When Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos was elected in 2010 with 70 percent of the vote, it was seen as an overwhelming vindication of the policies of his predecessor Alvaro Uribe, whose tough security policies rescued the country from near failed-state status and drove drug trafficking guerrillas from outside cities back into the jungle.
Santos served ably as Uribe's defense minister, and with Uribe's endorsement, Colombian voters no doubt expected a continuation of the uncompromising stance against the guerrillas.
What they were not anticipating was Santos' stunning announcement two years later that he was opening up peace talks with the narco-terrorist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Ironically, it was the disastrous failure of an earlier peace process with the FARC that catapulted Uribe into the presidency and set him on the path to near iconic status among large swaths of the Colombia people for making their streets safe again.
Santos' about-face on the FARC is a primary reason why his popularity has collapsed since the heady days of his election. Today, less than a third of Colombians approve of his presidency. While Colombians are desperate for peace after fifty years of war, it is clear they abhor more the prospect of giving political status to a group that has kidnapped thousands of civilians and relies on drug trafficking, extortion and other crimes to fund its operations.
That the talks are "endorsed" by Cuba and Venezuela certainly has not helped to assuage Colombians' concerns.
Polls show that while a majority support the peace talks in general (who can be against peace?), they remain skeptical of a positive outcome. In a recent poll conducted in the war zones by Vanderbilt University's AmericasBarometer, 65 percent of the respondents disapproved of the FARC creating their own political party and just 6.7 percent said they would consider voting for a demobilized guerrilla in local elections scheduled for 2015.
The fact that Santos' peace initiative has failed to garner popular support is even more troubling because the negotiations may soon become entangled in Colombian presidential politics. The election is scheduled for May of next year, and Santos has already launched his reelection bid. Yet he is now in a position where he may need the talks to advance to bolster his reelection campaign, because either a stalemate or breakdown could signify a political and electoral disaster. In short, placing your electoral prospects -- and your legacy -- in the hands of a clutch of guerrilla negotiators in Cuba would not seem to be the most conducive arrangement for a clear-eyed agreement.
To be sure, Santos is not talking about offering the FARC free entry into political life, nor amnesty. He has maintained that there will be justice for those victimized in the conflict, that egregious violators of human rights will be held accountable and that any final agreement rests on the guerrillas' disarmament, demobilization and assistance in eradicating the Colombian drug trade.
But therein lies the elephant in the room. How one gets the FARC -- an organization that has a history of duplicity at the bargaining table, low standing in the eyes of the Colombian people and a consistent record of conflict and criminality -- to forsake everything that makes them relevant remains daunting, to put it mildly.
One should therefore be skeptical of rosy reports from Havana about agreements being made on this point or that. All agreements to date are worthless until the guerrillas turn in their weapons and human rights violators surrender to the authorities.
Secondly, the Obama administration must clearly and loudly annunciate U.S. interests in the matter. After all, U.S. taxpayers have a $10 billion investment in Colombia, used to train and equip Colombian security forces and have as much a stake as anyone in any final agreement with the FARC. That the U.S. has relegated itself to the closet while the likes of Cuba and Venezuela flaunt their participation in negotiations is absurd -- and no doubt has contributed to the Colombian people's doubts about the outcome.
Overall, Colombia is a country trying to do the right things in a neighborhood of retrograde populists determined to take their countries backward in history. It deserves continued and close U.S. support. In sitting down at the negotiation table with the terrorist FARC, President Santos has taken on a huge gamble that he has to see through to some end. He must be reassured, however, that no deal is ultimately better than a bad deal for his country.