Lessons from a Peacemaker

Nobel Peace Prize winner Juan Manuel Santos tells a Tufts podcast how he fought the odds to create peace in his native Colombia after more than fifty years of war

Juan Manuel Santos, the former president of Colombia, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2016 for forging a deal that ended more than a half-century of war in his country. But before his peace-making efforts earned him a reputation as a dove, Santos was widely seen as a hawk. As Colombia’s defense minister from 2006 to 2009, he organized a counterinsurgency campaign that weakened the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, a leftist rebel group known as the FARC. He said it took that first step to persuade the guerrilla group to approach peace negotiations in good faith.

In this episode of Tell Me More, Santos talks with Ian Johnstone, interim dean of The Fletcher School, about how he persisted despite such challenges—and how he hopes the peace agreement will help all Colombians.

The two spoke after a screening of the documentary film, Port of Destiny: Peace, which chronicles his efforts to end the war. 

IAN JOHNSTONE: If we can speak first a little bit about the Colombian peace process. I was struck by a few people who said they were surprised to see that you, who had been the Minister of Defense and had spent some part of your career fighting the FARC, now becoming such a strong advocate for peace.

Could you just say a little bit more about—was that really a transformation, or was there a coherence to your approach? It was just people who weren’t watching closely were surprised?

JUAN MANUEL SANTOS: Some people think there was a change in my way of thinking, but that’s not correct. I had an experience back in the early nineties where—I even have an experience many years before when I was in the Navy. They gave me a sailboat not very different from the sailboats you have at the Charles River and the officer said, “Santos, learn how to sail.” I had no idea and I had a lot of trouble, and he said, “Listen, to sail you need...” The name of this documentary has to do a lot to do with this. “You need to know where you’re going. You need to have a port of destination, a port of destiny, and that’s the lesson that will help you to sail but also it’s a lesson for life.”

And I had that in the back of my mind when, in the early nineties, I was the chair of the Eighth Conference for the United Nations for Trade and Development, after being the first Trade Minister and I had to give the chair to Mandela—to Nelson Mandela. And I went to Johannesburg and I switched on the television, and I saw a surreal live program that I was very surprised were the victims of the war in South Africa were the perpetrators, some of them embracing, others screaming at each other, and that afternoon I had a fifteen-minute meeting with Mandela and I said, “What is this?”

And he started explaining how this is like a therapy to heal the wounds of the war, and we spent five hours talking about the process in South Africa. And he told me at the end, “And you must try to get peace in Colombia, otherwise Colombia will never take off.” So there I found a way where I wanted to go with my life, and since then I started studying different peace processes and discovering conditions that were necessary for successful peace process, and one of those conditions was to weaken the FARC, to take them to a negotiating table but with the real intention of negotiating peace, because they had already sat many times. All my predecessors had tried and failed, so the military correlation of forces had to be in our favor—in favor of the state. So sometimes you have to make war to be able to achieve peace.

I took the advantage of being Minister of Defense. I went to my friend Tony Blair and ask him for what the British are known for. They’re the best intelligence, and I said, “Help me with intelligence,” and he called a marvelous person by the name of Sir John Scarlett. He was the head of MI6 and he said, “Come to my building, but it doesn’t have an address.” So I said, “Well, how can I get there?” He sent me a car. I had a two-day crash course in intelligence.

I went back, took over the Ministry of Defense, made a complete overhaul in our intelligence systems. That increased the effectiveness of our operations and of our military apparatus tenfold, and that was the tipping point. And when we started taking down the leaders of the FARC, which we had never done before, then they realized that negotiating peace was the only path that would avoid being killed or being taken to jail.

So yes, I was elected president the first time because I was a successful hawk at making war, but then many people thought that I should continue making war. But in a geography like the Colombian geography, to eliminate the last guerillas is impossible, and that’s not the way to end the war. The best way to end the war, especially a war among sons of the same nation, is to negotiate. And so we took them to negotiating table and we negotiated.

JOHNSTONE: And the negotiations went on for many years. There were secret negotiations, there were the more public negotiations, and finally the agreement was signed in 2016. Before we get to the referendum, were there any points in the years—the four or six years before that—where you thought you would need to go back to being a hawk, or...?

SANTOS: Oh, many. Many times that I thought that the negotiations would be finished, that I would maybe have to break the negotiations, and the only alternative to negotiating was going back to war. So yes, many, many occasions.

But at the same time, I knew that it was going to be difficult. They warned me that it was going to be very difficult. There was professor who told me at the beginning, “Listen, you’re embarking in a very difficult course. All peacemakers are usually very much criticized and some are killed.” Like Rabin, the prime minister of Israel, when he tried to make peace with Arafat. He was killed for that by his own people.

President Clinton, when he went to the funeral of McGuinness, the IRA leader, he said that at a certain moment in time Mandela called him and said, “Mr. President, I am being slaughtered by criticism,” and he said, “From where? From the apartheid people?” “No, no. My own people,” because he was giving, in their view, too much to the white people.

And so, peacemakers are always criticized. They warned me, but he gave me a marvelous piece of advice. He said, “Talk to the victims and their stories will re-energize you, will fill you with courage to continue to persevere,” and that’s what I did every single week. We had this unit of victims—that we repair the victims, and this marvelous woman who was the head of the unit, I told her, “Choose victims that I can speak to for about half an hour, maybe an hour, each week,” and she did that and that was a very, very important mental, psychological, and human sort of a reenergizer to not throw in the towel. So many times that you think, “No, this is not worth it.”

JOHNSTONE: Yeah, because there was at least twice, once after—well, the second election when you won by a much smaller margin than the first election, which was a landslide, where obviously you must have been struggling with concerns about the degree of political support and then after the referendum, and it’s clear to those of us who follow the process and even watching this movie that it did take real political courage on your part to persevere in those circumstances.

Can you just elaborate a little bit on what was going through your mind, especially at the time of the referendum, when you, perhaps like others were expecting to win, didn’t win. Did you question your understanding of the Colombian people? Did you question your understanding of the importance of the peace process that you had negotiated, or were you confident all the way, all the while?

SANTOS: No, I never questioned the peace process. I knew this was the correct path. I had studied very, very much the implications of going back to war, what that meant, the cost of the war for Colombia, and that peace was the only way out in the long run that would allow Colombia to flourish. I was not prepared to lose. I was a bit stubborn, maybe I was overconfident. I had no plan B. When I lost, and you saw that in the documentary, my sons, my wife, my ministers, were all very heartbroken, devastated, emotional, and I have always tried to take advantage of problems. This is a Chinese saying that every crisis has an opportunity, more or less that attitude, so I went to reflect on how can I take advantage of this disaster?

And since the “no” people had always said, “Now, we are of course in favor of peace but we don’t want Santos’ peace. We want our own peace.” So I said, “Okay, then I’m going to call them in.” I said, “What is the peace that you want? What is it that you have in this agreement that you don’t like?”

We lost the referendum because—you are now very familiar with something called fake news. This peace agreement was very, very much affected by fake news. You cannot imagine the things they said about the agreement: that new police in Columbia were going to be the FARC, that the money that goes to the pensioners are going to be given to the guerillas, that I was going to expropriate every landowner, that I was a communist. All kinds of things which were so outrageous that I never thought people would believe it. Well, some of them did.

I said, “This is an opportunity to clean the reality and maybe strengthen the agreement.” So I decided I’m going to call in the leaders of the No vote. I said, “Okay, let’s negotiate a new agreement that you will accept.”

Things evolved. Out of fifty-nine points that they presented, we accepted fifty-six—95 percent—and fortunately the Constitutional Court had given me a way out, in the sense that the referendum was not the normal procedure to approve a peace process. The normal procedure, that is in our constitution, is that you take the peace process to Congress. I did the referendum out of stubbornness or stupidity, but I didn’t have to go back to a referendum. The Constitutional Court said, “You go to Congress.”

So, we negotiated the peace agreement, we went to Congress, and by an overwhelming majority it was approved, so in the end, we had a better agreement, a stronger agreement, and all these difficulties were—well, you use them to challenge in a constructive direction.

JOHNSTONE: OK, well then that brings up to today, and I’m going to have to ask you to put this in your own terms, but the current state of the peace process today, how you would characterize it, and what your views are about the future. Is it irreversible? Is it possible that this could unravel?

SANTOS: Well, this peace process is very special because according to all the experts, this is the most comprehensive and ambitious peace process ever negotiated. And why do I say this? Because we did not only negotiate what is normally negotiated, which is the insurgency gives up their arms, they’re disarmed, they are sort of given a space in civil society and in politics, and there’s amnesty and we all live together ever after.

In this case, we did two very unprecedented and important things. The first time that the two parties get together and create a special justice system under the Statute of Rome—first ever. So, the Statute of Rome is an international treaty that was negotiated to facilitate peace processes like the one in Colombia, but it had never been applied, and so we put that in place and we also negotiated development plans for the regions that were affected by the conflict for fifteen years.

So, I made sure that the agreement was shielded legally. The Constitutional Court said, “No president can approve a law or no Congress can approve a reform that goes against the implementation of the agreement for the next three presidential periods.”

So, I am very optimistic that this will continue to advance with the difficulties which are normal in a process of peace construction. There’s peace building, and then peace construction.

The peace building, we already did: signing the agreement, the FARC gave up their arms, the arms are destroyed, they became a political party. Constructing peace is much more difficult because it’s a process of reconciliation and to heal the wounds of fifty years of war is not easy and takes time and takes patience, and you have to teach somebody that has lost his daughter or her sons to forgive or accept a benevolent treatment for the perpetrators. That’s difficult, but that is what we are now in and we should continue.

I will tell you an anecdote on this aspect. The Pope was a big supporter of the peace process and I went to visit him many times, and I said, “Your Holiness, why don’t you go to Colombia and give me a push?” And he said to me, “President Santos, I pray for you a lot,” and I say, “You pray for me a lot? I’m in big trouble.” And he said, “I will go when you most need me,” and he went after we signed the peace agreement, after the FARC had given up the weapons, their arms, and he went and he himself put the title to his visit: “I go to Colombia to push Colombians to take the first step towards reconciliation.” That word is key, and that’s the process we’re doing now.

JOHNSTONE: Fascinating. To shift gears slightly, not entirely away from the peace process, but an aspect of your presidency that people may not know as well, is your promotion of the Sustainable Development Goals, SDGs. You pushed hard for that at the Rio+25 conference in 2012, I believe, and that resulted in 2015 in the adoption of the next set of development goals that were going to guide global development policy and environmental policy for the next fifteen years.

And you were really a leader in that, and it’s not unrelated to the peace process because, as you said, development of the parts of the country that were in need of development is part of peace building and peace construction in Colombia. But can you just say a little bit more about your commitment to those sets of issues, development, environment, and climate change.

SANTOS: Well the SDGs, I’ll tell you how that was put in place. A young lady from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, brilliant young lady, suddenly came to me and said, “Mr. President...” That was back in 2011. “The Millennium Goals are going to finish in 2015. I’ve been thinking that you might lead some new set of goals, but you have to introduce two very important elements. First, the environmental element. This is crucial, and then the responsibility cannot be only of developing countries. Developed countries should also become part of this agenda.”

And I said, “Sounds interesting. Can you write a memo with these ideas?” And she said, “It’s all right here,” and she gave it to me, very efficient, and I read it. Not more than three pages. That’s an advice. If you’re going to give a memo to a president, don’t write more than three pages; he won’t read it. And it was very brilliantly written and I said—I called the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and I said, “Hey, I like this idea. Why don’t you start sounding some key countries?"

I went personally to the Rio Summit in the year 2012 and tabled the idea, the SDGs, and the Chinese were presiding and the Chinese minister came down and he said, “President Santos, you come from a small country.” I said, “It’s not so small.” “But you have big ideas. We will support that idea,” and Prime Minister David Cameron more or less said the same thing.

So, we started a multilateral diplomacy that ended with the United Nations by unanimity adopting the SDGs. It was a very interesting negotiations—how many SDGs, which SDGs—and we finally came up with these seventeen that you know, and it’s the agenda for the world. It’s the agenda for Colombia, also. We think it’s a correct balance between the social policy, the environmental policy. It’s a good agenda for any country and for the world, but we need to convince a few presidents that climate change does exist.

HOST: Thanks for listening to this episode of Tell Me More. Please subscribe and rate and review us wherever you get your podcasts—and to be the first to hear about new episodes, please follow Tufts University on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

We’d also welcome your thoughts on the series. You can reach us at tellmemore@tufts.edu. That’s T-U-F-T-S dot E-D-U.

Tell Me More is produced by Steffan Hacker, Anna Miller, Dave Nuscher, and Katie McLeod Strollo. Anna Miller edited this episode and Heather Stephenson wrote the introduction. Web production and editing support provided by Taylor McNeil. Special thanks to Ian Johnstone of The Fletcher School. Our theme music is sourced from De Wolfe Music And my name is Patrick Collins.

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