Colombian president sets eyes on post-conflict future

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos met with President Barack Obama on Thursday to seek support for a historic peace agreement with leftist guerrillas, which would bring an end to his country’s 50-year civil war, and for help combatting the Zika virus.

After decades of war, “my country deserves to have peace,” Santos told PBS NewsHour co-anchor Judy Woodruff in an interview airing on Thursday’s broadcast. You can watch their full interview:

Colombia’s civil war pitted the government and paramilitary forces against guerrillas fighting what they considered economic mistreatment of the poor. All sides were cited for human rights abuses in the long-standing conflict that has left an estimated 220,000 people dead.

Since 2012, Santos’ government and the guerrilla holdouts, known as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, have been negotiating a peace accord, which they hope to sign by March 23.

The terms of the deal include investing in rural areas, allowing FARC members to participate in politics, reintegrating rebels into society, disarming rebels and providing reparations to victims of the civil war.

Some critics of the plan have said the perpetrators of abuses will go unpunished and the rebels will go back to criminal activities.

“If they do that, they will lose all the benefits. They will go to prison through ordinary justice — 50, 60 years. They know that,” said Santos. He said the government was able to negotiate with the rebels from a position of strength, due in part to Plan Colombia, a U.S. aid initiative providing billions of dollars to battle the cocaine trade.

Under the initiative, Colombia has reduced the number of families dedicated to cultivating coca crops by two-thirds and slashed the hectors of drug production by more than 60 percent, said Santos. But if the demand in Europe and the United States persists, drug trafficking will continue as well, he added.

In an appearance at the Wilson Center in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday, Santos acknowledged that one of the biggest post-conflict challenges his country faces is keeping people from entering the organized crime vacuum that the FARC fighters will leave behind after they lay down their arms.

Last month, the U.N. Security Council approved a team of international observers to monitor the ceasefire and disarmament in Colombia for a year.

Santos also was expected to ask President Obama to remove FARC from the U.S. list of foreign terrorist organizations. If FARC “has fundamentally changed — given up violence, given up weapons, is no longer hostile to U.S. citizens or interests — then that designation can be reviewed,” said U.S. special envoy to the Colombia peace process Bernard Aronson in a conference call with reporters on Tuesday.

As for the Zika virus, Colombia — along with Brazil — was one of the first countries confirming an outbreak last fall. Usually, the virus causes a mild reaction, including fever, rash and headache. But it is also suspected of causing brain deformities in babies born of women who have contracted the disease. For that reason, the World Health Organization earlier this week declared it a public health emergency.

Outbreaks have occurred mainly in Central and South America, but on Thursday, Spain announced its first case of a pregnant woman having the virus. She had recently visited Colombia, according to news reports.

“We are monitoring the situation very closely,” said Santos, adding that cooperation with the U.S. to do more research will help both countries become better prepared.