When Colombians go to the polls to vote in a presidential election Sunday, they will be going through deja vu.
After 50 years, you would think they would have moved on to different issues. But nah, Colombians have no such luck. They will again be voting on whether to make peace or war with the leftist, drug-trafficking rebels, who have caused them so much pain for a half-century.
From a handful of candidates, two already are projected by the polls to face each other again in a mid-June runoff: President Juan Manuel Santos, who wants Colombians to keep waiting for a never-ending peace process, and Oscar Ivan Zuluaga, a former finance minister who speaks for Colombians who are tired of waiting and have come to the sad realization that the rebels have no intention of giving up their weapons after 50 years of war.
After all, these so-called Marxist rebels are not ideological dingbats — a la Che Guevara — stupidly believing they are liberating people who don't want to be liberated. These are major league cocaine dealers who don't want to give up a very lucrative business.
You may be able to negotiate with political opponents on ideological grounds by listening to their concerns and even implementing some of their demands. But how do you cut a peace deal with a band of criminals wearing Guevara masks?
Nevertheless, Santos seems to be basing his entire second-term re-election campaign on the need to continue his peace negotiations with the rebels, while Zuluaga seems ready to dump the negotiations and return to the hard-line policies of former President Alvaro Uribe.
Uribe is still popular and widely credited for saving Colombia from complete chaos — with Santos as his former hard-line defense minister — but Santos, who replaced Uribe in 2010, turned out to be a much weaker president than his predecessor and mentor. In an egotistical quest to be the one who brings peace to Colombia, Santos has repeatedly caved to rebel demands and allowed Colombian security to regress — perhaps not as far back as to the wild days before Uribe, but it's certainly moving that direction.
For this reason, Uribe has become a fierce critic of Santos. He endorsed Zuluaga for president and gave him a huge boost in the polls, with one recent survey putting Zuluaga ahead of Santos for the first time since the campaign began last year.
And so, once again, as if time refused to move forward in Colombia, those elusive peace talks are the main issue in this presidential campaign.
Santos presents himself as the only candidate who could complete the peace negotiations he began in 2012 with the guerrilla leaders of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). He recently told Reuters that the election, "ultimately ... comes down to a choice between war and peace," with him, of course, as the self-proclaimed peace candidate.
Yet Colombia has lost 200,000 people to the military conflict that began when the FARC was created in 1964, and too many Colombians seem to be fed up with peace promises from a band of criminals who clearly have no interest in giving up the weapons and armies that protect their drug empire.
They see that while Santos' negotiations reportedly have made progress on agricultural reforms and allowing future rebels to participate in politics, the rebels have refused to budge on dismantling their drug-trafficking enterprises.
Santos has been the odds-on favorite since the campaign began last year. But Zuluaga has been gaining popularity by reminding Colombians that past peace negotiations have been used to fool the government and strengthen the FARC, that only Uribe's hard-line policies can achieve significant military gains against the rebels, and that "'the only thing we can discuss (with the rebels) is submission."
Zuluaga says he would talk to the rebels, but only after they lay down their weapons and face prison time for their crimes. He wants to regain the progress that was made under Uribe and lost under Santos. And according to the polls, the Colombian people are rapidly lining up behind him.
A recent poll released by the Colombian National Consulting Center and CM& News had Zuluaga winning Sunday's election, with 24 percent of the vote and going into a runoff with Santos, who received 22 percent. The same poll projects Zuluaga would beat Santos by a 42 to 34 margin in the runoff.
Stay tuned. If the Colombian people boot out Santos for being too soft on the rebels, perhaps peace can finally be achieved in Colombia — by military force, if necessary.
To find out more about Miguel Perez and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.