While many foreigners have been swept up in the excitement over the peace agreement between the Colombian government and the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC), Colombia’s own political class is more divided. For one, President Juan Manuel Santos faces stiff opposition from two of his presidential predecessors, Álvaro Uribe and Andrés Pastrana.
The positions these former presidents have adopted—and how those positions are perceived—matter. Both men, especially Uribe, retain influential bully pulpits. Though, to a lesser degree, Pastrana’s word also carries weight as a president who himself tried and failed to reach a peace agreement with the FARC.
Neither Uribe nor Pastrana has shown any qualms about publicly criticizing a sitting president, something that most former presidents—in many countries—at least make the pretense of avoiding. In contrast, virtually since he left office, Uribe has mobilized and led his own followers against the government of his former defense minister, Santos, in the new president’s campaign for peace. Both Uribe and his followers are implacable, and likely unpersuadable, opponents of the agreement.
Pastrana’s base is smaller and also more malleable. He has tried—so far without success—to turn his Conservative Party against the referendum. If the public vote is close—and polls so far have shown widely disparate results—the position of Conservative voters could shift the balance. While being unremittingly critical, Pastrana also recently asked Santos for a meeting with the FARC’s top commander—without specifying its purpose.
Why would Pastrana, who bet his presidential legacy on continuing peace talks that never really got off the ground, now remake himself as a chief antagonist?
The two, Pastrana and Uribe, make strange political bedfellows, as a recent article in Colombia’s Semana noted. Uribe’s rise was facilitated by the perceived failings of the Pastrana administration. His new Colombia First party fractured Pastrana’s Conservatives and eventually pushed Pastrana’s candidate to leave the race. This was a shocking decline for the Conservative Party that had been the center-right partner in the country’s historic two-party system.
Since Uribe’s 2002 election, the Conservatives have not come close to passing the first round in a presidential race. Still, Pastrana briefly cemented the Uribe-Conservative alliance by becoming Uribe’s emissary to Washington in 2006. But he quit that job in disgust when his own predecessor, Ernesto Samper—for Pastrana a figure sullied by charges that his campaign was financed by narcotraffickers—was named Uribe’s ambassador to France. More recently, Pastrana and Uribe found common ground opposing the continued power grabs of Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro. Then in early 2014 came their tag-team opposition to their own president’s plan for peace.
Uribe’s opposition is unsurprising. As president, he was known for his hard-line, military approach to the FARC. Members of his party—and his family—have been linked to anti-FARC paramilitaries of the same sort implicated in some of the conflict’s worst human rights violations. While Uribe at times discussed a political settlement to the Colombian conflict, his actions and rhetoric made clear that such an end would resemble a FARC surrender and not a negotiation.
Pastrana’s opposition presents a different, and more confounding, picture. Perhaps even more than Santos today, Pastrana gambled heavily on a negotiated end to the conflict during his administration. During the presidential campaign, he strove for the mantle of “peace candidate.” He doubled down on this approach even before his inauguration, when he dramatically flew into a FARC stronghold to meet with the group’s legendary founder, Manuel—“Tiro Fijo”—Sure Shot—Marulanda. His peace efforts drew intense criticism from the Colombian military—provoking cries of protest from the Colombian Congress and many sectors in the U.S. as well as the resignation of his first defense minister Rodrigo Lloreda. However, peace was never Pastrana’s whole program. Declassified documents show that his administration made overtures for greater U.S. military assistance even before the second-round election. The notion, advanced largely by scholars critical of U.S. policy, that there was a completely peaceful Pastrana plan that was later subverted by bellicose U.S. policymakers largely ignores or misunderstands the actions and double agenda of the Colombian government.
That said, Pastrana took real political risks for peace. He went to great lengths to continue the talks, even as his personal popularity eroded. He created and repeatedly extended a de-militarized zone for the FARC, often called the zona de despeje, despite a lack of progress in the talks and considerable evidence that the FARC was violating the terms of the negotiations.
Pastrana offers in his memoir that he saw the peace effort as a major part of his legacy—just as central as Plan Colombia, the U.S.-supported plan to strengthen the military in its fight against the drug trade and FARC. In the book, Pastrana wrote about the failure of his peace talks, “I had bet with my whole soul on a process to reach peace, but the FARC, deaf and blind to the pain of their countrymen, preferred to bet on war.” In conversations around the creation of Plan Colombia, President Bill Clinton’s administration gave Pastrana wide latitude to continue the talks despite growing skepticism. However, the concessions Pastrana made to keep the talks going despite escalating FARC violence and involvement in the drug trade could have put the U.S. aid package at risk in the Congress. In interviews in 2011, before the current peace process was under way, several members of Pastrana’s cabinet expressed to me their belief in the importance of those talks and a conviction that a final settlement to the conflict could only be political and not military. Indeed, in the last days of his presidency, high level members of his administration, including Peace Commissioner Victor G. Ricardo and Gonzalo de Francsico, joined the former president in meetings with the FARC.
Pastrana insists that the peace agreements are being confused for peace itself. However, the legacy of Pastrana’s presidency raises questions about his reasons for opposing Santos’ peace process so stridently today. The former president has criticized the process and the resulting deal along three lines. First, Pastrana has argued that the deal lacks sufficiently harsh punishments for former FARC members and commanders. Certainly, this is a point where his concern has been shared by many, including international human rights defenders, such as Human Rights Watch. Second, he has argued that the deal would undermine U.S.-backed gains against drug production and trafficking, leading to a “narcotized” peace. Pastrana had raised similar concerns over Uribe’s demobilization deal with paramilitaries who were also engaged in drug-trafficking. Finally, the former Conservative president has attacked the accords that came out of the discussions in Havana as undemocratic and perhaps unconstitutional. He referred to the referendum as “the point of the iceberg of the corruption and surrender of our institutions.” He has also criticized its budgetary aspects, particularly the costs of re-integration of former combatants.
Any peace negotiation was bound to involve concessions. Despite its limited progress, Pastrana’s peace process was no different. Pastrana has attacked provisions of the current deal, saying “it supplants all the democratic elements of our justice system.” However, it is not clear how the concessions made by Santos today are more generous than those Pastrana’s administration was prepared to make. In May 1999, the two sides announced a 12-point agenda, which held out the possibility of deep reforms to the structure of the state and economy and greater political inclusion. Those talks were continually interrupted by FARC reticence and outbreaks of violence. And yet, despite continuing violence, Pastrana offered multiple extensions of the de-militarization of the zona de depeje in Caguán. Neverthless in a recent public letter Pastrana concludes with “NO to turning over Colombian territory to the FARC,” oddly echoing a common criticism of his own despeje policy.
The former president has repeatedly written and said that the FARC cannot be trusted to abandon drug-trafficking. The drug trade is certainly a major concern, and it is possible that dissident FARC factions will continue to remain engaged in its production and trafficking. But it’s curious how closely Pastrana’s criticisms of a narcotized peace also echo critics of his own negotiations—including Republicans in the U.S. Congress who threatened to cut aid if the despeje led to greater cocaine production. Despite the arguments made to the U.S. Congress, the Colombians’ primary goal in Plan Colombia was never simply to reduce drug production, though they recognized that cutting into the drug trade was an effective way to drain resources from the guerrilla group. Rather, the Colombians’ goal was to strengthen the Colombian state (particularly the military) and weaken the FARC. However, progress against the drug trade was much more limited than Pastrana’s current critique indicated. There was some decline in coca cultivation in Colombia, but much of this just shifted to Peru and Bolivia, while the FARC still controlled a tremendous amount of later stages of production into cocaine. In practice that meant that there was still plenty of drug money to fill the FARC’s coffers.
Pastrana’s rhetoric against today’s accord seems to be growing more strident by the day. In his letter to Conservative legislators, he called Santos’ agreement a “coup” that is “marching upon the ashes of the rule of our Constitution.” Pastrana attacked the deal for cutting out Congress’ authority, but as president his own toxic relations with legislators led him to call for a national referendum and new elections that would have effectively dismissed the elected Congress.
Via the October 2 referendum, the Colombian population will clearly have a democratic say in the peace talks—which was not the case for Plan Colombia. Pastrana’s criticism has not been limited to the deal itself. He has also attacked FARC leaders and Santos in personal terms, impugning the president’s honesty and arguing that he has let drug production triple. Coca plantations do seem to have increased during the last two years, as manual eradication and substitution programs have been inadequate to offset suspended aerial fumigation. The boom has led Santos’ government to consider reinstating aerial fumigation with a different herbicide. But it is far from clear why a peace deal that increases Colombian security forces’ ability to move in the countryside would lead to long-term increases.
Pastrana has even echoed Cold War specters of a communist takeover, perhaps playing to the same U.S. and Colombian critiques of his own engagement with the FARC. At the same time his criticism of the budget for Santos’ deal should draw comparisons to his own social plans for Plan Colombia, which he referred to early in his mandate as a “Marshall Plan for Colombia.” Many of those programs, similar to today’s accord, involved re-integration of combatants, and especially, transitional support for small coca farmers (the results of these have been mixed, at best). Many of those costs were borne by international funders—as will likely be the case now. Instead, Pastrana harps on the costs of the transitional justice courts: “There are no resources.”
In municipal elections shortly before Pastrana’s victorious presidential contest, a swatch of Colombian civil society urged voters to deposit an additional white paper in the ballot box as a vote for peace. Supposedly, nearly 10 million Colombian supported the campaign, and Pastrana later referred to the “white ballot” campaign as his public mandate and mission. Pastrana wrote that he was elected for peace, and Uribe for war. Why, then, has a former president for peace turned into a staunch, and even hyperbolic, critic? Without delving too much into presidential psychology, Pastrana’s opposition seems to be rooted in the failure of his own negotiations and an effort to write a different history. Asked in a recent interview if his opposition was personal, Pastrana said it was—but because the FARC wanted to kill Plan Colombia and boost drug production. He made no mention of his own efforts for peace fifteen years earlier.
Recently, Pastrana has tried to reinvigorate his image as a steadfast opponent of Venezuela’s president, Nicolás Maduro. While criticizing a leader who has so obviously failed would not normally count as bravery, Pastrana began supporting the opposition to Maduro even as many South American leaders (including his predecessor and current UNASUR President Ernesto Samper) were silent or worse. He has tried to reshape his legacy, moving away from his commitment to negotiated peace to claiming credit for the gains of Plan Colombia—a project for which he does deserve substantial credit. But his own peace efforts are left out in his current telling of the story.
For many Colombians, the enduring image of Pastrana’s presidency shows the mustachioed president sitting, shoulders slumped, in a plastic chair at a simple, outdoor table. Next to him is an identical, empty chair, as the president waits for his counterpart from the FARC for what was supposed to be a breakthrough meeting. The FARC leader never arrived. Ultimately, Pastrana’s biggest achievement was the creation of a minimal agenda. But the talks collapsed in the midst of high-profile kidnappings and a wave of violence.
Now, a ceasefire has been achieved and a full accord reached. That accord is the product of negotiations, and that means it includes concessions that the Colombian government might have preferred to avoid. This is something Pastrana should be able to grasp from his own experience. But instead of embracing the agreement as something made possible by his own failed attempt to negotiate as some of his own advisors now argue, as well as the military effort that he helped initiate, Pastrana is committed to playing the spoiler. That’s a far cry from the legacy he set out to leave when he was elected president.
Tom Long is the author of Latin America Confronts the United States: Asymmetry and Influence (Cambridge University Press, 2015). He is a lecturer at the University of Reading (UK) in International Relations and an Affiliated Professor at CIDE in Mexico City. Online at www.tomlongphd.com and on Twitter @tomlongphd.