AS HE prepares to step down on August 7th after eight years as Colombia’s president, Juan Manuel Santos admits to one regret. “I didn’t realise that post-truth, that the propaganda against the [peace] process was much more powerful and much more effective than I imagined… And when I realised, it was too late.” This is not the whole story, but it may be one reason why Mr Santos is reviled by so many Colombians, as last month’s presidential election showed. The winner, Iván Duque, is the protégé of Mr Santos’s predecessor and implacable political foe, Álvaro Uribe, while the runner-up was an opponent on the left. Mr Santos’s preferred candidate got just 2% of the vote.
What makes that odd is that Mr Santos leaves his country a better place than he found it. Unemployment, poverty and income inequality are all lower than they were in 2010. His government tripled the motorway network. An area the size of Italy was designated as environmentally protected. The murder rate fell by 35%, and the country’s human-rights record has improved, though it remains far from perfect. “Eight years ago Colombia was the black sheep in the region and the world,” says Mr Santos. “Today Colombia is respected.”
But history, and Colombians, will remember Mr Santos for one thing: the agreement that, after almost five years of talks, put an end to more than 50 years of fighting by the FARC, a leftist guerrilla army, and which won him the Nobel peace prize. The accord has seen some 10,000 former fighters disarm and begin to enter civilian life. Provided their leaders confess to their crimes before a special tribunal, which began its work this month, they will face only symbolic punishment. On July 20th ten former FARC leaders took their seats in Colombia’s Congress.
These concessions are unacceptable to many Colombians, who think the FARC’s commanders belong in jail. Mr Santos narrowly lost a referendum on the peace agreement in 2016. The government then sat down with the leaders of the No campaign, including Mr Uribe, and acted on most of their suggestions to renegotiate many details of the accord. Nevertheless, Mr Duque promises to undo parts of it. Mr Santos is confident that it cannot be reversed. Others are less sure.
The president is unrepentant. He points out that this is the first peace agreement under which guerrilla commanders will be formally held to account. Because “they are not getting 40 years behind bars in striped uniforms, people think we are being very lax,” he told Bello. “They have every right to say that, but if things weren’t as they are, there would be no peace.”
In any peace process, the aim must be that insurgent leaders swap guns for peaceful politics. The talks stalled for a year on the government’s demand that the FARC do some jail time. Their answer was that no insurgent group gives up its arms in order to go to prison. Could Mr Santos have extracted at least some sort of confinement if he had been (even) more patient? Perhaps, but probably not. Many of the critics insist that they are not warmongers. But there is little reason to believe that the much tougher deal they say they wanted was possible.
If so, the alternative was continuing war. The FARC had been weakened, but they were far from defeated. The peace process has already saved some 3,000 lives, reckons the government. Most of those are of poorer Colombians, far from the cities. Saving them may not be a vote-winner, but it is part of building a better, more integrated country.
The process has its flaws. Mr Santos was wrong to offer to pay for farmers to tear up coca fields. He admits this was a “perverse incentive”. The result was that coca cultivation soared, and FARC dissidents are battling other armed criminal groups to control the burgeoning drug trade in these areas. But with the bulk of the FARC at peace, the security forces can at least concentrate on the drug mafias.
Why do more Colombians not recognise Mr Santos’s achievements? A stable but recently mediocre economy has made them grouchy. The president often over-promised, on everything from roads to peace. He lacks the popular touch. But he is right, at least in part, to blame the implacable and often disloyal opposition of Mr Uribe, who repeatedly accused him of handing Colombia over to communism.
This week Mr Uribe resigned his Senate seat to defend himself before the Supreme Court on charges that he bribed witnesses to give false testimony in a dispute over his alleged links to right-wing paramilitary groups in the 1990s, all of which he denies. Perhaps Mr Santos will have the last laugh. But it may take time.
Correction (27th July 2018): This article previously stated that the FARC’s members in Congress could not vote. That is incorrect. Sorry.