BOGOTA, Colombia — Ever since President Juan Manuel Santos announced last year his intention to pursue peace talks with the countrys largest guerrilla group, hes been under attack from his predecessor and former boss Alvaro Uribe. Over the weekend, Uribe unveiled his latest weapon in the war: a candidate to face Santos in the April 25 presidential race.
Óscar Iván Zuluaga, 54, a former mayor, senator and minister of finance, beat out two rivals to clench the nomination for Uribes Democratic Center party. He called himself Uribes most loyal pupil and made it clear where he stands on the peace talks taking place in Cuba with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.
Peace is not in Havana, he said in his nomination speech. The national agenda isnt up for negotiation with the FARC.
I have never believed in this [peace] process because its based on a mistaken premise, he told El Tiempo newspaper. A legitimate state cannot sit down on equal terms with an organization that commits terrorist acts and finances itself through narco-traffic.
Colombias civil conflict has dragged on for almost 50 years, claimed more than 220,000 lives and forced millions off their land.
During his eight years in power, Uribe with U.S. military support seriously weakened the guerrillas and brought normalcy back to swaths of the country that had previously been red zones. Santos was his minister of defense and won the 2010 election with pledges to follow in Uribes footsteps.
But Santos decision to embrace late Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez one of Uribes bitter foes and to pursue peace talks turned his one-time advocate into a powerful enemy.
Uribe has called Santos a traitor, accused him of being soft on terrorism, and is vowing to sink him at the polls.
Santos is expected to announce his reelection bid in November. If he does, its clear that the peace process will be front and center, said Jorge Iván Cuervo, a political analyst at the Externado University in Bogotá.
On one side well have a candidate [Santos] who says he has to be reelected to guarantee the peace process and on the other well have [Zuluaga] who will say he has to be elected to stop the peace process, Cuervo said. This is going to put a lot of strain and inject a lot of complexity into the negotiations.
Even without the political noise, talks were far from smooth. The government originally said it hoped to have a deal within a year. That would be this November. But the negotiating committees have only cleared one of the six-points on the peace agenda.
The government accuses the guerrillas of dragging their feet and the FARC say Santos is undermining the process by refusing to sign a cease fire.
Its contradictory to say that youre looking for peace and at the same time, with an exuberant smile, hold up the heads of the rebel leaders that youre trying to negotiate peace with, the FARC said in a statement Monday. Why put salt in wounds that dont heal easily?
The nation is also ambivalent about the process, said Javier Restrepo, director of public opinion at the Ipsos Public Affairs polling firm. While the vast majority support the dialogues, theyre wary of granting concessions to FARC leaders such as reduced sentences and the right to participate in politics.
They want peace but they dont like the cost of it, Restrepo said.
But before Zuluaga can turn the presidential race into a referendum on the peace deal he has to become a serious contender. Despite decades in public office, hes relatively obscure. Only 50 percent of people in urban areas know who he is, according to an Ipsos poll from April.
Hes going to have to build name recognition and thats not an easy task, Restrepo said.
Uribes backing will help. Hes still one of the most popular figures in the nation despite being hounded by allegations of corruption and ties to paramilitary gangs. An Ipsos poll from September showed him with an approval rating of 58 percent versus Santos 29 percent. His Center Democratic party is asking election authorities permission to use Uribes face on the April ballot.
But Uribe has struggled in the past to turn his personal charisma into votes for others..
Other potential rivals could also upset the balance, including former Bogotá mayors Clara Lopez and Enrique Peñalosa; and former guerrilla commander and legislator Antonio Navarro Wolff all of whom have come out in support of the peace process.
To some extent, Santos will be squeezed between peace and politics. He needs to show the country results but without making concessions that will be used against him on the campaign, trail, said Maribel Vasquez, a researcher at The American Universitys Center for Latin American and Latino Studies. The FARC may understand that calculus.
On Sunday, the day after Zuluaga was nominated, the guerrillas released Kevin Scott Sutay, a U.S. veteran they had been holding for four months. In a communiqué, the rebels said it should be seen as an olive branch.
We hope that this unilateral decision by the FARC in which we asked for nothing in return will be positive push for the peace talks, they said.