BOGOTA (Reuters) – Colombian right-wing presidential candidate Oscar Ivan Zuluaga said renewed peace talks with leftist National Liberation Army (ELN) rebels could be possible in his administration, but they cannot take place in erstwhile host Cuba.
“I’m willing to have a negotiation, but a negotiation with conditions. The first is it cannot be in Cuba,” Zuluaga, who will represent President Ivan Duque’s Democratic Center party in May’s elections, told Reuters on Thursday.
Zuluaga, 63, who served as finance minister under former President Alvaro Uribe, also said he would also slash government spending and propose the elimination of pension subsidies for high-earners if elected, to boost the competitiveness of South America’s third-largest economy.
May’s election could mark a turning point in Colombia’s political history if leftist Gustavo Petro, who leads in opinion polls with around 20% of intended votes, secures victory. Petro, who lost in the second round in 2018 to Duque, is the only leftist to come close to winning the presidency since 1948, when the assassination of a populist candidate plunged Colombia into decades of political violence.
Though Zuluaga’s Democratic Center party wields significant power in Congress and in several important regions, his support remains in the single digits.
Zuluaga said he would be willing to make alliances with other candidates after the first round, but much rests on the outcome of legislative elections next month. A host of parties are expected to use their regional power bases to win representation in congress, opening a round of coalition-building to see who will have the power to govern.
“Colombia’s political outlook will began to get clearer after the results of the March 13 elections,” he said. “This is just the beginning.”
The former minister, like Uribe, opposed a 2016 deal with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) rebels. The deal did not involved the smaller ELN.
Peace talks began in 2017 between the ELN and Colombia’s government. But they were put on ice by Duque after a rebel bombing killed 22 police cadets in 2019.
Besides battling the government, the ELN fights crime gangs and ex-FARC combatants for control of drug producing areas and trafficking routes, especially near the border with Venezuela. Last month, it took responsibility for a bomb attack on police.
Leaders from the ELN – which is estimated to have some 2,350 combatants and was founded in 1964 by extremist Catholic priests – remain in Cuba despite repeated demands by Duque that the Communist-run Caribbean country extradite them.
Ideally, peace talks would take place somewhere in Colombia, Zuluaga said.
“There must be minimum conditions: they must free all hostages; they must free all the minors they have forcibly recruited,” Zuluaga said. “They must be willing to relinquish drug trafficking routes and hand over assets to compensate victims.”
But he closed the door on possible negotiations with criminal gangs and with FARC dissidents.
“FARC dissidents, criminal groups: I think the only way is to surrender and turn themselves in,” Zuluaga said from his office in Bogota. “FARC dissidents had an opportunity and they fooled the country.”
ELECTIONS IN VENEZUELA
Zuluaga also said the international community must keep up pressure for free elections and a democratic transition in neighboring Venezuela.
Millions of Venezuelans have fled their homeland, many to Colombia, in recent years, denouncing political repression and widespread shortages amid a dire economic downturn.
The Colombian government has long accused socialist Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro of harboring armed groups. Caracas has repeatedly denied that.
Zuluaga said his government would slash unnecessary bureaucratic spending, generating savings of 1.5% of GDP. He pledged to reduce the tax burden for businesses to 27% from 35%, while eliminating exemptions.
A long overdue pension reform, needed to help stabilize the finances of the creaking system, must cancel a subsidy for high-earners, Zuluaga said.
“That subsidy, for some 150,000 pensioners, costs us 1.5% of GDP,” he said. “That can’t be sustained and would give the country lots of relief in the medium- and long-term.”
(Reporting by Julia Symmes Cobb and Luis Jaime Acosta, additional reporting by Carlos Vargas; Editing by Daniel Flynn and Rosalba O’Brien)