AP Interview: Colombian challenger tough on rebels

AP News
Posted: Jun 03, 2014 7:21 PM
AP Interview: Colombian challenger tough on rebels

BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) — The conservative challenger in Colombia's presidential runoff says he'll take a tougher line on Venezuela's socialist government, which he calls a "dictatorship," and he has no plans to extend an olive branch to rebels engaged in peace talks with the government.

Polls say former Finance Minister Oscar Ivan Zuluaga is in a neck-and-neck race with incumbent Juan Manuel Santos ahead of the June 15 vote.

In an interview with The Associated Press on Tuesday, Zuluaga repeated a pledge that if elected he'll insist the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, declare a unilateral cease-fire among other conditions to continue peace talks started more than 18 months ago in Cuba.

Most analysts agree that such demands are unacceptable to the FARC. But Zuluaga shrugs off suggestions he would be blamed for scuttling the talks, perhaps the best chance in decades to end hostilities, saying he won't stake his presidency on achieving peace like Santos. Instead, he wants to focus attention on issues of concern to a broader swath of voters, such as improving health care and education.

He cited the recent sentencing of a Bogota man to five months prison for stealing a box of chocolates as evidence of the FARC's unrealistic expectations of being welcomed back into civilian life without punishment.

"The FARC and its commanders have committed atrocious crimes and violated international humanitarian law yet they hope not to spend a single day in jail," unlike the chocolate thief, said Zuluaga, a 55-year-old economist. "That would be unjust with the country."

He is equally confrontational regarding neighboring Venezuela. He criticized what he calls Santos' meek response to Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro's arrest of opponents and deployment of troops to quash months of anti-government protests.

"For Colombia it's essential that Venezuela respect democratic values," he said. "That's why I've said I won't maintain a policy of complicit silence."

All the same, Zuluaga declined to say what concrete steps he might take to force change in Venezuela or whether he supported an effort in the U.S. Congress to impose sanctions on Venezuelan officials who commit human rights.

Virtually unknown to Colombians just a few months ago, Zuluaga took the momentum into the two-man runoff election after stunning Santos by winning the most votes in the first round of balloting last month and leading the incumbent almost 500,000 votes.

Zuluaga entered politics in the 1980s as city councilman and later served as mayor of his hometown of Pensilvania, in Colombia's coffee-growing region. After a stint presiding over a family-owned steelmaker, in 2007 he joined then President Alvaro Uribe's government as finance minister, helping steer Colombia's economy through the global financial crisis.

Zuluaga's tight alliance with the still-powerful but polarizing Uribe has dogged him throughout the campaign, leading Santos to suggest at a recent debate that his rival would be the former president's "puppet" if elected.

Zuluaga denies he would do the ex-president's bidding, but when pressed to point out a single policy difference or constructive criticism of his former boss he demurred.

"This is a team effort where everyone has their role to play," Zuluaga said.

Indeed, Uribe's recent election to the Senate, where he promises to be a power broker, should make it easier to govern in case Zuluaga wins.

Santos, who was defense minister under Uribe, swept into office in 2010 as a result of security gains under Uribe's administration, but the former president has been attacking him ever since, accusing him of being too soft on the FARC and Venezuela.

"Having Uribe in the opposition in the case of a Santos victory could create a lot of difficulties," said Marcela Prieto, a political analyst at the University of Andes in Bogota.