In a wide-ranging interview with Colombia’s El Tiempo newspaper, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos discussed his legacy, the 2018 presidential elections, and his landmark agreement with FARC guerillas. In the interview, he proudly proclaimed that he will leave his successor with a country that does not have any FARC. The statement has received profound criticism, both because the FARC will persist in the country as a political force with 20 guaranteed seats in congress through the next decade, and because FARC’s coffers from the drug trade remain full, and many dissidents, including Gentile Duarte and his 1st, 7th, 14th and 44th Fronts, have still refused to surrender.
Colombia Focus has translated Santos’ interview into English for our English-language readers. You can read the original interview here,
Q: Regarding your successor, members of Congress affiliated with the “Party of the U” have said that you instructed them to support any presidential candidate who supports the process of peace. Is that so?
JS: My message to “The U”, as to every Colombian, is to consolidate what has been achieved and to advance in the construction of peace, a task that will require several terms of office.
Q: Could former Minister Germán Vargas meet the conditions that you stated and therefore convert himself in the candidate of the government?
JS: The government has no candidate. And if Dr. Vargas Lleras is chosen, I am sure that he will continue to preside over what has been already built, because he was part of this government.
Q: Many leaders, including your chief negotiator of peace in Havana, Humberto de la Calle, have criticized Dr. Vargas Lleras’ silence about the peace process. Do you think he is committed enough to this process?
JS: What I am sure of is that there will be no turning back. Peace is irreversible.
Q: De La Calle himself has said that the presidential candidate should be a product from a coalition from political sectors that support the process of peace. Do you agree with this?
JS: Yes. Anyone who will be the president should be a product from the coalition and must continue to consolide the peace process.
Q: If your party, the party of “the U”, doesn’t have any presidential candidate, should they ally with the Liberal Party?
JS: Please do not ask me to intervene in politics.
Q: The last year of your tenure is starting. In the 7 years that have now passed, which things would you point out as the main legacies of your government?
JS: My first priority has always been to improve education, and there was a lot to do. Imagine, the poorest Colombians had to pay their children’s education at public schools!
Q: And in education, then, what have you done?
JS: Nothing less than making education free of cost until 11th grade.
Q: Besides free education, what has your government done for education?
JS: A lot of things! Before, only 37 of every 100 young men and women had access to higher education. Now, more than 50 out of 100 have that possibility. We created the program “De Cero a Siempre” (From Zero to Always) because education starts when one is born. We have more than 30,000 scarce resources, men and women studying in the best universities, thanks to scholarships that we have provided for them with “Ser Pilo Paga”.
The quality has also improved. National and international testing has proved also. We’ve built more classrooms than any other government before me. We implemented and have been implementing a schedule for school hours, key when improving quality. The country has advanced and we cannot lose that momentum. We still have a long way to go. We’ll do more this year.
Q: Which other activity will be crucial for your last year of tenure as president?
JS: Infrastructure. Colombia didn’t have enough infrastructure to support growth. We’ve started a real revolution. We designed the “4G” policy to finally overcome this deficit. Since 2010, we’ve constructed more than 2,500 km four-lane dual highways. This translates into thousands of jobs, reduced costs in transportation, and more security for drivers. We’ve also implemented tertiary roads and we will continue to construct many more to connect people from and to rural areas. Not only have the roads been modernized, but airports and harbors too.
Q: Some critics say that with respect to technology, we have not advanced.
JS: On the contrary. Ever since we started our tenure, we have focused on technology. Today, all the country’s municipalities are now connected with fiberoptic and broadband internet. We’re in the 21st century!
Q: For housing constructions, what is the current plan?
JS: For Colombians to have their own home, that is the dream of many. Today, 1.3 million families have achieved it, half with the government’s support. Nobody believed that it was possible to build and give away homes for free. We did it. Next year, more than 130,000 new families will receive homes, and more than 6 million people had the opportunity to have something as essential as drinking water and a sewage system in their homes.
Poverty has been reduced greatly. There’s still a long way to go, of course. But, today, more than 5 million people have overcome poverty, and extreme poverty was reduced by half. Also, inequality was reduced.
Q: It would seem that one of the topics that concern the country is health. And certainly, there are many complaints. Why haven’t health services improved in the country?
JS: I understand your concern and I also share it. With regard to healthcare, the first thing is to guarantee its access. 10 years ago, 25% of the people couldn’t afford to get sick as they didn’t have access to healthcare. Healthcare has now become a fundamental right and we now offer universal coverage. This has been reflected with lower indexes, such as child mortality, and better general health. We control the price of the medications. It is true that we should do more, and that’s why we will put all of our efforts into improving quality and access.
Q: Now, apart from the improvements you pointed out for education and infrastructure, the truth is that in the future, your greatest work would be peace…
JS: Well, ending the conflict with the FARC, it is something that we Colombians have been waiting decades to achieve. Many thought it was impossible. Today, the military hospital doesn’t have any more people wounded in action. The FARC surrendered their weapons and they are starting their legal transition to democracy. I leave my successor with a country without the FARC. The peace, we build it together, and we’re building it through investment, with the presence of the State in former conflict zones and with the return of the displaced people to their original lands.
Q: In short, how would you summarize the fundamental goals of your last year of government?
JS: We still have a lot to do in every one of the aspects that I’ve just mentioned, and we should do much more. I will work tirelessly, without rest, every minute, every day of this year that I have left, to keep progressing in all of these. This is the clear instruction that I have given to all the members of the government. For example, having the lowest incidence of homicides in 40 years won’t satisfy us. We have to do much more for the safety of Colombians, particularly for the security of our citizens. Not a single Colombian should be afraid for the safety of their children in the park. That is what we will be focusing on.
Q: Are insecurity and corruption the two big problems that need to be confronted?
We will double and strengthen our efforts against corruption with new and tougher regulations including the seizure of assets, and we will hit them where it hurts the most: in their pockets. And of course, us Colombians, together, have to build peace and reconciliation.
Q: Public opinion in the big cities indicates that there are many complaints about the economic situation. I talk about the small economy: the market, education, health. Do you worry about the status of this economy?
JS: I am worried and I am acting on it. I know things are not easy for many Colombians. The first semester was hard. But we have strengthened the fundamental pillars of the economy. They are good, and risk assessment companies and investors have appreciated what we have done.
Q: But, what about the small economy?
JS: The second semester will be better, and the next year, even better.
Q: The labor unions, in general, are very pessimistic about the immediate future of the economy. Are they right in their perception?
JS: If we hang onto the recent past, yes. But if we look at perspectives and opportunities that we have, no. For example: we have the highest investment rate in all Latin America, which is what determines the future growth.
Q: About this decline, to what do you attribute the drop in the numbers for industry and commerce that the DANE recently reported?
JS: From the most severe external shock that we’ve suffered since the great depression in the 30’s, the drop in the oil prices, to the worst “El Niño” phenomenon that we have ever experienced, to turbulence in our region, the worst has already happened. If we look forward, we have new opportunities to advance and grow faster.
Q: But, with what type of measures?
JS: We’ll do it with improvements in infrastructure, education, competitively and an improvement in the quality of our public policies with our entry into the OECD. This is what we have to do in order to maintain the trust and leadership as a top investment destination in the continent. Peace will help us a lot.
Q: You mentioned a drop in the oil prices. Why has it been so difficult for the country to substitute the income that used to come from petroleum oil?
JS: There’s always backwardness. But note that exports grew 20% in the first semester of this year. And in June, industrial exports grew 5.7%. That is very positive.
Q: In trying to reenergize industry, the government launched the programs Pipe 1 and Pipe 2, which included a reduction in import tariffs for machinery and more profits for agriculture. Has this generated the results that you were expecting?
JS: I think they have. If we hadn’t made those decisions, our economy would not be growing above the Latin American average.
Q: At the start of this interview, you also mentioned that Colombia will be joining OECD countries. Will that be possible before your tenure ends?
JS: That is our objective.
Q: Let’s go back to the topic of peace: in 8 days, the period for the extraction of the U.N. containers with FARC weapons will expire. What does that mean?
JS: A lot. It represents the end of the FARC as an armed group, the real end of the conflict. We’re turning the page and we then can advance in the construction of a lasting peace.
Q: And what comes next for the ex-guerrilla members that abandon the former conflict zones?
JS: The former conflict zones will come to an end once the weapons are collected, which will be next week. They will now become spaces for the reincorporation of former guerrilla members into a civic and legal life. That’s the big challenge.
Q: There are those who complain about the delay of the government in the regulation of the peace treaty…
JS: After our 53-year-old war, a delay of days or weeks is totally irrelevant. Most of the time, delays occur because of tiredness and because we want to do things well. Many times we purposefully set very pressing self-imposed deadlines. The accords are being fulfilled and this process will end.
Q: About Colombia’s position regarding Venezuela’s crisis, what does not recognizing the changes made by the Constituent Assembly mean?
JS: That Constituent Assembly was illegal, therefore, all of its decisions will be illegal. Everything that happens in Venezuela affects us, for better or worse. Our solidarity with the Venezuelan people is unbreakable.
Q: Do you think that Venezuela’s government has become the only dictatorship to exist in the Americas?
JS: Unfortunately, what we have seen is a disregard for the democratic institutions of Venezuela. Democracy and respect for the human rights are now gone. I express my vote for its prompt and peaceful re-establishment.
Q: Ex-President Uribe and President Maduro both continue to attack you vehemently. What do you think about that?
JS: That I must be doing something good. I confirm myself as a centrist in the political spectrum.