Peace negotiator rated 2nd 'most trusted' of 16 Colombian presidential hopefuls

Younger Colombians knew almost nothing about Humberto de la Calle in 2012 when he was named the government's chief peace negotiator for talks with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. Many older Colombians were all but sure his mission to end a half-century of bloodshed would fail.

Now the Bogotá attorney is being roundly hailed as a hero over last month's historic peace deal with the rebels. There's even talk he could succeed President Juan Miguel Santos in the 2018 elections.

Before the peace talks, de la Calle was best known for quitting as vice president in disgust after President Ernesto Samper was accused of winning the presidency in 1994 with millions of dollars of contributions from the Cali cocaine cartel. He all but disappeared from politics until Santos tapped him for the talks.

De la Calle's colleagues say it was his steady demeanor, ability to listen and deep legal understanding as an author of Colombia's 1991 constitution that cinched a deal with the country's biggest rebel group. It also helped that he knew the FARC up close, having sat across from chief rebel negotiator Iván Márquez during a failed attempt at peace two decades earlier.

In the beginning, the two sides communicated in strident terms bred by a conflict that has killed more than 220,000 people and displaced more than 5 million.

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But as negotiations dragged on in Havana, the ice began breaking. While de la Calle says he never shared his beloved Cuban cigars with the rebels, the two all-male negotiating teams found common ground celebrating Colombia's record-setting run in the 2014 World Cup. Then last year they attended a private screening of a big-budget, British-made nature film, "Colombia: Wild Magic," together.

"It was a moment where we finally realized we are all Colombian, including the guerrillas," the 70-year-old de la Calle said in Barranquilla, during a stop on a national tour to promote the accord ahead of an Oct. 2 referendum.

The agreement paves the way for FARC members to lay down their weapons and enter politics. But many Colombians are outraged at provisions that spare the guerrillas jail time as long as they confess their war crimes.

Colombia's political violence is personal for de la Calle. When he was just 6 months old, his parents hid him in a basket from Conservative Party gunmen who forced them off their small coffee farm. It was the late 1940s, a period of strife among political parties known as La Violencia – "The Violence" – that sowed the seeds of the armed conflict.

Through the four years of talks, de la Calle kept government negotiators on track through fatigue and extended periods away from their families as they lived together in a house provided by the Cuban government. At times, he said, he felt like he was in a reality show.

"Sometimes it was harder to reach consensus among the negotiators than it was with the FARC," said Gen. Javier Flórez, who negotiated the accord's cease-fire component.

De la Calle said he was able to meet the FARC half way because of his earlier embrace of Nadaism, a counter-culture movement combining avant-garde poetry, theater and literature that rejected Colombia's social and political conservatism of the late 1950s. He also considers himself an agnostic in one of Latin America's most-fervently Catholic nations.

The low point of the talks was the FARC's 2014 capture of an army general and the rebels killing of 12 sleeping soldiers a few months later, both crises that almost derailed talks.

"He became an important mediator, dialoguing with a serene, respectful and cordial manner even in critical situations," said a top FARC negotiator known by the alias Pastor Alape.

Harder to broker was a detente with the peace process' chief critic, conservative former Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, but even people close to Uribe say de la Calle's presence at the negotiating table prevented the government from making bigger concessions.

"Humberto was the rock of the negotiations, respected by all sides," said Bernard Aronson, who served as President Barack Obama's envoy to the talks. "He brought a lawyer's precision to the substance but also a political leader's understanding of the larger context and public opinion."

De la Calle said he relaxed by reading nightly, including a book on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a biography of Cuban revolutionary Ernesto "Che" Guevara, a sociological study of sexual perversity and a daily dosage of literature by the late Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges.

"I'm perfectly in sync with the times," he joked, displaying the titles on his Kindle.

But the 125 trips to Cuba took their toll. He said the most painful sacrifice was not being alongside his brother during a battle with cancer and missing time with his six young grandchildren, including one who underwent a life-threatening heart operation shortly after he was born.

The hard work appears to be paying off. Last month, de la Calle was rated the second-most trusted of 16 potential Colombian presidential aspirants in a Gallup survey, with an approval rating of 47 percent that surpassed that of Santos.

While he said he wouldn't rule out a presidential run, he insisted his immediate focus after the referendum will be to get some rest and recover his golf handicap.

He also said he's aware his role as peacemaker could quickly turn into a liability during an uncertain transition.

So instead of peace, he prefers to speak of his achievements in more modest terms: an end to hostilities with the FARC. He said true reconciliation will take years and require a complete reboot of Colombians' mindset after decades of war.

"All of us Colombians we still have a problem in our hard drive," he said.

But, he added, his experience in talking face to face with guerrillas who his compatriots have learned to hate proves that transformation is possible. "I'm more sensitive to the suffering of Colombians. I think I'm a better person and I know my country better."

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