Best #TransformationTuesday: Colombian President, Militant-Turned-Pacifist

Juan Manuel Santos, incumbent president of Colombia since the 2010 presidential election, has become a cause célèbre in the international public eye throughout his later years. Formerly Minister of National Defense in a quadrennial period preceding his presidential gig, Santos pushed Colombia’s right-wing agenda during a critical period of the fifty-plus year civil conflict. Colombia experienced massive-scale guerilla warfare from the mid-1960s to 2016, although hostilities and violent incidents linger today. Two main rivals dominated the battlefield: the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), a left-leaning guerilla group, and the right-leaning government. Amid much national dissention, the warring parties signed a revised peace agreement in November 2016 to congressional approval. However, Colombia remains far from achieving the peaceful reconciliation the peace accords initiated. Many third-party insurgent groups were excluded from the peace accord process. Citizens continue to demand fair and timely reparations for war crimes. A prominent former FARC leader plans to compete in the upcoming May 2018 presidential election. In cataclysm’s wake, President Santos largely remains seen as Colombia’s savior, but some question whether his fast-forgotten history and underlying intentions spoil his recent noble actions.

Born into one of Colombia’s wealthiest families, Santos has long enjoyed the prestige of high-profile federal government positions. Following enrollment at the Navy Academy in Cartagena, Colombia, Santos attended the University of Kansas, the London School of Economics, and Harvard University. He enjoys close familial connections to the nation’s most widely-followed newspaper, El Tiempo, and even worked as its deputy director. Santos also became the economic advisor to the National Federation of Coffee Growers of Colombia and the Vice Chair of the Inter-American Dialogue, a think tank based in Washington, D.C., for several years, respectively. Arguably, given his already impressive career path, Santos’s key promotion came in 2006 through the Minister of National Defense position.

An ugly history follows. As defense minister, Santos approved a bombing of a FARC camp stationed in Ecuador, unbeknownst to the country. Soon afterward, the Colombian military faced fiery opprobrium for engaging in inhumane conduct to generate “false positives.” As the military, paramilitary groups, and police alike killed civilians and dressed them as rebels in order to reach its target body count, these false positives allowed the army to appear more effective than actuality suggested. Despite Santos’s involvement, he was elected President of Colombia four years later with 69 percent of the vote by campaigning on domestic security policies. Once in office, Santos prosecuted many of his former government colleagues for abuses of power related to the false positives rampages, yet personally evaded judicial action.

In 2012, Santos began negotiations for a ceasefire between the government and the FARC leaders. At that time, his public ratings soared to a 60 percent approval rate. In 2014, he won the reelection campaign with 50.95 percent of the vote as peace talks continued. Finally, after Colombians voted no on the initial September 2016 peace accords, the public accepted the revised November 2016 peace accords. Despite the initial failure, Santos still received the 2016 Nobel Peace Prize for his work in national reconciliation and peacebuilding. Interestingly, FARC guerilla leader Rodrigo Londoño had also been considered for the Nobel Peace Prize–a somewhat ironic commentary on the symbiotic nature of warmakers and peacemakers, who often inhabit the same body. Following the November peace accords, Santos emphasized the need for rebuilding infrastructure, resettling displaced peoples, demobilizing guerilla combatants, reforming judicial and legislative measures, and abolishing coca crops used to make cocaine.

On the surface, the yields of Santos’s presidency appear the fruits of a miraculously reformed heart. Yet his terms have induced protests by citizens upset about domestic policies concerning education, employment, inflation, transportation, and tourism. Many critique his push for peace without supplementary focus on bolstering social, economic, and infrastructural mechanisms, which remain the sole effective means to ensure sustainable peace. In early 2016, Santos slashed the federal budget to combat an economic decline stemming from dropping global oil prices. As he leaves office in May 2018, the incoming president will inherit the monumental task of reuniting, rebuilding, and revisioning a nation seeped in longheld animosity. The international world can only hope that this candidate will be unaffiliated with all militant groups of the civil conflict, so as not to perform a Santos-esque 180 kickflip–in street speak–from militant to pacifist, thereby undermining constituent trust and potential for substantive, sustainable national reconciliation.

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