Colombia’s President Juan Manuel Santos waves after voting in local and regional elections in Bogota on Oct. 25. (Fernando Vergara/AP)

President Juan Manuel Santos has a white metal dove pinned to his lapel that looks like the Twitter icon. It’s a needless accessory: Every Colombian knows that Santos has staked his presidency to peace negotiations with the leftist rebels of FARC, or the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, bringing his country to the verge of ending their gory 50-year conflict.

After three years of formal talks in Havana, Santos’s negotiating team and FARC commanders have set March 23 as a deadline for an agreement. Their deal will trigger a 60-day period during which rebels’ roughly 7,000 battle-hardened fighters are supposed to come down from the mountains and begin turning over their weapons.

A lot could go wrong. Colombian voters will have the final say on whether to approve a potential peace deal, but exactly how that will work is one of several chips still on the bargaining table.

A former defense minister and political centrist from a wealthy Bogota publishing family, Santos, 64, was reelected last year to a second four-year term. He has paid a steep political price for the slow-going negotiations with FARC and his single-minded focus on a deal. Many Colombians remain skeptical of an agreement that allows guerrilla commanders to avoid prison terms and run for political office.

Santos thinks Colombians will hold their noses and eventually back a truce agreement. They are sick of interminable war, he says, and a conflict that has killed more than 200,000 Colombians and driven 7 million from their homes.

In an interview with The Washington Post this week at the Casa de Nariño, Bogota’s presidential palace, Santos talked about the negotiations; his conversations with President Obama, Pope Francis and FARC commander Rodrigo Lodoño, a.k.a. Timochenko; and recent attacks by Colombia’s second-largest guerrilla group, known as ELN, or the National Liberation Army.

Here are excerpts of the interview.

WP: On Monday, 11 soldiers and a police officer were killed in an ELN attack. If you sign a peace deal with the FARC, it still won’t mean peace for Colombia, right?

Santos: It will mean peace with the group that is undoubtedly the most important, but it will still leave the ELN, which is much smaller and has less of an ability to create problems. But it’s true — peace with FARC won’t be a complete peace.

WP: When will Colombia have that?

Santos: The ELN has been asking us to open formal negotiations with them. It’s a process, and we haven’t been able to agree on everything. But that’s also the way it was with FARC. We want to make sure that when we do make a public announcement, the road map to ending the armed conflict is totally clear. We’re close, but we’re not there yet.

WP: Is this week’s attack a setback?

Santos: No. There is no cease-fire, and the war continues, just as it continues with FARC until we reach a point at which a cease-fire can be possible.

WP: The end of the conflict with FARC will be a very symbolic event, and for so many Colombians, an indelible moment. What should it look like? It’s very important to FARC that it not be treated as a surrender.

Santos: Well, we’re trying to think creatively. We have a lot of people dedicated to it — artists and others. We don’t want it to be something that “the government” does. We want it to be peace with the whole country.

WP: What does that mean, “the whole country”?

Santos: The whole country needs to see this as a historic moment in our lives, as a nation and as a chance to come together to build a new future.

WP: It doesn’t have to be a military ceremony?

Santos: We’re listening to proposals.

WP: And FARC could hand over their weapons to a third party or international observer, like the United Nations?

Santos: Possibly, yes.

WP: When you shook hands with (FARC top commander) Timochenko in Havana last month, it was your first time meeting him. What was your impression?

Santos: He’s a much nicer person than I imagined. A simple man, with good intentions, and also very agile (laughing). At the last moment he tried to change one of our agreements, but he did it with a smile.

WP: What role did the United States play in helping Colombia reach this point? What should be the U.S. role in a post-conflict scenario?

Santos: The U.S. role has been essential. One of the first people I told five years ago (when secret negotiations with FARC began) was President Obama. The United States has accompanied us through everything. When Plan Colombia began in 2000, we were on the verge of being declared a failed state. I can say without the slightest doubt it has been the United States’ most successful bipartisan foreign policy of the past several decades. The peace process is just the cherry on the cake.

WP: What will Colombia need from the United States if you reach a peace deal?

Santos: When the conflict ends, we need a Plan Colombia that helps consolidate democracy in the conflict zones, to help us with crop substitution (to replace cultivation of illegal coca and other narcotics). With relatively few resources the benefits can be enormous.

WP: Everyone who is following this process talks about how complicated it is. Your job is to tell them it’s not, right?

Santos: It’s a complicated process, very complicated. The political costs have been enormous. They warned me five years ago that making peace was totally different from what I had been doing as minister of defense. When I was defense minister I was very popular, and now that I’m president I’m unpopular because I’m trying to make peace. It’s much easier to make war and get trophies. But this is a more fulfilling path.

WP: And the Vatican is supporting you.

Santos: The last time I spoke to Pope Francis, he told me, “President Santos, you are the person I pray for more than anyone else these days.” And I said, “Uh-oh,” I guess that means I really have some big problems (laughing).

WP: What is the biggest remaining obstacle to a deal with FARC?

Santos: The unexpected. An assassination that could derail the process. There have been many examples in the world of people doing crazy things because they want to keep war going.

WP: Like (the assassination of Israeli prime minister) Yitzhak Rabin?

Santos: Right. There’s a phrase I learned from Rabin: “Fight terrorism as if there is no peace process, and pursue peace as if there is no terrorism.” I did that with FARC, and that’s what I’ll do with ELN.

Read more:

Rebels kill 12 in ambush on Colombian security forces

Colombian president, rebels announce major breakthrough in peace talks

An end to Colombia’s war seems close — except in rebel territory

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