This article is part of New Europe’s: Our World in 2017

Colombia -Bogotá    

Conducted by Shlomo Ben-Ami

Given your record as a military hawk when you served as President Álvaro Uribe’s defense minister, and the fact that Colombia was on the verge of war with Venezuela and Ecuador – both countries having given ideological and logistical support to the FARC – your shift to peacemaking surprised many people. Can you elaborate on how and why this happened?

There was no shift. Past attempts to negotiate with the FARC failed because the conditions were not ripe. Two of those conditions were military advantage, so that the government could negotiate from strength, and the support of the region. What I did was to create those conditions – the first through military effectiveness, and the second through pragmatic diplomacy.

How would you define the role of the late Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez and Cuban President Raúl Castro in the process?

I must say that both Chávez and Castro were extremely helpful throughout the entire process. Their influence on the FARC was a determining factor in pushing them in the right direction.

Four years for a peace process with a guerrilla organization decimated by war and desertions is a fairly long time. Why was it such a complex affair?

Making peace is always a complex affair, particularly after 50 years of conflict. Reaching agreements and convincing an organization that for so many years fought democratic institutions to accept them is difficult. And prolonged talks may not be a bad thing. Interestingly, the Peace Accords Matrix Project developed by the Kroc Institute at the University of Notre Dame, after studying 34 comprehensive peace agreements signed since 1989, concluded that lengthier negotiations tend to produce better accords.

What would you say was the main achievement in these negotiations? Would you agree that the fact that not even one of the FARC’s revolutionary aspirations was on the agenda was such an achievement?

From the very beginning, I had my red lines and clear objectives, the main one being to end the conflict, not to make a revolution by decree.

The Law of Victims and Land Restitution was enacted before the peace talks started. Was this bait to attract the guerrillas to the negotiating table, or is this a law you would have supported anyway? How would you define the law’s meaning and importance for Colombia?

It was very clear to me from the beginning that the victims and their rights had to be at the center of the resolution of this conflict. The law was enacted in order to start healing the wounds, because we had so many victims. I think this has given the whole process tremendous legitimacy. We have already provided reparations to nearly 700,000 victims and restituted more than 200,000 hectares of land to peasants displaced by violence. There is no precedent for any peace process achieving this even before the end of the conflict, and there is no country where so many victims have been compensated.

A major challenge for the peacemaker has always been how to coopt the army and the state bureaucracy to his or her vision. Was this truly achieved in your case? Were there attempts by your political opponents to derail the process by instigating opposition within the army? If yes, how did you deal with this?

One of the key reasons for the success of this process was precisely that, from the outset, I not only informed, but also involved the military and the police in the negotiations, so that they would become supporters and not spoilers. I told them that peace is a victory for any soldier. And, yes, there were many attempts by spoilers to derail the process through the military. But with persuasion and discipline, they stayed the course.

Why did former President Uribe oppose your peace enterprise so fiercely? Was it because he truly believed that pursuing the war was a better option, or did he simply believe that he could have secured a better deal?

Uribe attempted to do what we are doing. It is a matter of record that he proposed many of the components of the agreement that he then criticized.

Colombians’ rejection of the peace accord by a razor-thin margin in October’s plebiscite nearly doomed the deal. Was the referendum necessary?

It was not necessary. I was not legally compelled to do it. Everybody was against it. But from the very beginning, I thought it was the correct thing to do. My style of governing is not to seek applause, but to do what is right, even if it is unpopular. A good leader must be bold and willing to take risks. Yes, we barely lost the battle. But we also gained an opportunity to forge unity and peace in a much more decisive way. That’s why I truly believe the outcome was a blessing in disguise.

Many expected that the consequences of the “NO” vote would be either a protracted political crisis, or a prolonged re-negotiation that might stretch until the 2018 election campaign. Combining peace negotiations with an electoral agenda would have been devastating for political stability and the cause of peace. The state of limbo might have led the guerrillas to disengage, and perhaps worse, fragment into uncontrollable factions with no unity of command.

Time and dialogue became essential. Instead of dismissing the opposition’s claims as sheer politicking, I engaged in serious talks on what was essential for a new agreement. The guerrillas also exhibited a keen interest in moving forward, by modifying some of the agreement’s provisions while insisting on their red lines (political integration and no prison sentences). They were just as willing as we were to listen to the voice of the people as reflected in the plebiscite.

In the course of intense negotiations, we managed to redraft some clauses that the “No” leaders regarded as ambiguous, and we agreed on some more substantial modifications, but without departing from the original agreement’s essential structure and principles. For example, the composition of the special tribunal for transitional justice would include only Colombian judges, but in strict accordance with international standards. We also made clear that the rural and agrarian reform would safeguard private property, while the guerrillas would disclose their illicit property and use it for reparations for victims.

This and some other modifications, as I said, do not change, in any meaningful way, the essence of the original agreement. But the national dialogue that the plebiscite compelled enabled us all to face the future with as wide a national consensus as possible. I truly believe that what had been a peace agreement between the government and the guerrillas is now an inclusive agreement, one that not only ended the armed conflict in our country, but that also marks the beginning of a historic process of national reconciliation.

Over the four years of the negotiations, was there a moment when you felt you were about to give up, that this would simply not work?

Of course. This has been a very long and difficult journey, and there were many times when I considered throwing in the towel. But I followed the advice of a well-known Harvard professor: Listen to the victims. They will reenergize you. That thought and talking with them was essential to persevere.

Your opponents have frequently accused you of being a single-issue president, and that you have left many of the country’s other key problems unattended.

I have been accused of many things: being a communist agent, a member of the KGB, a traitor to my class. Being called a single-issue president is the least of it. But it is quite the opposite. We have one of the soundest economies in Latin America, with some of the best social indicators. The poverty rate has fallen by 12 percentage points, and extreme poverty has been cut in half during my presidency. We have made education completely free, and the quality of education has improved in an unprecedented way. Access to higher education increased by 30 percentage points. In three years, we have built more schools than had been planned for the next 60 years.

We have also made health care a fundamental right, and we now have universal coverage. Moreover, we have built more than a million houses, mostly for the poorest (the previous record for any government was 300,000). And we are making a real revolution in our infrastructure that will make our economy more competitive. I could continue, but I’ll stop there.

Many people and governments around the world worry about Colombia’s role as a major producer and exporter of drugs. Are you in position to assure that this peace accord would bring an end to that role?

The accord will help us to address, for the very first time, substitution of illegal crops for legal crops in a comprehensive and effective way. Before the agreement, this was impossible, because the FARC protected the coca fields. Every time we eradicated them, at a very high cost, they would simply plant more the next day. Now they are committed to help us in this crop substitution policy.

You are on record as a supporter of the legalization of drugs. What are your reasons? The Nobel Peace Prize you received gives you a privileged platform to join other world leaders in a global campaign for drug legalization. Would you pursue this?

The global war on drugs has been fought for more than 40 years, with no prospect of victory. Colombia has made the largest sacrifices and paid the highest costs for this war, and we sometimes feel as if we were riding a stationary bike. We need a new approach, one that is oriented more to human rights and public health. Locking up everyone involved has simply not worked. Law enforcement should be focused on the most damaging links of the drug-trafficking chain. But this is an issue that must be addressed internationally, because it remains a global problem. And, yes, I will continue to push this discussion worldwide.

What do you see as the main benefits of peace for Colombia?

Peace will be a game changer for Colombia in every respect. Just imagine what a society that, after 50 years of war, has lost even its compassion could achieve in a peaceful environment. Investment – both private and public – will increase and reach regions with high growth potential that were cut off by violence. Our agricultural, industrial, and tourism potential will be unleashed, creating more jobs, progress, and social equality. The sky is the limit.

But, as you suggested earlier, the accord is not the end of the road. The rest of your presidency will be marked by tough post-conflict challenges. What exactly are these challenges, and how do you plan to address them?

The agreement will end the conflict. The construction of peace will require a much larger – and longer – effort. The main challenge will be to unite the country and coordinate the government and the entire state in order to implement the peace agreement in an efficient and effective way. I am convinced that Colombians have the talent, the willingness, and the endurance to sow the seeds and collect the fruits of peace.