Colombian President Santos’ Quest for Peace

Atlantic Council Global Citizen Award recipient shunned popularity in bid for peace with leftist guerrillas

The Atlantic Council will honor Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos with its Global Citizen Award in New York on October 1 in recognition of his unwavering commitment to make peace with leftist guerrillas and end Latin America’s longest-running war.

Santos and Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) leader Timochenko struck a deal in Havana, Cuba, last week in which they set a six-month deadline to sign a peace deal.

Peter Schechter, Director of the Atlantic Council’s Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center, and Jason Marczak, the center’s Deputy Director, sat down for an interview with the New Atlanticist’s Ashish Kumar Sen to discuss the latest breakthrough in Santos’ peace negotiations with the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) rebels.

Here are excerpts from our interview.

Q: Why has President Santos been selected to receive the Atlantic Council’s Global Citizen Award?

Schechter: President Santos embodies much of what is best about Latin America as well as what is best about why politics, which everybody loves to hate, is actually something that when used correctly resolves big problems.

President Santos was the Defense Minister when the FARC suffered the greatest blows to its strategic and tactical military capacity.  As President, he initiated the most serious attempt to achieve peace through six very clearly delineated chapters that had to be resolved in order for peace to be achieved. In the Atlantic Council’s view, that’s what makes global leadership. That’s what statesmanship is all about.

Marczak: It is very difficult nowadays for leaders to make tough decisions. And even more difficult to make decisions that are unpopular, but are necessary for the good of the country.

President Santos has consistently done this. He has shown throughout his career a desire to put aside personal popularity and forge ahead with what’s necessary for Colombia’s socio-economic prosperity.

Given the success that the Colombian state has had militarily against the FARC, dating back to when he was the Minister of Defense, President Santos recognized that the FARC was at such a weakened position that he could do what has been tried many times in the past in Colombia, but failed, which is to make peace.

Last week’s announcement that issues of transitional justice have been agreed to—the main sticking point in the peace process—is a clear sign that President Santos’ strategy is working. It is a clear sign of what is possible when a leader acts like a global citizen.

Schechter: Santos has lost tremendous political capital because of the attacks against him for having attempted peace. He has been subjected to five years of incessant political and personal attacks by the more conservative opposition and the former President Alvaro Uribe.

Marczak: And his response to that has been to remain steadfast in moving forward the peace process. Not only to continue to forge ahead, but to actually double down on his efforts. He has been unwavering in seeing this window of opportunity for Colombia and not letting personal attacks close that window.

Q: Is former President Uribe right to be skeptical of the likelihood of making peace with the FARC?

Schechter: Of course he should be skeptical. President Santos should be skeptical. Colombians should be skeptical.

Santos’ decision is like those of other leaders in critical moments. Think of Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin making peace with each other; or the US recognition of Vietnam after ten years of the Vietnam War; or Reagan’s agreement to SALT II.  All these decisions opened up these political leaders to enormous amounts of criticism.

The FARC is a murderous, terrorist organization that has lived on narcotrafficking for the last ten years. They have lost all vestiges of ideology. They are now just another narcotrafficking group.

One should be skeptical, but one weighs skepticism against the possibilities of bringing a serious peace to one’s country. I am sure President Santos has uppermost in his mind Ronald Reagan’s answer to his critics: “Trust, but verify.”

Marczak: This is a unique moment in Colombian history. The armed conflict with the guerrilla groups dates back over fifty years. There have been many attempts at peace in the past, all which failed for a variety of tactical mistakes on the government’s part. You cannot claim victory right now. The peace process still has a ways to go. A lot of issues still need to be worked through. But we are close.

It is very easy to criticize, especially when criticizing can be politically popular. But the agreements on justice issues are groundbreaking in scope and in creativity. It’s a model that resembles South Africa—where preventative justice is favored over punitive justice—and it conforms with international treaties.

We won’t know whether the peace process is successful for years to come. Peace building is going to be just as tough as the actual making of peace.

Q: What is the likelihood of a peace deal getting through Colombia’s Congress and the public referendum?

Schechter: I have been doing polls in Colombia since 1987. Colombians have always been torn about peace. On the one hand, Colombians want peace. On the other hand, Colombians don’t want to make peace with a group that is the author of numerous bombings, endless amounts of kidnappings, killings of conscripted soldiers. There is a dichotomy Colombians have always had about peace.

In the end, given a peace deal that has serious balancing of judicial and justice issues, I am sure that President Santos will get resounding support from the Colombian people.

Marczak: What has helped the peace process get to this final stage is a surprising seriousness on the part of the FARC to move forward. The declaration in July of a unilateral ceasefire has been largely upheld by the FARC. Their decision to work jointly with the Colombian state, prior to a peace deal being signed, to help remove landmines shows that there is a possibility that the peace-building process can actually work.

The challenge with regard to getting the deal approved by the Colombian people is going to be if people already see peace happening without a deal that may raise the question, “Why do we need this deal?”

Still, this conflict has left nearly 300,000 dead; it’s the world’s longest-running armed conflict. It will be a very difficult campaign for President Santos to get the deal approved by the people, but I think that this is something that, when the options are weighed by the Colombian people, will be clear is the right path forward.

Schechter: The other reason why President Santos deserves [the Atlantic Council’s] award is that enormous socio-economic strides in education, health care, employment have been made. Colombia is now negotiating its 2016 accession to the OECD [Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development]. It will be the third Latin American country to join the OECD. Colombia continues to grow today while much of Latin America nears zero percent growth.  

Marczak: How the Colombian state has been able to get this far in the peace process is a model for countries around the world. The idea of preventative justice for combatants is a compromise with which no one is happy.

Latin America has a very robust history of conflict resolution and how to deal with post-conflict eras—everywhere from the military government to dealing with guerrilla combatants. The approach that is being taken in Colombia combines all the different peace processes that we have seen throughout the world and comes up with Colombia’s own peace process that addresses some of the core issues that have prevented the guerrillas and the government from negotiating in the past.

Q: Is the dire economic situation in Venezuela, a patron of the FARC, a factor that brought about this breakthrough in the peace process?

Schechter: The FARC has had a large influence on certain parts of the Chávez-Maduro party in Venezuela. A few weeks ago, when the Venezuelans closed the border and deported some Colombians living in Venezuela in a horrible way there were all types of theories that Venezuela was looking for a war and that the FARC could play an important part in that war. I don’t think that has panned out.

What has happened in Havana is certainly progress in the talks between the government and the FARC. Venezuela has been a supporter of the FARC and the fact that it is in such difficult conditions I am sure was a healthy push to make a deal.

Marczak: Another factor was Pope Francis. He is incredibly well respected across Latin American, not just because he is the first Latin American Pope, but because of his role in rapprochement between the United States and Cuba. There was a desire to be able to negotiate the breakthrough [between the Colombian government and the FARC] around the time of the Pope’s visit to Cuba. They missed it by a couple of days, but the original intention was for President Santos to be there with the Pope and the FARC announcing this major breakthrough.

The Vatican has played a critical role in regard to the peace process in Colombia, and it will continue to play a role in reconciliation.

Q: What has the United States’ role been in the peace process in Colombia?

Schechter: President Obama and his administration have played a very supportive role in trying to be on President Santos’ side in a clear way in support of trying to find real dialogue with the FARC.

Marczak: The United States showed its commitment to the peace process yet again earlier this year when Bernie Aronson was named as the Special Envoy for the peace process. This builds on the critical support consistently given to one of our top allies, including $5 billion spent on Plan Colombia [Editor’s note: Plan Colombia was the US military and diplomatic effort aimed at fighting narcoterrorism and guerrilla groups like the FARC.] The US Congress will need to support the peace-building process in Colombia just as it was supportive of the process that led to, hopefully, eventual peace.

Ashish Kumar Sen is a staff writer at the Atlantic Council.

Related Experts: Ashish Kumar Sen, Jason Marczak, and Peter Schechter

Image: Cuban President Raúl Castro (center) joins Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos (left) and FARC rebel leader Rodrigo Londoño, better known by the nom de guerre Timochenko, as they shake hands in Havana on September 23. Santos and the top commander of leftist FARC rebels agreed to reach a final peace agreement in Latin America's longest war within six months. (Reuters/Alexandre Meneghini)