Political Fallout Over Colombia’s Peace Talks With FARC Rebels

President Juan Manuel Santos is facing criticism for his peace talks with Colombia's FARC rebels, and he may soon find his path to re-election blocked by a wayward relative: his cousin Francisco Santos

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Sebastian Scheiner / AP

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos after a ceremony at the Hall of Remembrance at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem on June 10, 2013

The Santos family of Colombia has been likened to the political dynasties of the U.S. — the Kennedys, Bushes and Clintons. They claim among their kin the current President as well as a former President, Vice President and Defense Minister. But while fierce clan loyalty held together those American dynasties, Colombia’s 2014 presidential election may turn into a family feud. President Juan Manuel Santos is facing criticism for his recent effort to broker peace with Colombia’s FARC guerrilla movement, and he may soon find his path to re-election blocked by a wayward relative: his cousin Francisco Santos.

Francisco Santos was Vice President from 2002 to ’10 under Álvaro Uribe, who launched a military offensive that weakened Colombia’s Marxist guerrillas, improved security and turned Uribe into Colombia’s most popular President in recent history. Juan Manuel Santos served as Uribe’s Defense Minister and was elected President three years ago on a platform similar to his boss’s. But President Santos has enraged the right-wing Uribistas, including his cousin, by charting a more moderate course. He has opened peace talks with the guerrillas, passed a land-restitution law and re-established diplomatic relations with the socialist government in Venezuela.

In response, Uribe has formed an opposition party called the Democratic Center, with Francisco Santos as one of its most prominent members. (Uribe, the former President, is banned by the constitution from running for a third term, but he may pursue a seat in the Senate.) Several recent polls place Francisco Santos, who unlike his more aristocratic cousin connects well with average Colombians, as the party’s best hope to unseat President Santos in next May’s election. “We feel betrayed, absolutely betrayed” by the President, Francisco Santos told TIME as he prepared for a campaign swing through northern Colombia.

(MORE: In Colombia, the War Between the Presidents)

Francisco Santos is the former editor in chief of El Tiempo, the country’s most influential daily. It was founded by his family, including his great-uncle, Eduardo Santos, who was Colombia’s President from 1938 to ’42. Emotional, impulsive and and well connected, Francisco Santos could sometimes be spotted letting off steam in his office playing Nerf basketball. Santos would have remained in journalism, but in 1990 he was abducted on the orders of the drug lord Pablo Escobar, who was pressuring the government to scrap an extradition treaty. As the kidnappers surrounded his red Jeep in Bogotá and prepared to break the windows with a mallet, Santos opened the door to speak to the men. “I preferred to die rather than not know what was going on,” Santos recalled in the Gabriel García Márquez’s book about the episode, News of a Kidnapping.

After eight months in captivity, Santos was released and went on to form an organization that counsels the relatives of hostages. By then, Colombia’s most feared kidnappers were the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, the country’s largest rebel group, known as the FARC. Santos’ outspoken criticism of the FARC led to death threats, which forced him to flee to Spain. He returned in 2002 and was elected Vice President. “I wouldn’t say the kidnapping made me more conservative,” Santos says. “But it taught me that authority is critical.”

On that issue, President Santos agrees with his cousin. But the FARC has been fighting for nearly half a century and, although weakened by the Uribe-era military offensive, the guerrilla army still has 8,000 fighters who could continue the conflict for years. To break the cycle of violence, the Santos government and the FARC opened peace talks in November in Havana. Last month, the two sides announced an agreement on land reform, the first of six points on the negotiating agenda, which has the ultimate goal of pacifying the countryside, demobilizing the FARC and allowing former fighters to participate in legal politics.

(MORE: Colombia’s Talks With the FARC: How Cease-Fires Complicate Peace)

“Colombia has been at war for 50 years; that is an unacceptable situation,” said Sergio Jaramillo, the Colombian government’s High Commissioner for Peace, who is deeply involved in the Havana talks. “We have before us the best opportunity in our history to end it.”

But according to Francisco Santos, the government jumped the gun. He says the FARC is a terrorist group that must be punished on the battlefield until it is so weak that the only thing left to negotiate is the terms of surrender. He also fears that a recent constitutional amendment opening the door to legal benefits for demobilized guerrillas will lead to impunity for its past violence and kidnappings. As part of his presidential campaign, Santos has erected ominous billboards warning Colombians that bearded rebel assassins may soon be serving in the halls of Congress.

José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director for Human Rights Watch, shares Francisco Santos’ concerns about impunity but questions his credentials on the subject. Vivanco recalled that during a government effort in the mid-2000s to disarm right-wing paramilitaries who fought the guerrillas, Santos supported letting death-squad commanders off the hook without serving a single day in prison. Others paint Santos as an intellectual lightweight who is prone to gaffes. He recently caused a stir by calling on authorities to zap protesting university students with Tasers. “His biggest challenge is one of seriousness,” said Adam Isacson of the Washington Office on Latin America. “He has a Sarah Palin problem.”

What he doesn’t have, Santos insists, is a personal problem with the President. At 51, Francisco Santos is a decade younger than his cousin, and the two have never been close. When both worked at El Tiempo, Francisco ran the newsroom while Juan Manuel wrote for the editorial pages. They haven’t spent Christmas together in 30 years. “Like in every family, there are huge differences. But there is no hatred between us,” Francisco Santos insisted. That, however, seems likely to change if Colombia’s presidential race boils down to Santos vs. Santos.

MORE: The Obama Administration Looks to Latin America After Years of Neglect