For­mer Colom­bian pres­i­dent dies at 95


BOGOTA, Colom­bia — For­mer Colom­bian Pres­i­dent Belis­ario Be­tan­cur, whose bold ef­forts to reach a peace deal with left­ist rebels in the 1980s were un­done by drug-fu­eled blood­let­ting and an ex­plo­sion of vi­o­lence backed by state se­cu­rity forces, died on Fri­day. He was 95.

Mr. Be­tan­cur’s death was con­firmed by Pres­i­dent Ivan Duque, who said on his Twit­ter ac­count that the ex-pres­i­dent’s legacy in Colom­bian pol­i­tics, his­tory and cul­ture would be “an ex­am­ple for fu­ture gen­er­a­tions.” Mr. Be­tan­cur, who gov­erned from 1982-1986, died in a Bogota clinic af­ter suf­fer­ing kid­ney problems.

Uniquely in Colom­bia’s elite-dom­i­nated po­lit­i­cal land­scape, Mr. Be­tan­cur wasn’t the son of pa­tri­archs but in­stead rose to the pin­na­cle of power from a Spar­tan start as the son of a poor farmer in west­ern An­tio­quia state. With the aid of schol­ar­ships he earned a law de­gree and through­out his po­lit­i­cal ca­reer held his own as a jour­nal­ist, economist and poet.

His ar­rival to the pres­i­dency in 1982 sparked a wave of en­thu­si­asm that he could de­liver Colom­bians from an armed con­flict rag­ing since the 1960s and that would go on to claim more than 250,000 lives and drive mil­lions from their homes. He moved quickly to ne­go­ti­ate a truce with guer­rilla groups, de­fy­ing mem­bers of his own con­ser­va­tive party, and with an ev­ery­man’s touch be­gan sell­ing his plan for peace di­rectly to Colom­bians.

But those ef­forts quickly un­rav­eled as thou­sands of mem­bers of the Pa­tri­otic Union — a fledg­ling po­lit­i­cal move­ment tied to the Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Armed Forces of Colom­bia — were gunned down by right-wing groups. Later it would be dis­cov­ered that many of the killings were backed by state se­cu­rity forces.

An­other rebel move­ment, the Cuban-in­spired M-19, ac­cused Mr. Be­tan­cur of “trea­son” for go­ing back on his peace pledges and in 1985 took control of the coun­try’s supreme court with the goal of hold­ing a rev­o­lu­tion­ary trial against the pres­i­dent.

The heavy-handed re­sponse by Colom­bia’s army didn’t wait. What Colom­bians al­most uni­ver­sally re­fer to as the “holo­caust” played out in the cap­i­tal’s main square as a blaze con­sumed the night sky af­ter troops backed by tanks and bombs stormed the Palace of Jus­tice. More than 100 peo­ple were killed, in­clud­ing 11 of the 24 mag­is­trates of the high court, al­though years later au­thor­i­ties would dis­cover that some of the rebels and sus­pected civil­ian sym­pa­thiz­ers were taken alive from the build­ing by the army and dis­ap­peared.

Mr. Be­tan­cur’s ac­tions dur­ing the siege were called into ques­tion, in­clud­ing his re­fusal to take a phone call from the court pres­i­dent plead­ing for ne­go­ti­a­tions, as well as a gov­ern­ment or­der forc­ing TV net­works to in­ter­rupt cov­er­age of the stand­off and broad­cast a soc­cer match in­stead.

Barely a week later an­other dis­as­ter would strike: the erup­tion of the Ne­vado del Ruiz vol­cano, which trig­gered a cas­cade of mud that buried the en­tire town of Armero, leav­ing more than 25,000 peo­ple dead. It was the worst nat­u­ral dis­as­ter in Colom­bia’s his­tory, and once again Mr. Be­tan­cur was ques­tioned for not hav­ing or­dered an evac­u­a­tion in time.

The twin tragedies for­ever tar­nished Mr. Be­tan­cur’s legacy, and when he left of­fice in 1986 he largely kept out of pub­lic view. For years he main­tained that he had lost control of the palace siege to his gen­er­als. The for­mer pres­i­dent was ab­solved of wrong­do­ing by a con­gres­sional in­ves­ti­ga­tion at the time.

But he broke his si­lence in 2015, show­ing re­morse for his ac­tion as then-Pres­i­dent Juan Manuel San­tos was ne­go­ti­at­ing with the FARC an­other peace deal — this time one end­ing the con­flict.

“If there were mis­takes that I made,” he said, “I ask my com­pa­tri­ots for for­give­ness.”


Colom­bia’s for­mer Pres­i­dent Belis­ario Be­tan­cur speaks at a con­fer­ence in Panama City in 2004. Be­tan­cur died Fri­day at a clinic in Bogota.

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