There’s Still Time for Peace

Colombia's president is no champion of peace. But the chance to finally end the country's civil war cannot be allowed to slip away.

Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos in September 2010. Sara Rojas / Flickr

The past couple weeks have been full of ups and downs for Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos.

On October 2, he suffered a surprise defeat when Colombian voters narrowly rejected his peace deal with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). After four years of negotiations with the rebels, it seemed his plan to end the fifty-two-year conflict — the plan he had hoped would define his presidency — had come to nothing. As he negotiated with the deal’s opponents in a desperate bid to find a compromise, many Colombians feared that the country would be plunged back into war and that a unique chance for peace had been lost.

Less than a week later, Santos was no doubt in a cheerier mood. The Nobel Committee had just announced it would award him its peace prize, making him only the second Colombian Nobel laureate. The august body praised Santos “for his resolute efforts to bring the country’s more than 50-year-long civil war to an end, a war that has cost the lives of at least 220,000 Colombians and displaced close to six million people.”

Santos dedicated his prize to the victims of the conflict and later pledged to donate his award money to them. The impression given by many foreign media outlets was that of a thoughtful leader attempting to guide his people to peace. Whatever his reputation in Colombia, Santos’s international standing received an enormous boost.

But like many past laureates, Santos has a bloody past that preceded his peacemaking efforts. While the peace deal would be a boon for his country, the Nobel Prize can’t cover up Santos’s involvement in some of the conflict’s greatest atrocities.

An Oligarch, Not a Peacemaker

Santos is part of the small oligarchy that has long ruled Colombia. His family owned El Tiempo — for many years the country’s only national daily newspaper — and Santos served as the publication’s deputy editor in the 1980s. His family is a family of politicians, most notably his great-uncle Eduardo Santos Montejo, president from 1938 to 1942. As for Juan Manuel, entering the world of politics was as easy as getting appointed to the cabinet — he never held elected office before becoming president.

While Santos served in three cabinets, it was his time as minister of defense that won him both public plaudits and harsh criticism. He served under President Álvaro Uribe, a politician well known for collaborating with right-wing death squads and drug cartels. Elected in 2002 on a promise to defeat the FARC, Uribe’s two terms witnessed the displacement of millions and the violent repression of the Colombian left.

Santos became defense minister in 2006. Though their right-wing paramilitary allies (responsible for 80 percent of the civil war’s civilian deaths) had apparently been demobilized, the Colombian military continued to carry out human rights abuses during Santos’s term. In 2008, news broke that soldiers were executing civilians and passing them off as guerrillas in order to claim financial rewards and increase the army’s body count. At least three thousand people were killed in what was euphemistically called the “false positives” scandal.

Despite persisting atrocities — and the continued activity of the supposedly demobilized paramilitaries — Santos attracted support from a segment of the public for his victories against the FARC, including the rescue of several hostages in 2008 and the killing of FARC leader Raul Reyes in a raid the same year.

In 2010, Santos prevailed in the presidential election, backed by Uribe. Initially, he kept prosecuting the war against the FARC, Uribe by his side. But a couple years into his term, Santos formed alliances with some of Uribe’s enemies and began peace negotiations, leaving the two estranged.

Nevertheless, Santos’s resume — member of one of Colombia’s richest and most powerful families, government minister who inflicted crushing defeats on the FARC — belies the Colombian far right’s accusations today that he is a “Castro-chavista.” Far from it.

Santos is firmly on the right and, apart from his openness to negotiations with the FARC, his actions as president have shown as much. Strikes and protests have been met with repression from the notorious ESMED police unit (at one rally of farmers in 2013, five were killed and hundreds were injured). And trade unionists and activists still fear attacks from neo-paramilitary groups (which the government covers for by claiming they are merely criminal bands rather than politically motivated groups).

Even Santos’s peace settlement with the FARC reflects his oligarchic core. It doesn’t address the devastation that free trade agreements have wrought in Colombia, and its agrarian reform provisions would barely reduce the country’s entrenched inequalities.

Santos’s Pact

That said, the deal does have many positive aspects. It would bring peace to large parts of the war-torn countryside. It would inject large-scale investment into long-neglected rural areas. It includes measures to return land illegally seized during the conflict, and grant farms to peasants who are currently without plots of their own or who lack enough to earn a living.

The accord would also make Colombia a more representative democracy, ensuring that left-wing actors (including the party formed from the remnants of the FARC) could campaign without incurring state or paramilitary violence. That would be no small accomplishment.

In the 1980s, as part of an abortive peace deal, the FARC helped establish the Patriotic Union (UP) political party. Instead of being peacefully integrated into the political system, however, they became the victims of right-wing repression. Before the bloodbath was over, more than five thousand party members had been murdered. The FARC quickly abandoned any hopes of a peaceful solution.

In the lead-up to the referendum, Santos acknowledged the state’s role in the slaughter for the first time, and vowed ”to take all the necessary measures and to give all the guarantees to make sure that never again in Colombia will a political organization have to face what the UP suffered.”

The rejection of the peace accord is therefore a disaster for the Colombian left. Uribe has come out the clear victor, and even seems to be reconciling with Santos.

After the referendum he was summoned to a meeting with the president, the first time they had spoken in five years. (It was worryingly reminiscent of the National Front, the elitist duopoly of Conservatives and Liberals that excluded political opposition in Colombia for years.) While both spoke of a desire for rapprochement, including Uribe in peace talks would only produce a more regressive pact.

Uribe claims to oppose impunity for the FARC. But his main goal is shielding soldiers and politicians implicated in war crimes — including himself — from legal reprisal. In addition, Uribe and his followers staunchly oppose including any social justice measures in the deal.

The Stakes of Peace

Santos is no principled champion of peace. Both his record and his recent olive branch to Uribe show that.

But we should hope that the Nobel Prize shores up support for Santos’s pro-peace stance, however opportunistic, and marginalizes Uribe and the extreme right.

Fortunately, other developments over the past week have played in Santos’s favor. The manager of the No campaign admitted that he intentionally misled voters and played on their fears in order to win the plebiscite. (He could face charges of electoral fraud.) Students have organized huge rallies in Colombia’s major cities to press for a deal. The smaller ELN guerrilla army will soon begin formal peace talks with the state. And most importantly, the FARC have indicated they will not break the ceasefire and that they’re open to further negotiations.

It’s very difficult to say what will happen next. Events are moving quickly, and it’s unclear where public opinion will go in the near future. It is certainly too early to say that a lasting deal will not come to pass. Few desire a return to war, and there is pressure on all parties to deliver a final agreement.

This momentum must be sustained. If the conflict resumes, or if the most progressive parts of the deal are abandoned, the biggest losers will not be Santos or the FARC but the country’s rural poor. As the people who have always suffered most from the conflict, and who have the most to gain from the laying down of arms, it was they who voted “yes” in greater numbers than any other section of society.

For their sake, this rare chance at peace cannot be allowed to slip away.