As Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos prepares to step down, he says he's confident that his crowning achievement — the peace deal with leftist rebels that brought him a Nobel Peace Prize — will survive despite sharp criticism of it by the man now coming into office.
"The accord is bulletproofed," Santos told the Associated Press in an interview Monday at the presidential palace, which in six weeks he'll hand over to incoming President Ivan Duque.
"Just the fact that Timochenko voted for the first time, as ex-commander of the FARC and now head of a political party, shows that the accord worked," he said, referring to the former leader of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, several of whose former rebels will be sitting in Congress next month when Santos delivers his final address to the legislature.
He also noted that the country's constitutional court has ruled it's binding on the next three governments.
Santos, 66, won international praise for signing a peace agreement with leftist rebels to end five decades of conflict that left an estimated 260,000 dead and 7 million displaced.
However, he's not seen as a prophet at home, where he faces decidedly dismal approval ratings and sharp polarization over his pursuit of peace. A recent poll found about 20 percent of Colombians approve of his performance.
Santos leaves Duque a string of challenges, among them a rise in criminal activity in areas vacated by the FARC that fueled a record boom in cocaine production last year, according to a White House report released Monday. He'll also have to contend with a political and economic crisis in neighboring Venezuela that has led more than 1 million migrants to flee their homes for Colombia, putting added stress on the country's already overburdened health and welfare services.
But by far the biggest challenge — and opportunity — is implementation of the 310-page peace accord. While some 7,000 fighters have already surrendered their weapons and are making the transition to civilian life, what Santos calls the "ambitious" portion of the 2016 accord — efforts to bring development to Colombia's long-neglected countryside — is just getting under way and faces a budgetary as well as security constraints.
Many Colombians believe Santos offered far too generous terms for former guerrillas behind scores of atrocities. His successor, Duque, has vowed to "correct" the accord, starting with rolling back the rights of former rebel commanders to occupy seats in Congress even before they confess their crimes and provide reparations to victims.
This week, on his instructions, his party blocked passage of a law essential for special peace tribunals to start hearing testimony from former combatants, prompting a standoff with Santos and putting at risk the accord's promise of justice for victims.
Santos said he's never fixated on opinion polls, saying he's following the example of former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill to do what's right by his country even if it's unpopular. Still, with time, he said he hoped Colombians will remember him as someone who worked tirelessly to promote peace and modernize a country long beset by poverty, political violence and one of the world's highest rates of inequality.
"This accord wasn't made for the FARC, it was made for the local communities," he said. "These are extensive areas of the country that were totally abandoned for more than 50 years and sooner or later the state had to arrive there."
Call for unity
Duque worked for Santos two decades ago, first as an employee of his Good Government Foundation and then as an aide in the finance ministry whom he endorsed for a job at the Inter-American Development Bank in Washington. Santos described his successor as smart and someone with sound judgment.
He's hopeful Duque's reputation for pragmatism will prevail over calls from hardliners within his Democratic Center party to tear up the accord, and said he was heartened by Duque's call on election night for unity, something that proved elusive during his presidency.
"If he manages to achieve that it will be very positive," he said of Duque's pledge to turn the page on years of bitter polarization. "The country needs it."
But if Duque does try to change the accord, he's likely to confront stiff political and legal obstacles that will leave him little room to maneuver, Santos said. They include a fragmented Congress, overwhelming international support for the deal and a ruling by the constitutional court that the accord is binding on the next three governments.
"I told the president-elect that if there are proposals that improve the accord and that can be reached by consensus then they are very welcome," he said. "But what you can't do is impose changes that alter the accord's essence, among other reasons because it would require a constitutional reform."
Once he leaves the presidency on Aug. 7, Santos said he looks forward to spending time in Bogota with his newborn granddaughter, his first. He also has an invitation to work with Amartya Sen, the 1998 Nobel laureate for economics, on issues of poverty reduction and plans to lecture internationally on his government's efforts to promote peace and protect the environment from the effects of climate change.
Even though he's vowed in retirement to stay out of Colombia's rancorous political battles, he can't resist one last piece of self-interested advice to Duque.
"If I were in the new president's shoes, I'd focus on my other campaign promises," Santos said. "The country has a lot of needs, a lot of challenges. He shouldn't wear himself out on something that was already negotiated, that's working and that everyone agrees is in the country's best interests."