Colombia cliffhanger a referendum on peace

BOGOTA, Colombia — Colombians voted Sunday in the nation’s tightest presidential contest in two decades, a referendum on President Juan Manuel Santos’ bid to end the Western Hemisphere’s longest-running conflict.

The right-wing challenger, Oscar Ivan Zuluaga, accuses Santos of selling the country out to a “criminal” insurgency that is already on the ropes with 18-month-old Cuba-based peace talks.

Zuluaga is backed by former two-term President Alvaro Uribe, who many consider the true challenger, and the campaign has been the Andean nation’s dirtiest in years, with Uribe suggesting to his 3 million Twitter followers that Santos aims to convert Colombia into a leftist totalitarian state.

Zuluaga won the most votes in a five-candidate field in the election’s May 25 first round — getting 29 percent against 26 percent for Santos.

The last Invamer-Gallup poll gave Zuluaga a less than one-point lead and the race was so tight there has been speculation about whether World Cup fever — including hangovers from celebrations of Colombia’s 3-0 victory over Greece on Saturday — might affect the outcome.

Bogota industrial designer Felipe Quintero said he voted for Zuluaga, a previously little-known former Uribe finance minister, because Santos is conceding too much to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, in the peace talks to end a half-century-old conflict that has claimed more than 200,000 lives.

“They need to be punished, not to be rewarded with liberty” and seats in Congress, said Quintero. “They are murderers. Why are they going to get privileges when they have killed a lot of people and keep killing?”

Zuluaga, 55, and Uribe accuse the incumbent, grandnephew of a president from a Bogota clan that formerly owned Colombia’s El Tiempo newspaper, of offering impunity to the rebels. They have set what appear to be near impossible condition for continuing the talks, demanding the guerrillas halt all hostilities and that some do jail time.

Santos, 62, denies he would let war criminals go unpunished. And he is certainly no dove. As Uribe’s defense minister and then president, he helped professionalize Colombia’s U.S.-backed military and wielded it to badly weaken the FARC, including killing its top three leaders.

The bulk of Colombia’s left has endorsed Santos, a University of Kansas-educated economist and veteran of three Colombian presidential Cabinets before his own presidency.

Santos won important endorsements last week and may have regained some momentum. He got the backing of 80 top business leaders and announced exploratory talks with the National Liberation Army, Colombia’s other, far smaller rebel band.

Many believe Santos has steered Colombia to a historic crossroads at which it finally has a chance to become a “normal” nation.

“We need to stop killing each other,” said Julian Avendano, a 39-year-old Bogota architect who voted for Santos. “We all need to push for peace.”

Beyond betting his future on peace, Santos has improved ties with the leftist governments of neighboring Venezuela and Ecuador, a sharp contrast to Uribe.

Yet the incumbent has a “severe likeability and trust problem,” says analyst Adam Isacson of the Washington Office on Latin America, and has been “unable to shake the image of an out-of-touch Bogota aristocrat who will promise everything and deliver little.”

Bogota business consultant Maria Eugenia Silva, 47, cited a big reason many Colombians voted for Santos, despite his faults: Alvaro Uribe.

‘’The eight years he was president were a time of some of the works corruption and biggest scandals,” she said. By remaining in power, Uribe would lessen chances he could face prosecution for alleged crimes including human rights violations.

Blemishes of his 2002-2010 government include extrajudicial killings of innocent civilians to boost military body counts, illegal spying on judges and journalists and the funneling of agricultural subsidies to well-heeled ranchers. Uribe won a Senate seat in March after being constitutionally barred from another presidential run.

He is backed by fellow cattle ranchers and by palm oil plantation owners, beneficiaries of a deal Uribe made with far-right paramilitaries that dismantled their militias.

Large landholders had by then consolidated control over territory that the militias had largely rid of rebels while driving at least 3 million poor Colombians off their lands. As part of the Santos-negotiated peace process, those stolen lands would be returned.

The slow pace of peace talks has not helped the incumbent. Framework agreements have been reached on agrarian reform, dismantling the illegal drug trade and creating a role for rebels in national politics.

But analysts say Santos could have done much better at communicating the gains and building public support.

Still, the peace process also ranks relatively low on most Colombians’ list of priorities. The Gallup poll found less than 5 percent of respondents believe the FARC will be the next president’s main problem. For many, spreading the benefits of a growing economy is more important.

Economic growth averaged 4.5 percent annually during Santos’ four years and 2.5 million jobs were added. But analysts say the president has done little to improve education, health care and infrastructure.

The campaign’s mudslinging, meanwhile, has been fierce.

In its final days, the Zuluaga camp accused Santos’ campaign of a vote-buying push on the Caribbean coast “without precedent in Colombia.”

Earlier, the Zuluaga campaign accused a Santos political strategist of taking drug money, and Zuluaga was captured in a clandestinely recorded video apparently endorsing illegal surveillance that could help torpedo the peace talks.

Zuluaga claimed a Santos operative infiltrated his campaign.

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