Santos replaced outgoing Defense Minister Juan Carlos Pinzon who “will be taking over as ambassador in Washington.”
“The new defense minister will be Luis Carlos Villegas, the current ambassador to the United states,” the president added.
According to Santos, the change will take effect in the coming weeks as both top officials switch office.
The Pinzon-Villegas switch has been rumored for months as the Santos administration has been inching towards the end of a 50-year-long war with leftist rebel groups like the FARC and the smaller ELN.
A move towards a bilateral ceasefire?
In his four years in office, Pinzon had become the face of the Colombian state’s war against the rebels and in charge of keeping military pressure on the 50-year-old rebel groups.
The outgoing minister’s militaristic rhetoric sometimes clashed with that of Santos who has had the paradoxical task of generating public support for an eventual peace agreement with the FARC while also maintaining support for and of the armed forces.
Villegas — a lawyer by trade and a former director of business association ANDI — was one of the original members of the government’s negotiation team with the rebels and has no significant experience with the military or with military administration.
The peace negotiators in Havana, Cuba, are currently negotiating an eventual bilateral ceasefire, victim reparation and transitional justice.
With Villegas still on board of the governmental negotiation team, the warring parties were able to find accords on rural and political reforms, and the FARC’s abandoning of drug trafficking, one of the rebels’ main sources of revenue used to finance its decades-long war.
Selling compromises to the US
While in Washington, Villegas was able to secure the support of the administration of US President Barack Obama who appointed a Special Envoy to the talks.
This has not been an easy task as a number of concessions made to the guerrillas go directly against US interests in the region where Colombia has long been one of Washington’s most loyal allies.
Pinzon, according to French news agency AFP seen by some analysts as sympathetic to hardline opponent of the leftist rebel groups, will have to secure the ongoing support of the US that is holding presidential elections next year.
The new ambassador will have to try to maintain the support of conservative elements within the Republican Party, some of whom have expressed objections to concessions that could harm the US’ interests in the country and the region.
The conservative Republican Party, engaged in a bitter rivalry with its opponent the Democratic Party, is currently in control of both the House and the Senate, but divided about its stance on Colombia and the ongoing peace talks.