RIONEGRO, Colombia (Reuters) - Colombia’s conservative former president Alvaro Uribe has turned against his hand-picked successor Juan Manuel Santos and is warning that peace talks with Marxist rebels could scare off the investment that has underpinned the country’s economic boom.
In an interview this week at his country residence, Uribe insisted he is not an “enemy of peace” and wants an end to a decades-old war but only if rebels first lay down their weapons, cease all criminal activity and are punished for their crimes.
“We all want peace, but there can’t be a negotiation while the terrorists are continuing their criminal activities,” said Uribe, whose father was killed in a botched kidnapping by the FARC in 1983. “It creates investor panic and in turn creates difficulties in financing social policy.”
Uribe led Colombia from 2002 until 2010 and is credited with weakening the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia guerrilla army, or FARC, and attracting record levels of foreign investment, especially in the mining and oil industries.
Santos served as Uribe’s defense minister and the two were close allies. But the former president has since turned against his successor, accusing him of being soft on the FARC and now agreeing to peace talks from a position of weakness.
“The president has allowed security to weaken and spent the last two years (negotiating) under the table, behind the back of the nation, while security has declined and the military is demotivated,” Uribe told Reuters in his study overlooking a garden lake at his residence near the city of Medellin.
Santos announced last week that talks with the FARC will start in Norway next month and then move to Cuba, where the two sides will try to end a conflict that has killed tens of thousands since it began some 50 years ago.
Uribe, 60, constantly criticizes government policy on his Twitter feed and, since pulling out of the ruling Partido de la U in July, he has become Colombia’s de facto opposition leader.
Although he cannot run again for president, he is expected to back a political ally for the next election in 2014.
In the meantime, he is brutally dismissive of Santos.
“He is dedicated to seeking talks with terrorists and comes to the table weak and the terrorists feeling like champions,” Uribe said in the interview at his home on Monday.
He is also furious that his old nemesis, Venezuela’s socialist President Hugo Chavez, has been given a role in supporting the peace talks.
Uribe has over the years accused Chavez of harboring FARC leaders inside Venezuela and the two men clashed repeatedly when Uribe was in power.
In a new twist, Uribe said in the interview that Chavez secretly offered in 2009 to let FARC commander Ivan Marquez be captured “covertly” inside Venezuela and be taken back across the border to stand trial for kidnapping, terrorism and drug trafficking.
Marquez is now on the FARC negotiating team for the talks with Santos’ government, and any evidence that Chavez offered to let Uribe’s government capture him could strain relations.
Chavez’s government flatly denied the allegation when contacted by Reuters for a response. “Uribe is crazy, Twitter has made him sick,” Information Minister Andres Izarra said.
Uribe, who left office after two terms with 75 percent approval ratings, said he had no idea when he backed Santos for president that he would push for peace with the FARC.
“He committed to completely the opposite,” he said.
Santos dismisses Uribe’s claim that he has dropped the ball on security, and even some opposition figures say the former president has gone too far.
“It’s hard for Uribe to be an ex-president,” said opposition lawmaker Alba Luz Pinilla. “He needs to stop criticizing now and let Santos’ peace initiative develop so that possibly it will have a positive outcome.”
Since he left office, several of Uribe’s close aides have been investigated for alleged corruption and spying on opponents. His head of security pleaded guilty in the United States to having ties to right-wing paramilitary groups.
Santos’ government and the FARC have set an agenda for talks that includes the rights of victims, land ownership in rural areas and cocaine production and smuggling.
Dressed casually and speaking in a small study decorated with sculptures of horses and family photos, Uribe said he was worried a peace accord would allow “impunity” for FARC crimes.
Little is known yet how the rebels would face justice, but an intelligence source told Reuters that they would not be extradited to another country to face trial.
Uribe called for dialogue “on how they will dismantle their criminal organizations, confession of their crimes and victim reparations.” He said: “Lower penalties or alternatives could be accepted but it’s not acceptable that there is any amnesty or pardon.”
A former lawyer and regional governor, Uribe took office in 2002 just as the last attempt at peace with the FARC collapsed. The group had used a demilitarized zone to develop drug trafficking and rebuild its strength to as many as 20,000 fighters.
Foreign investment was about $2 billion that year as few companies dared put money into building operations when they risked being kidnapped or killed by insurgent groups.
A decade later, foreign direct investment is seen at $17 billion this year, the economy is expected to grow 4.8 percent and FARC forces have been halved.
When they were still allies, Uribe and Santos were credited with some of the heaviest blows against FARC, killing its key commanders and hobbling much of its communication structure.
But the rebels are by no means a spent force and are still able to launch attacks on economic infrastructure like oil pipelines and mining installations.
Uribe said his strong hand and social programs had been bearing fruit in the war. “We hadn’t won but we were winning,” he said. “It wasn’t in vain.”
Additional reporting by Luis Jaime Acosta and Carlos Vargas; Editing by Kieran Murray and David Storey