Juan Manuel Santos’s path to a Nobel Peace Prize

Politics may have been in the Colombian president's blood, but his work to reach a deal with the country's Farc rebels was no easy ride.

Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos and his wife Maria Clemencia Rodriguez attend a press conference in the capital, Bogota, on October 7, 2016, after Mr Santos won the Nobel Peace Prize. Leonardo Munoz/EPA
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Although Juan Manuel Santos won a landslide victory to become president of Colombia in 2010, some of his countrymen attribute his success more to his privileged background than his ability as a politician.

“The presidency was his before he was out of short trousers. The first election Santos ever faced was that to become president. It was handed to him on a plate,” said one editorial, three years into his presidency.

And it is true that politics is in his blood. His great-uncle Eduardo was president from 1938 until 1942 and his cousin, Francisco, was vice president in the previous government. His family were majority shareholders of Colombia’s most important newspaper, El Tiempo which Mr Santos’ father, Enrique, edited for more than 50 years.

It is also true that his family were wealthy and influential. As a boy, the young Juan Manuel attended a private secondary school in Bogota. He then spent two years in the Colombian navy before continuing his education abroad, firstly at the University of Kansas in the US, then at the London School of Economics, where he gained a master’s degree in economic development while also serving as Colombia’s representative in the International Coffee Organisation. He then returned to the US and graduated from the John F Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University with a master’s degree in public administration.

He returned to Colombia aged 30 and went straight into the family business as deputy director of El Tiempo and a steady rise up the political ladder, serving as minister of foreign trade and minister of finance and public credit.

But it was his tenure as minister of defence from 2006 to 2009 that paved the path towards the presidency for him.

He was instrumental in carrying out the “democratic security policy” of his predecessor, president Alvar Uribe, aimed at increasing the presence of the security forces throughout the country and driving back Colombia’s left-wing rebel roup, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, better known as Farc.

He dealt several blows to the Marxist insurgents which had waged a guerrilla war in Colombia since the 1960s.He oversaw Operation Checkmate, the successful rescue by the military of 15 high-profile hostages, including the former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt and three Americans, who had been held captive by Farc. The operation involved the misuse of an International Committee of the Red Cross symbol. Mr Santos sanctioned a daring Colombian army operation on New Year’s Eve, 2006, to rescue the politician Fernando Araujo Perdomo from six years of captivity as a Farc hostage.

Most controversially, he was in charge when the Colombian military mounted a controversial air raid across the border into Ecuador, attacking a guerrilla camp and killing senior Farc leader Raul Reyes and 25 other people.

The death of Reyes was described as a major blow to Farc, but Ecuador was furious over the violation of its airspace.

In 2008, Mr Santos admitted that the military had carried out extrajudiciary executions to bump up the army’s record against guerrillas and claim rewards from the government, but an independent investigation by the UN found no evidence that the executions were part of official government policy.

Mr Santos resigned as defence minister in May 2009. Thirteen months later, he was elected president. Two years later he announced the Colombian government was in exploratory talks with Farc about ending the conflict.

He ran for president again in 2014, under the slogan, “We have done much, there is much to be done.”

He won — although by a much smaller margin than his 2010 landslide — but in his first post-election address to supporters he made clear what he meant by his campaign slogan.

“This is the end of 50 years of conflict in this country and it is the beginning of a new Colombia,” he said.

In September 2016, almost four years after those first discussions with Farc, president Santos was able to announce the two sides had reached an agreement, and that after 52 years, more than 260,000 killings, 45,000 unsolved disappearances and seven million people sent fleeing from their homes, the war with Farc was over.

Wearing matching white shirts, the 65-year-old president and Farc leader Rodrigo Londono (also known by the alias Timochenko) signed the peace deal on September 26, using pens made from bullet casings. The deal ensured rebels would be spared prison if they confessed their crimes and gave up their weapons. Farc was also promised ten seats in the Colombian congress until 2026 to ensure the group’s smooth transition to a political movement.

Even with peace as the prize, for many Colombians, allowing killers and kidnappers to avoid trial, let alone punishment, was too high a price. When the peace deal was put to referendum on October 2, the people said “No.”

Though he was undoubtedly disappointed, even shocked, by the vote, president Santos vowed to keep talking to the rebels.

The Norwegian Nobel committee said it had awarded the Peace prize to Mr Santos because, “The referendum was not a vote for or against peace. What the ‘no’side rejected was not the desire for peace, but a specific peace agreement.”

It is a sentiment that will no doubt spur the Colombian president to keep going.

foreign.desk@thenational.ae