Puppets and Peace Talks: Colombia’s 2014 Election Part I

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If left with the choice between a hawk and a dove, which would you choose? This is the decision Colombian voters will face as they take to the polls on June 15 in the second round of the country’s presidential elections, a runoff between far-right Óscar Iván Zuluaga (the hawk) and center-right incumbent President Juan Manuel Santos (the dove). Much is at stake in the second round of voting. Most importantly, the election’s result will determine the fate of ongoing peace talks with the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia; FARC), a leftist guerrilla organization that has been in combat with the Colombian government for the past 50 years. If elected, President Santos promises continued peace talks. Zuluaga, however, is determined to use the military to achieve peace. In the eyes of many Colombians and major media outlets, the choice between President Santos and Zuluaga has boiled down to a decision between sharpened talk and swift action.

Yet the portrayal of the elections as a choice between peace talks and military action is a gross oversimplification of the complex realities of the Colombian political landscape. Zuluaga’s mentee, militant former president Álvaro Uribe, still retains a chokehold over the country’s politics. Though they are not contenders in the election, the FARC certainly have their own agenda. Moreover, The Colombian population’s disenchantment with their political system has reached unprecedented levels, with an abstention rate of 60 percent in the first round of elections[i].

In order to fully comprehend the impact of each candidate, it is essential to place the June 15 second round election between President Santos and Zuluaga in the context of Colombia’s recent history and current political climate. In particular, several factors – including uribismo, the position of former candidates, and voter apathy – are important in shaping the election. This essay concludes by exploring the steps President Santos must take to win the election and save Colombia from another four years of Uribe (albeit behind the scenes) should Zuluaga win.

The Uribe Years and Plan Colombia

No single person influences Colombian politics as extensively as former president Álvaro Uribe. Uribe’s popularity stems largely from his administration’s success in weakening leftist guerrillas, and while his eight-year presidential tenure ended in 2010, Uribe remains arguably the most prominent figure in Colombia’s political arena[ii]. Centro Democrático (Democratic Center; CD), Uribe’s party and brainchild that he created just last year, already controls 19 seats in the upper house of the Colombian Parliament[iii]. Earlier this year, Uribe made history as the first ex-president to win a Senate seat[iv]. Moreover, in Zuluaga, Uribe has found a candidate to shamelessly do his bidding, making the ongoing election as much about Uribe as it is about President Santos and Zuluaga.

Yet Uribe has become an increasingly polarizing figure in recent years largely due to his pro-military stance and the human rights abuses associated with the false-positives scandal of Plan Colombia. Plan Colombia was an aid package from the United States, ultimately involving $8 billion USD of aid, which was given incrementally to the Colombian government between 2000 and 2010 to help combat the country’s internal armed conflict[v]. At the start of Plan Colombia, Colombia was producing three-quarters of the world’s coca and cocaine, and both pro-government paramilitaries and leftist guerrilla groups murdered, kidnapped, and displaced civilians each day[vi]. As such, over three quarters of the aid Colombia received during Plan Colombia went towards coca eradication and bolstering the country’s security forces[vii].

The manifestation of Plan Colombia was nothing short of horrific. U.S.-funded military operations aimed at eliminating guerrilla forces ravaged the Colombian populace and countryside. Under Uribe’s authority, over three million people were displaced, 32 indigenous groups were left near extinction, and almost 13,000 women were raped (many by Colombia’s armed forces) as a consequence of Plan Colombia[viii]. Moreover, the Colombian armed forces were embroiled in a “false-positives” scandal. Facing extreme pressure from the Uribe government to amass record body counts, members of Colombia’s armed forces murdered innocent civilians and dressed them in guerrilla uniforms, insisting they were killed in battle[ix].

While Plan Colombia did succeed in cutting the number of guerrilla forces nearly in half, Uribe’s continual defense of the military and his influence over Zuluaga is supremely concerning. A Zuluaga victory in the June 15 election could guarantee a return of uribismo, a frightening concept considering the flagrant disregard for human rights in Plan Colombia’s implementation under Uribe.

The Santos Administration and Peace Talks

President Juan Manuel Santos’ administration came, to many Colombians, as a breath of fresh air following Uribe’s harsh, militant rule. President Santos assumed the presidency with a landslide victory in the 2010 elections. He has brought much-needed growth and development to his country thus far. In particular, Colombia’s economic growth has been very impressive. President Santos signed free trade agreements with both the United States and the European Union, and is currently in the process of working on a free trade agreement with the Pacific Alliance, an emerging economic bloc in Latin America consisting of Colombia, Chile, Peru, and Mexico[x]. Additionally, Colombia has experienced low inflation and falling unemployment during Santos’ presidency. By the end of the year, the Colombian economy is expected to surpass Argentina as Latin America’s third-largest economy[xi]. President Santos has also established Colombia’s adherence to democratic principles and rule of law, solidifying the country as a chief U.S. ally in Latin America.

Although he served as Uribe’s defense minister, President Santos quickly and dramatically departed from Uribe’s standards once in office. For example, Colombia’s relationship with Venezuela and Ecuador was one of conflict under Uribe’s rule; Bogota and Caracas came close to war in 2008. President Santos has sought to alleviate tensions and quell hostilities between Colombia and its neighbors, particularly with Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, who took control after the 2013 passing of Uribe’s nemesis, President Hugo Chavez[xii].

President Santos’ biggest break with Uribe came in November 2012 when he initiated peace talks with the FARC. The peace talks have reached accords on three of five major topic areas thus far: land reform, FARC integration into political life, and the drug trade[xiii]. The agreement reached regarding the drug trade is especially significant because it marks the FARC’s acknowledgement of their involvement in the production and distribution of coca and cocaine[xiv]. The two topic areas remaining deal with victim compensation and disarmament of the FARC[xv].

Despite the creation of historic peace talks, Colombia’s economic growth, and improved regional relations, President Santos’ administration still faces legitimate criticism. Many strides still stand to be made regarding citizen security (guerrilla forces are approximately 10 thousand strong) and infrastructure investment[xvi]. Furthermore, the slow pace of the peace talks has left many Colombians skeptical of their efficacy[xvii]. Many question whether the FARC has intentionally slowed down the pace of the peace talks in order to hinder President Santos’ reelection bid. However, the very fact that the peace talks are underway is promising for Colombia’s future.

The Puppet and the Peacekeeper: The Campaign Promises and Politicking of Zuluaga and Santos

The Colombian populace faces a distinct decision on June 15 in the second round of the country’s presidential elections. Interestingly, the discourse throughout the campaign has focused almost exclusively on the fate of the ongoing peace talks with the FARC and how to effectively end Colombia’s internal armed conflict. Little has been said by either candidate regarding social and economic policy. Perhaps the exclusion of economic policy from the campaign is due to the fact that the two candidates share similar preferences. Moreover, Colombia is not a mono-crop economy; it exports agricultural goods, industrial goods, and natural resources[xviii]. The Colombian economy, therefore, is relatively free and does not fall victim to the whims of larger economies, especially the United States’. Both candidates’ desire to strengthen economic ties to the United States may potentially increase the vulnerability of the Colombian economy. Yet economics has likely not taken the fore in the elections because other matters, such as citizen security, remain more pressing to the average Colombian. Regarding social policy, the debate has not extended pass security, showing the severity of the internal armed conflict.

Zuluaga’s campaign revolves around a harsh stance towards the FARC. He, like Uribe, is decidedly pro-military and anti-peace talk. He has stated repeatedly that, if elected, he will give the FARC one week to declare a unilateral ceasefire before scrapping the peace talks. Until recently, that is. A recent public opinion poll found most Colombian citizens in favor of the peace talks; as such, in a politically pragmatic move, Zuluaga has softened his stance[xix]. Now, Zuluaga suggests giving the FARC one month to stop “its recruitment of child fighters, the use of land mines, and attacks on civilians and the country’s infrastructure” before ending the peace talks[xx].

Uribe’s influence on Zuluaga is also certain in his vow to take an aggressive stance towards Venezuela. Yet Zuluaga has failed to comment on how he plans on cracking down on Venezuela [xxi]. On the whole, his plans lack foresight; Zuluaga seems to be saying what many Colombians want to hear, but he cannot articulate how his foreign policy plans will manifest themselves. Between his ambiguous policy suggestions and wavering stance on peace talks, Zuluaga clearly shows that he is playing the short-term politicking game of winning the election without consolidating his long-term vision and goals.

Conversely, President Santos has been steadfast in his promotion of the peace talks since the start of his reelection bid. Negotiating with the FARC, according to President Santos, is essential in ending social unrest. Moreover, he recently suggested the creation of “negotiating teams,” which would divide delegates and topic areas in order to allow multiple accords to be reached at once, making the peace talks more efficient[xxii]. President Santos also seems prepared to continue expanding free trade and maintaining amiable relations with its neighboring countries and the United States if reelected. President Santos’ peace talks may take years to fully reach fruition and it may be a while before Colombia’s poorest citizens feel the positive effects of his economic policies. Nevertheless, the Santos bid is one aimed at Colombia’s prosperity in the long run.

Supporting Actors in Colombia’s Election

While President Santos, Zuluaga, and Uribe command the spotlight in Colombia’s upcoming election, several other key actors will undoubtedly have a profound impact on its outcome. The FARC, interestingly, has been silent throughout the election. According to Iván Márquez, the FARC’s second-in-command, the organization will not comment on their preferred candidate out of fear of being misinterpreted[xxiii]. Yet the FARC’s recent support of the peace talks and an end to Colombia’s internal armed conflict will perhaps sway voters towards Santos[xxiv].

The candidates eliminated in the first round of the elections will also largely influence the second round. Conservative ex-candidate Marta Lucía Ramírez has pledged support to the Zuluaga bid, acknowledging that she generated many of Zuluaga’s demands against the peace process[xxv]. However, a majority of the elected officials in her party have already publicly endorsed President Santos. As such, her support of Zuluaga may only marginally help him in the polls. Clara López of the Democratic Pole announced that she will vote for President Santos on June 15, and urged her followers to do the same[xxvi]. Because López only trailed Ramírez by less than one percentage point, her party’s undivided support of President Santos could ultimately tip the election in his favor. Enrique Peñalosa of the Green Party said that he would not publicly endorse a candidate[xxvii].

Nevertheless, political alliances may not serve either candidate much if the Colombian populace does not vote. The Colombian population’s disenchantment with their political system has reached unprecedented levels[xxviii]. With only a 40 percent voter turnout in the first round of the elections, the extent to which the population will actually participate in the second round remains unclear. Motivating the Colombian citizenry to vote will likely be the largest challenge that Zuluaga and President Santos will have to face in the coming days. Voter apathy will be particularly difficult for President Santos to combat; while Zuluaga’s rhetoric is aggressive, flashy, and appealing to many. President Santos will have to convince the country that rationality and negotiation should trump impassioned, brash military action.


At this point, the Colombian electorate stands narrowly divided between the two candidates. Gallup recently conducted a public opinion poll in an attempt to predict the outcome of the election. The result: 48.5 percent favor Zuluaga, 47.7 percent favor President Santos.[xxix] The presidency is anyone’s game.

Although the Gallup poll paints an unclear image of who will become Colombia’s next president, the fate of the country under each candidate is certain. Zuluaga’s Colombia will experience hostile relations towards its neighboring countries that will undermine regional stability. Inevitable will be increased military involvement in eradicating the FARC if Zuluaga wins; however, due to mining and oil booms in areas of the jungle under FARC control, a military victory may take equally as long as peace talks, without the benefits of societal referendum and integration[xxx]. A Zuluaga victory, on the one hand, guarantees a reversion to uribismo. President Santos’ Colombia, on the other hand, will be one of continued economic growth and prosperity, regional stability and U.S. friendship, and a society that integrates warring factions through peaceful negotiations.

Considering the tragedies of the Uribe administration and Plan Colombia, Uribe’s return to the presidency in the form of a Zuluaga front man would be the worst-case scenario for Colombia. Zuluaga, if elected, will almost certainly undo the progress President Santos has made in negotiating with the FARC and securing Colombia’s future. Yet Zuluaga’s fierce rhetoric is appealing to those whom the FARC terrorized the most. As such, the Colombian population has been unable to recognize the clear advantages to President Santos’ long-term, rehabilitative agenda.

President Santos must carry on his efforts to capture the hearts and minds of the Colombian people and lift them from their apathetic, disenchanted state if he is to win the upcoming election. President Santos must engage the Colombian population’s passions past, present, and future. He must defend his peace talks not only as pragmatic solutions, but also as indispensable to Colombia’s prospects for longevity and security. Zuluaga’s campaign may appeal to Colombian’s needs and desires for security now, but President Santos will undoubtedly solidify Colombia’s success at both the national and international level for generations to come. The choice then is not simply between a hawk and a dove; it is a choice between Colombia’s short-term and long-term success.

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[i] Camilo Mejia Giraldo, “Abstention shows Colombia’s voters no longer believe in the system: Electoral watchdog,” Colombia Reports, May 30, 2014, accessed June 1, 2014,

[ii] “Colombia’s election: Uribe’s wrath,” The Economist, May 31, 2014, accessed June 1, 2014,

[iii] Mac Margolis, “The 9 Lives of Colombia’s Alvaro Uribe,” Bloomberg View, May 28, 2014, accessed June 3, 2014,

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Lisa Haugaard, Adam Isacson, & Jennifer Johnson, “A Cautionary Tale: Plan Colombia’s Lessons for U.S. Policy Toward Mexico and Beyond,” joint publication by LAWG, CIP, & WOLA, 2011, accessed June 2, 2014,

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] Ibid.

[x] “3 years with Colombia’s President Juan Manuel Santos,” Colombia Reports, August 8, 2013, accessed June 2, 2014,

[xi] “Colombia’s presidential election: Ballots and bullets,” The Economist, May 15, 2014, accessed May 31, 2014,

[xii] “3 years with Colombia’s President Juan Manuel Santos.”

[xiii] “Colombia’s Zuluaga Softens on FARC Peace Talks Ahead of Run-Off,” via Reuters in The New York Times, May 29, 2014, accessed May 30, 2014,

[xiv] Miroff, “Álvaro Uribe, a shadow candidate in the race.”

[xv] “Colombian peace negotiator demands FARC hand in weapons,” Reuters, June 5, 2014, accessed June 5, 2014,

[xvi] “A Cautionary Tale: Plan Colombia’s Lessons for U.S. Policy Toward Mexico and Beyond;” “3 years with Colombia’s President Juan Manuel Santos.”

[xvii] “Colombia’s presidential elections: Ballots and bullets.”

[xviii] “Colombia: The World Factbook,” Central Intelligence Agency, accessed June 6, 2014,

[xix] Dan Molinski, “Colombia Candidate Toes Hard Line,” The Wall Street Journal, June 1, 2014, accessed June 1, 2014,

[xx] Ibid.

[xxi] Miroff, “Álvaro Uribe, a shadow candidate in the race.”

[xxii] Oliver Sheldon, “Colombia’s oldest guerrilla group, FARC to decide on second unilateral ceasefire,” Colombia Reports, June 3, 2014, accessed June 4, 2014,

[xxiii] Daniel Mendendorp, “FARC leaders refuse to comment on Colombia’s presidential election results,” Colombia Reports, May 27, 2014, accessed May 31, 2014,

[xxiv] “Bogota, FARC appeal for support for peace process,” via AFP in The West Australian, June 4, 2014, accessed June 4, 2014,

[xxv] “Marta Lucía Ramírez dice que influyó en decision urbista de mantener proceso de paz,” El Heraldo, May 30, 2014, accessed June 3, 2014,

[xxvi] “Defeated Colombian leftist calls on voters to back Santos,” via Reuters in Business Insider, June 4, 2014, accessed June 5, 2014,

[xxvii] “Peñalosa ‘deja libertad’” a sus seguidores para segunda vuelta,” El Tiempo, May 28, 2014, accessed May 31, 2014,

[xxviii] Mejia Giraldo, “Abstention shows Colombia’s voters no longer believe in the system: Electoral watchdog.”

[xxix] Dan Molinski, “Colombia Election too Close to Call Nine Days from Vote,” The Wall Street Journal, June 6, 2014, accessed June 6, 2014,

[xxx] Miroff, “Álvaro Uribe, a shadow candidate in the race.”