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Transcript: President Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia interviewed on Al Punto

The interview was conducted by Felix De Bedout and aired in September 2016.
21 Sep 2016 – 06:10 PM EDT

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El presidente colombiano Juan Manuel Santos en entrevista con Felix de Bedout. Crédito: Univision

Program: Al Punto with Jorge Ramos

Content: Interview with President of Colombia Juan Manuel Santos

Dates: Tuesday, September 20 and Sunday September 25, 2016


FDB: Félix de Bedout

JMS: Juan Manuel Santos

WB: William Brownfield

JMV: José Miguel Vivanco

FDB: President Juan Manuel Santos, thank you very much for accepting this invitation. The first question would be the big event: the signing of the peace accord is to be held in Cartagena on September 26, with international guests. Secretary John Kerry has just confirmed that he will be there. But the plebiscite is on October 2. Isn’t it strange to sign an agreement that has yet to be approved by the people when you yourself have said that if the “no” side wins, that is the end of the agreement and the end of the process?

JMS: The agreement must be signed in any case, and this sequence was set up precisely to sign it first and to put it before the Colombian people for ratification afterwards, as I had promised from the beginning. I was not obligated to submit this to a plebiscite, to present it to the people, but I am doing so because I believe that it is such an important step for the country that it needs the legitimacy of the sovereign people, and that is something that I promised from the beginning, and I am going to keep that promise.

FDB: But if it is signed before the plebiscite, doesn’t it look like a done deal when it could eventually change?

JMS: No, because – no, because what Congress has approved, the bill, that is, the constitutional reform, is dependent on winning the plebiscite in order to take effect.

FDB: If you do not win the plebiscite, you have said, “If the ‘no’ side wins, the peace process is over.” Why?

JMS: Because we go back to what we had six years ago. These people go back to the jungle, and we go back to what we had six years ago.

FDB: We are on this visit to the United Nations, which has confirmed international support for the peace process; we could say that it is practically unanimous. But that is not the case in Colombia. Why is it easier to get international support than domestic support for this process?

JMS: Because the domestic debate has been contaminated by politics, by domestic politics, by rivalries, by a lot of disinformation and that is normal in processes of this nature. Here we are taking a very, very important step for the future of our nation, and there are people who are legitimately opposed, and they have every right to be. The international community, on the other hand, which has studied what has been done there, from far away but in detail, is supporting it unanimously because, incredibly, there is not a single country that has mounted any kind of opposition.

FDB: But Mr. President, couldn’t it be that it is easier to support the peace process from far away than from up close, that it is very easy for countries to say, “Well, carry out this process and see how it works” and that Colombians, who know the FARC, have a lot of mistrust and have a lot of fears about what may happen with the FARC?

JMS: The thing is, there has been a lot of misinformation and of course, there are concerns and there are uncertainties. Colombians do not like the FARC. In fact, 95 percent reject the FARC, but the thing is, one doesn’t make peace with one’s friends. One makes peace with one’s enemies, and this is a transcendental step. We are ending a war that has been going on for 52 years, that has produced more than eight million victims, that has produced the most prolonged suffering that the Colombian people have experienced in their history. So this is a very important step, which undoubtedly causes uncertainties; it causes some kind of uncertainty in everybody, because this process is not perfect. A perfect peace is not possible; it doesn’t exist. It is a process, the best process, the best possible agreement to achieve peace.

FDB: Yes, the process is not perfect, as you say. But if the ceasefire was working, there were negotiations, why not continue negotiating a while longer to see if something better could be achieved? Why not insist on more time for negotiation?

JMS: We have spent six years, six years, because we had two years in secret, and we believe that what we have achieved is the best that could be achieved.

FDB: I want to show you a video. I want to show you a video that is exactly nine years old. It’s from September, 2007, for you to watch it and then we can discuss it. This is you as defense minister.

JMS: Yes.

FDB: That year, this was – I believe, if I remember correctly – an operation against “El Negro Acacio” (Tomás Medina Caracas), who is one of the most important FARC leaders. Let’s listen to it.

JMS: This is undoubtedly the strongest blow that has been dealt to the logistical capacity of this terrorist group. “El Negro Acacio” was one of the authors of the transformation and strengthening of the FARC in the nineties, when, through the drug trafficking business, they increased their capacity in terms of weapons, in terms of chemical materials and in terms of recruiting.

FDB: Mr. President, is this Juan Manuel Santos a different Juan Manuel Santos from the one I have in front of me at this moment?

JMS: It is exactly the same one, and I am very grateful to you for asking me that question and showing me this video. “El Negro Acacio” was the first of a great many high-value objectives that we took out following a transformation in intelligence and in the way our forces operated. And since then, we have hit them very hard in order to be able to negotiate from a position of strength. That is a necessary condition: the condition for being able to have a successful process is having the state on your side, correlations with the armed forces, convincing the guerrilla commanders that peace is a better deal for them than war. And a third condition, which we also achieved, is the support of the region. In any symmetrical war in today’s world, it is necessary to have regional support; that is, that those three conditions were in place in order to be able to have a successful peace process. And the Juan Manuel Santos that you saw there had already been thinking about the peace process for a long time, since long before. But it was necessary to negotiate from a position of strength. To make peace, it is necessary to know how to make war.

FDB: But Mr. President, that is just it, if the balance of power, so to speak, for the first time in many years, was favorable to the Colombian state, why not stay on that path? Why give the FARC that breathing room?

JMS: Because – what breathing room? – Because we have kept it up in my administration, in this administration we have taken out the number one, the number two, and 63 frontline FARC commanders. That is 63. Nobody, nobody in the 50-year history of the FARC has hit the FARC as hard as this administration. And that is one of the reasons they negotiated this peace deal.

FDB: But why not stick with the military approach?

JMS: Because it would take us 20 or 30 more years, and this country can’t take 20 or 30 more years of war.

FDB: Returning to this video, you speak of the FARC as terrorists and drug traffickers. Did they stop being those things?

JMS: Well, terrorism, of course they practiced terrorism, and of course they profited from drug trafficking. They have, they have admitted it themselves, but they are now making a transition to legality, they agreed to cut off all links with drug trafficking, and of course to stop practicing terrorism.

FDB: We are, in this interview, in the midst of the commotion in New York because of the terrorist attacks that have happened in recent days, and people have always said, no negotiating with terrorists. Why negotiate with some terrorists and not with others? Why negotiate now with the FARC, who, for years you told the world, and even got the world to call them terrorists on all their lists?

JMS: And the world is taking them off of the list of terrorists because they are negotiating peace, and the notion that you do not negotiate with terrorists is not the history of humanity or of the world. Remember, for example, Begín. Didn’t they call him the worst terrorist that existed, and he was the prime minister of Israel? The British negotiated with him, and there are a great many examples like that. This is an insurgent guerrilla group that practiced terrorism and profited from drug trafficking, but that is now willing to submit to the Colombian Constitution, to Colombian laws, to Colombian democracy, and to reach a peace deal after 50 years of war.

FDB: But can you imagine, for example, the U.S. negotiating with the authors of these attacks?

JMS: Well, the thing is, they are two different situations, two different sets of circumstances. The U.S. hasn’t suffered a 50-year war because of an armed group like the FARC. So one cannot be compared with the other.

FDB: I want to go to the issue of drug trafficking. A report on coca growing in Colombia has just been presented, here in the U.S., actually, that says there has been a 42 percent increase between 2014 and 2015. Is it a coincidence that this level of growth is happening in the midst of the peace negotiations with the FARC?

JMS: Félix, if you analyze the production of coca in the country, you will realize that it is like economic cycles. It goes up and down, it goes up and down depending on the circumstances. But now, for the first time, we are going to have the opportunity to find a structural solution, because before, we would set out to eradicate coca in very remote regions. We would be met by the FARC, among others, with snipers, with anti-personnel mines, at a very high cost. The next day, when we would withdraw, they would go back to planting the same quantity, or more. That is why Colombia has never stopped being the number one exporter of cocaine to world markets. Now, for the first time, we are going to have that opportunity.

FDB: But aren’t the FARC behind this? Are you sure that the FARC aren’t continuing in the drug trafficking business: as you said in the video, “El Negro Acacio” was the main figure in that drug trafficking structure—

JMS: Yes, yes.

FDB: —and that with it he financed the FARC’s entire military operation?

JMS: If they turn out to be linked after signing the peace agreement, they lose all their benefits and they know that perfectly well.

FDB: I want to show another video about this same issue. It is U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for drug trafficking issues and former ambassador to Colombia, William Brownfield. This is what he said a few days ago before the U.S. Congress.

WB: To be blunt and honest is the focus and attention of the Colombian government on their peace process, and to some extent a willingness or a desire not to take steps that would complicate that peace process, and the FARC guerrilla movement is today as it has been for more than 30 years, one of the world’s leading drug‑trafficking organizations.

FDB: What Mr. Brownfield is saying is very tough. He is saying that to support the peace process, the Colombian government has looked the other way regarding drug trafficking issues.

JMS: No, what is not in that video is that he also said that never before has so much cocaine been confiscated, that the effort of the Colombian government to combat drug trafficking is active, present, and because of that, in the report, Colombia is applauded for the efforts that we continue to make to combat drug trafficking. The fact that production has increased is a situation that has happened on many occasions. Look, Félix, when I was Defense Minister in 2007, we had never done so much, and production had never increased like it did in 2008. That is why I say that that is caused by different reasons, but the fight against drug trafficking by the Colombian government has been present, and the Americans themselves are the first to recognize that.

FDB: But still, you are saying that to support the process, I insist.

JMS: You are mistaken, because to support-

FDB: That is, the Secretary—

JMS: Yes, he is wrong and he knows it, and we spoke with him. He knows perfectly well that what he said about supporting the process, it is just the opposite. Because to support the process, what we have done is to tighten the screws in every way, as I have told you. No one, no one has hit the FARC harder than I have.

FDB: The other thing he says is that the FARC continue to be drug traffickers.

JMS: No, he doesn’t say—

FDB: That they are some of the biggest drug cartels.

JMS: He isn’t saying that, Félix. He said that they were one of the – but at the present time—

FDB: That they haven’t stopped.

JMS: Yes, no, but it’s that we are now in the process of making the transition. They are – they agreed that they were going to cut all ties. They are withdrawing from areas of production. They are going to concentrate, they are going to abandon their weapons, there is going to be peace. Then they will no longer have the ability that they had before to protect coca crops.

FDB: But Mr. President, isn’t it naive to think that the FARC, who have a multi-million-dollar business, or have managed a multi-million-dollar business, with which they have financed themselves over decades, that they are going to suddenly give it up? Now, when they are going to enter political life, where they are going to need financing to be in that political life, where are they going to get the resources? Are they going to leave the drug trafficking business just like that?

JMS: Well, if they try to do politics with resources from drug trafficking, they will be, as people say in Colombia, being foolish. First of all, there is not the slightest chance that the State will allow that. If they continue to be linked in any way to drug trafficking, they will lose all the benefits, they will rot in jail, and they know that perfectly well.

FDB: Regarding this issue, people have also talked about fumigating, and the attorney general has said that fumigating should be restarted. In Colombia—

JMS: That the possibility must be considered.

FDB: Consider the possibility of fumigating again, after it was stopped. You have said no.

JMS: Not for now.

FDB: Not for now. The agreement doesn’t address fumigating specifically. For example, the word “fumigating” does not appear, but crop substitution does appear—

JMS: As a first—

FDB: —and alternative ways.

JMS: As a first way, it does.

FDB: Is the ‘no’ to fumigating a way of avoiding going against what was agreed in Havana?

JMS: No. Saying ‘no’ to fumigating follows a - a mandate, a decision by the constitutional court, which told the Colombian government: Over X number of months, do a study to see if there is some kind of public health consequence to fumigating. And during that period, the World Health Organization published a study that proved that fumigating does affect human health. So we made the decision to stop fumigating because we were also the only country in the world that was fumigating. And, in addition, fumigating was already failing to have the effect that was hoped for. They even learned to protect themselves from the fumigation with panela: they put it on the leaves to protect themselves from the fumigating. So it was a tool that was less and less effective every day, that was damaging the environment and damaging Colombians’ health, and that’s why I put a stop to it. But it’s not banned for life. That option is available tomorrow if we find some way to fumigate that does not have those ecological and health effects. The agreement, as it has been said, does not ban fumigating.

FDB: I want to move on to one of the more complicated issues of this whole process. Obviously - the issue of justice, which has been among those that have generated the most discussion and debate. You have said emphatically, “It’s not a perfect agreement. It’s the agreement that is possible.” And that, to a great degree, has to do with the issue of justice. You have received international support regarding the issue of justice, but also criticism. And therefore, since it is such a complex issue, I want to yield the floor to someone, so he can ask you two questions regarding the issue, someone you know very well, Mr. José Miguel Vivanco, of Human Rights Watch, so that he can raise two concerns he has regarding this issue.

JMS: Well, fine, but you should have notified me, Félix. You are a journalist and I am too. When you have another person take part in the interview, you must notify the interviewee. But go ahead.

FDB: Let’s do it. I think that - I think they are relevant questions and from someone who knows the issue well.

JMV. President Santos, the Agreement on Victims foresees that the FARC will not go to prison in exchange for confessing their crimes. That is, benefits of transitional justice. Do you think it is fair for government agents, members of the Army, for instance, those responsible for false positives, to receive similar benefits without giving anything in return?

JMS: Mr. Vivanco has every right to criticize transitional justice. But this transitional justice that we agreed to, we did it with the care it demands. The people we sent over to negotiate, among them is a U.S. professor from the University of Notre Dame, an expert on international humanitarian law, on human rights, in order to far exceed international standards. The International Criminal Court, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and all those courts say that, what was agreed meets those minimum requirements. There will not be impunity here. In the case of Mr. Vivanco, what he is worried about is that we grant benefits to our soldiers, to our police officers, to the members of our security services. And I promised our Army and our police that if the guerrillas were going to have benefits in order to end this conflict, anyone from the security services who had committed a crime related to the conflict would also have the same benefits, and we are doing that, and I think that, that is perfectly normal within the transitional justice we have agreed to.

FDB: And this is the second question.

JMV: The agreement also seems to stipulate that war criminals who have confessed will be able take part in politics or hold elected positions while they serve their alternative sentences, and that in order to do that, a constitutional reform would be promoted. Can you confirm, President Santos, that this is the correct interpretation and that your government is going to promote a constitutional reform of that nature?

JMS: This whole process seeks for these people to abandon their weapons and participate in politics legally, so that is what the process, what the process is really seeking: that instead of bombing pipelines, kidnapping people, attacking villages, they go into politics so that their political participation is a normal consequence of any such process. We have had this happen in the past, right in Colombia: there were amnesties for everybody, guerrilla members were elected mayors, senators. Today there are senators who are - who were previously guerrillas. That’s what the process is all about.

FDB: But before the sentences are handed down, could they take part in politics before the special court issues a sentence?

JMS: The thing is that for the first time – Félix, look how paradoxical, for the first time, justice is being applied to them. Those primarily responsible will be investigated, sent to trial, sentenced and punished. There will not be impunity, so the, the special court will determine the punishment, the type of punishment, and so there is a possibility that they may be able to take part in politics.

FDB: Regarding this issue of political participation, there has also been a lot of discussion about the quotas that will be given in Congress, and many people wonder why? Why are set quotas in Congress being given to people who, for years, for decades, have been outside the law? Why give them that benefit?

JMS: They have to take part in the elections and what they were guaranteed was a minimum: if they do not meet the threshold, we are going to give them, for a set time, a minimum quota, which represents only a very small percentage of the number of seats that there are in the Senate and the House, because that is precisely the incentive for them to abandon their weapons and participate in politics. Let me repeat, Félix: the main purpose of this whole process is for them to participate in politics. So we are giving them an incentive, the ability to take part in politics and put down even the last pistol, which they will turn in to the United Nations six months after the signing, and it will be signed next Monday.

FDB: Speaking of politics, two former presidents under whom you were minister, two, former President Pastrana and former President Uribe, are the biggest opponents, are in a way leading the debate against it at this time in Colombia. You have said that there is an element of envy in this position. Why? Why would they feel envious?

JMS: No, what I have said is that I think it’s very sad for two people who tried to do what we are doing, who sought peace. Pastrana spent four years seeking peace. He gave the FARC an area of 42,000 square kilometers, larger than Switzerland. What we are doing is focusing in an area that isn’t even 300 kilometers over just six months for them to hand over the weapons, and for him to say at this point that what we are doing is not right. And such is also the case with President Uribe. He attempted to negotiate. Now they are criticizing us because we are negotiating in Cuba. Didn’t he negotiate for three years with ELN in Cuba? And why are we going to give them political participation? Didn’t he go as far as proposing a constitutional reform that would allow the guerrillas to take part in politics? Does he not now have in his ranks in the Senate an active member of the guerrilla? So there are a series of contradictions between those positions of those former presidents and what they are now saying. That is why I told you at the beginning that here there is a large element of domestic politics, which is sad. I would like to see all former presidents – all my predecessors tried to seek peace, all of them. And all of them did it, I believe, in good faith and in an attempt to benefit the country. It would be great for them to all be united around figuring out how we are going to take advantage of this great opportunity that we Colombians have of building a new Colombia after we sign, of building that peace that all Colombian people yearn for, to be a normal country, the last armed conflict in the entire American continent. The strongest, oldest guerrilla force in the whole region is turning over its last weapon. That is historic.

FDB: But you insist that there is envy.

JMS: Well, there may be envy, there may be jealousy, there may be, I do not know. The human condition, well, you can’t judge it so harshly. You can go and ask them.

FDB: By the way, in the last few days, a debate has been proposed, a debate between Senator Álvaro Uribe, former President Álvaro Uribe and you.

JMS: Yes.

FDB: For you to debate and argue before Colombians the “for” and “against” positions. Would you accept a public debate in Colombia with former the President?

JMS: Nobody has proposed such a debate to me.

FDB: Would you accept it?

JMS: Nobody has proposed it to me and you cannot propose it because I do not believe that the President has authorized you to do so.

FDB: Because since they have – but would you be willing to take part in such a debate?

JMS: Nobody has proposed it to me.

FDB: So, if they propose it, you will consider it?

JMS: At what time? The thing is that I am going back on Thursday – Thursday to Colombia. I have an itinerary every day because we are campaigning. When am I going to agree to a debate? I do not have time to agree to a debate at this point. I have been trying to discuss the peace process with my opposition for four years, to explain each and every point, to explain that this has been a responsible process, that it is a well-planned process, that we are not, as they say, giving up our economic system here, that we are not giving up our political system here, that we are not giving up private property here, that we are not handing ourselves over to so-called Castro-Chavism here, that we did not have a revolution by decree here. Let them read the agreement. And point by point, they will realize that none of what they have been saying is true. If you consider, Félix, the criticism from the beginning of the process and what happened, you will realize that there is a night-and-day difference. Here, that criticism from the beginning that the FARC were not going to hand over the weapons, that they would not come together, all of that has been taking place in line with what we said from the very beginning. When I announced this process to Colombians and the whole world, I said, “Here is a red line that I will not cross,” and I have not crossed a single one, not one, Félix. And you can compare the speech I gave four years ago and what was negotiated, and you will see that not a single red line has been crossed.

FDB: The agreement - is finally approved by Colombians with a “yes,” it goes back to Congress. And there is a circumstance that has caught my attention. In the last few days, the vice president, Germán Vargas, and the attorney general, Doctor Martínez, almost simultaneously have said “yes” to the process, that they support the process, but that they have some objections regarding the justice issue, which more or less has been one of the main issues of the discussion. When the process goes back to Congress for discussion and action, can the agreement be changed in Congress?

JMS: No. No. And we all have objections. I would like to see them in jail for 40 years. Every Colombian would like to change something in the process, but once again, this is the best possible agreement that has allowed us to have peace. And agreements are agreements. They are signed and carried out.

FDB: But I have heard constitutionalists who think that if it goes back to Congress, since a reform is needed, an amnesty, and all those discussions could be subject to debate, and that debate could produce changes in the text.

JMS: Cannot be done.

FDB: You rule it out.

JMS: Yes, because in addition to that, the constitutional reform that Congress already approved establishes a sort of, what they call here a fast track. And on that fast track, only the text presented by the government can be debated, and it is either approved or denied, but you cannot make modifications. With what purpose? To carry out the agreements.

FDB: A statement that really grabbed my attention was one by Doctor Humberto de la Calle, chief negotiator, who said that perhaps the biggest enemy of the process has been the disinformation, as he calls it, or the information that circulates on social media. Do you agree with that?

JMS: There has been a lot of disinformation, yes, and deliberate and systematic disinformation to continuously poison the process. For example, a few months or even a few years ago, they told the police that the police would be led by a member of the secretariat, that it had already been negotiated. They told them that their pensions would be taken away and handed over to the guerrillas. They told the landowners of Cauca that it had already been negotiated, that there was going to be a new Caguán and they were going to take all their land away from them. And that has been systematic – that we are going to give a lifetime salary of 1,800,000 pesos to each member of the guerrilla. Those are lies that have been spread for a long time and have been generating great uncertainty. It has been up to us to neutralize and educate in four, in four weeks, what has been done over four years, when it comes to disinformation.

FDB: The issue of the elections in the United States. We are in a very complex electoral dispute between former Secretary Clinton, whom you know well, and Mr. Trump. What changes for the process if Mr. Trump wins or Mrs. Clinton wins?

JMS: Well, look, I do not know Mr. Trump. I do not know what he thinks about the process. He has not mentioned it. I know Mrs. Clinton. I know that she has agreed with this process. She has contributed greatly for this to be possible, and that is why, what I can tell you is that I know Mrs. Clinton, I know that she supports the process. I do not know Mr. Trump and I do not know what he thinks about the process.

FDB: Finally, Mr. President, if in a few years the FARC comes to power in Colombia, not with weapons, as they always intended, but through what they accomplish after the peace agreement, won’t you regret having moved forward this peace process?

JMS: No. Not at all. And I would never vote for them. I think the diametric opposite of what they have maintained, their Marxism is outdated, the Bolivarian revolution has no future and it has shown a lack of results. But having given them that chance to put the weapons down, after having a war that has produced 8 million victims in my country, that has produced so much suffering – somebody told me, Félix, that this war that has lasted three generations has done away with compassion, defined as your and my and Colombians’ ability to feel the suffering of others. The war has taken that away. We must rebuild the country, starting with ourselves, our hearts, put resentment aside, put hatred aside, put envy aside. The only thing that those attitudes accomplish is to sow violence and sow death and suffering. That is why we have a golden opportunity now when we sign the peace accord with the FARC.

FDB: Do you not fear a president—?

JMS: —No. No I am not afraid of that because I believe that if they continue with their current discourse, they will never have political success.

FDB: Mr. President, thank you very much.

JMS: Thanks to all of you.