As internal strife with guerrilla forces rages in many parts of the world, on Sunday the people of Colombia cast a vote for peace and continuity.

In a heated runoff, they reelected President Juan Manuel Santos, giving him a second term in the presidential palace. His rival, Oscar Ivan Zuluaga, a candidate for the Centro Democratico party, quickly conceded to President Santos, who won by a margin of 53 to 47 percent.

After his victory, President Santos said this democratic election had been one of the most important in Colombia's recent history: "What was at stake was not one candidate over another, but the future direction of a country."

Here's why: In effect, President Santos and his opponent campaigned on two radically opposed views of domestic peace. President Santos favored continuing the 19-month-old peace talks with the leftist FARC, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, the oldest homegrown guerrilla group in Latin America. At times, it has brought the government to the brink.

But under President Santos' leadership as head of state and while he served as defense minister under the previous president, Alvaro Uribe, the FARC has been dealt crushing blows. U.S. military aid to the Colombian government under at least three administrations has made a big difference in putting the insurgents on the ropes.

Zuluaga took a far more combative stance during his campaign. He wanted no part of the peace talks unless the rebels ceased their hostilities, ended abductions of private citizens and stopped recruiting Colombian children and teens to become cannon fodder.

Political pundits believed Zuluaga's position meant he would likely break off the peace talks and possibly plunge the South American country into another violent chapter in its 50-year-old civil war.

Most Colombians - thousands of whom have already fled to South Florida to escape the turmoil - voted to continue the negotiations by reelecting President Santos. Many scribbled the word "paz," or peace, on the palms of their hands on election day. Who can blame them? Some Colombians have gone from childhood to adulthood fearing they would become victims in the war between their government and FARC.

The negotiations between President Santos' government and the FARC have become problematic because of their duration. Many Colombians, though initially supportive, have grown increasingly impatient and skeptical of FARC's intentions. And unfortunately, the talks take place in Havana, capital of the longest tyranny in America.

But the Colombian government had to make this concession to bring the rebels to the negotiating table. And Cuba's lack of a free press means the Colombian government can maintain secrecy regarding the progress of the negotiations.

Regardless of the location of the talks, Sunday's vote gives Colombians hope that the conflict in their country is nearing an end. It has been one of the longest and bloodiest in the Western Hemisphere, claiming more than 200,000 lives, most of them civilians.

The FARC is no longer as powerful as it once was, thanks in good measure to Santos' strategy of talking while pursuing aggressive military tactics on the ground.

His re-election represents an endorsement of successful policies that may at long last bring Colombia's half-century nightmare to an end.

 

—The Miami Herald, June 19