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Juan Manuel Santos, the man who risked everything for a dream of peace

Juan Manuel Santos, the man who risked everything for a dream of peace

Risk and calculation are the notions which best define the President of the Republic's career.

09 de diciembre 2016 , 09:16 p. m.

“People think that because I used to play poker I have a gambling mind. Not even! A good player calculates the risks, and must take risks in life in order to succeed. I believe this is a quality which I do possess: knowing how to measure risk.”

These are president Juan Manuel Santos’ words from an interview with ‘Bocas’ magazine in September 2011, a time at which his government was meeting secretly with the FARC with the intention of starting the peace process, which, after almost 4 years of negotiation in La Havana, Cuba, came to a close with the signing of an agreement on the 26th September in Cartagena.


Taking risks has been one of the main characteristics throughout President Santos’ journey. He will turn 65 on the 10th of August, and will become the first Colombian to win a Nobel Peace Prize this Friday, “For his tenacious efforts to end the civil war which has been fought in Colombia for over 50 years”, according to the Norwegian Nobel Committee.

In 1991, after 9 years in London as head of delegation in Colombia for the International Coffee Organisation, and after some time spent in Bogota working as assistant director of EL TIEMPO, he took the plunge into politics as Foreign Trade Minister to President César Gaviria, at the very beginnings of open trade.

At 40, Juan Manuel, the son of Enrique Santos Castillo, General Editor of EL TIEMPO, decided he would prefer “to have real power, the kind of job in which one ‘publishes, communicates and complies’, and has great influence, which is what the Director of EL TIEMPO achieves”, in the words of the then constituent Alfonso Palacio Rudas, who played a important part in Santos’ decision.

Another constituent assembly?

One of the most controversial moments of his public life took place 6 years later, when he dared to propose a constituent assembly in order to relieve the crisis which President Ernesto Samper was faced with after ‘Process 8,000’. Santos, co-director of the Liberal Party until this year, was not daunted by the possibility of a failed initiative ending his governance of the Party.

“Outweighing his vanity, his principal enemy is coldness and calculation”, one of his head advisors, who prefers to remain anonymous, commented.

In 2000, after the rejection of his candidature for the presidential elections of 1998 and after some intense moments with Andrés Pastrana- including a proposition to revoke the then conservative government-, Santos took the risk of electing himself as Minister of Finance in the midst of the worst economic crisis in decades.

His academic career fit the job perfectly, as he had studied Economics and Administration at Kansas University and had completed a masters in Economic Development at the London School of Economics.

Throughout his years in charge he didn’t waste his opportunity to shine: amongst other achievements, he managed to tackle an unemployment rate which reached over 20% and a double-figure inflation rate.

Santos spent another 5 years working towards another courageous act: creating the first significant Liberal separation since the New Liberalism of Luis Carlos Galán. His aim was to consolidate President Álvaro Uribe’s supporters after the expulsion of 19 Liberals who voted in favor of reelection. This marked the beginning of the National Unity Party which is known today as ‘the U’ and is more powerful in Congress than that of the Liberals.

Compensation came the following year when Uribe, who had been recently re-elected, announced that Santos would be the new Minister of Defense. This job would involve directing the politics of Democratic Security towards success.

Similarly to his time as Minister of Finance, Santos excelled in this role: under his charge, the Armed Forces eliminated guerilleros such as ‘Negro Acacio’, ‘Martín Caballero’ and Raúl Reyes’, the first member of the secretary to be withdrawn.

Record-breaking politican

In 1973 he replaced Roberto Junguito at the forefront of delegation in the National Coffee Organisation.
Of course, these three cases were not without risk. In the infamous ‘Jaque Operation’, for example, he played another risky card: he used the International Red Cross Committee flag to trick the FARC and free Íngrid Betancourt. Not forgetting another daring move: bombing ‘Raúl Reyes’ camp, which was situated on Ecuadorian soil.

Juan Manuel Santos came to power on the 7th August 2010, a record for Colombian politics: not only did he win the election with the highest number of supporters yet (over 900,000 votes), but this was also the first general election he had stood for.

There remains another ‘all-or-nothing’ move which Santos has taken, one which will be recorded in history books: a peace agreement with the FARC, a guerilla group who are responsible for one of longest internal conflicts in modern history.

Santos’ concerns over this matter were nothing new. In 1997, after a peace conference in Monstserrat Abbey, in Bogota, Santos met with ‘Raúl Reyes’ and ‘Olga Marín’, international representatives of the FARC; with Carlos Castaño, leader of the ‘Autodefensas Unidas’ rebel group; and with ‘Felipe Torres’ and ‘Francisco Galán’ of the ELN; in view to negotiating and end to the conflict. It was in these meetings that the idea to create a constituent assembly materialized, an idea which so irritated President Samper that he accused the plan of conspiracy.

Once installed in ‘la Casa de Nariño’, the presidential house, and with his objective in mind, Santos reclaimed the contacts which Uribe had been developing and establishing with the insurgency. On the 7th September 2010, he sent a message through economist Henry Acosta, in which he stated the will to establish peace, proposed Brazil and Sweden and possible headquarters for secret meetings between delegates of both parties, and put forward his brother, Enrique’s name as his representative and guarantor of his solemn intentions.

And the rest is history. However, between this initial message and the signing of the ‘Final agreement for terminating conflict and constructing stable, durable peace’, which took place two weeks ago, one thing has been made clearer than perhaps as ever before: the audaciousness of Santos’ character. On the 4th November 2011, when preparatory talks had already begin, he confirmed that Colombia would begin its explorations in Cuba and made clear the government and the FARC’s authority. The president decided to bomb the camp of ‘Alfonso Cano’, which presided in the rural region of Morales (in Cauca).

‘Cano’, who died during the attack, was not only the high chief of the FARC, but also the “great mind behind this final union, alongside president Santos”, according to Acosta.

Once more, Santos gambled hard and won: rather than ending dialogue, the guerilla reorganised their management continued with the process towards establishing peace.

But winners don’t always win our sympathy. Paradoxically, the man who today is honored all over the world, is one of the country’s most unpopular presidents.

“Beside Andrés Pastrana, Santos is one of the most badly-received presidents”, according to César Valderrame, president of Datexco. The most recent ‘Pulso País’ survey, carried out by the firm, revealed yesterday that 57% of those consulted disapprove of Santos’ management of the country, against a mere 39% who are in approval.
“We attribute this result to people who do not understand the image of the country which Santos projects.Between 50 and 60% do not understand him. He is not an easy man to read”, Valderrama commented.

Santos’ philosophy, in this respect, is clear. “I am more than willing to pay the price of peace using my own political capital. Political capital is for spending”, he has repeated on various occasions over the past few years.

An exemplary president

Thus, coldly calculating risks and taking them, the 59th president of Colombia “brought this bloody conflict to a peaceful conclusion and laid the foundations for verifiable demobilization of the FARC guerilla fighters, and of the historic process of national reconciliation”, in the words of the Norwegian Nobel Committee.

Even his opponents recognize that after this significant moment, Juan Manuel Santos will remain inscribed in national history as one of Colombia’s most important presidents.

“He is superior to many [of Colombia’s past presidents] and is among the best”, according to the journalist, Salud Hernández, a critic of the administration. “Whether or not the peace process culminates successfully, he is one Colombia’s most important presidents”, claims Arlene B. Tickner, professor in the Faculty of Political Science at the University of Rosario.

“He is a president of Enrique Olaya Hererra’s (1930-1934) or Carlos Lleras’ (1966-1970) calibre. Santos was only a young boy when the conflict began, he has grown up with the conflict and it is now finally coming to an end. He is, without a doubt, the most important politician of his generation”, Jorge Restrepo, director of the Resource Centre for Analysis of Conflicts (Cerac).

BERNARDO BEJARANO G. Y CARLOS GUEVARA, writer for the Sunday section of EL TIEMPO, with reporting from Sofía Gómez

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