social injustice and dysfunction that originally sparked the Colombian clash, which has killed more than 220,000 people and turned five million more into refugees.
“This is the time for peace talks because Colombia is very different from the country it used to be 20 years ago,” says Villegas. “A poverty rate that was 60 percent 15 years ago is now 30 percent and going down. Our public budget 15 years ago was $25 billion; this year’s budget is $120 billion.”
In fact, he adds, experts believe the conflict has cost Colombia as much as 2 percent of economic growth each year – and hampers its current bid to become Latin America's new economic powerhouse. “It impeaches our development,” Villegas says.
I also asked Villegas if, after his months sitting across from FARC leaders, he’s convinced they can really contribute to that development as mainstream political players.
“It’s their only chance,” he said. “They can’t remain being what [they are] if they want to be transcendent in Colombian history.
“But I think they are ready to [take] that step. … It’s a question of the evolution of the thinking of the FARC, and I think the moment has come [for] that evolution.”
Santos would love to see more FARC breakthroughs between now and May 25 – if only so he can win re-election with something more than back-handed approval from Colombians.
Tim Padgett is WLRN's Americas editor. You can read more of his coverage here.