Juan Manuel Santos’ finest hour

Patricio Navia

Buenos Aires Herald, December 16, 2017


Colombian President Juan Ma-nuel Santos is enjoying a moment of glory. Having received the Nobel Peace Prize last week for his efforts to bring about peace to his native Colombia, Santos will end 2016 with impressive achievements on his record. After overcoming a defeat in the October plebiscite on the peace agreement he negotiated with the guerillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), Santos did not surrender in his effort to end the armed conflict. He was able to modify the agreement, extracting additional concessions from the guerillas, and shepherd it through Congress. To top things off, the Constitutional Court has given a green light to fast-track the procedures needed to implement the accompanying laws for the peace agreement and Congress seems poised to pass a tax reform package that will provide much-needed resources in order to build lasting peace in Colombia. Without a doubt, he is the most successful Latin American president of 2016.


When he was elected in 2010, Juan Manuel Santos was still eclipsed by the shadow of Álvaro Uribe, the strong-willed president (2002-2010) who relied on US support to fight the FARC guerillas. Having amended the Constitution to allow for one re-election, Uribe drastically transformed Colombia, concentrating power in the hands of the president and deploying a heavy-handed strategy to fight the guerillas. Though he tried to amend the Constitution again to abolish term-limits, Uribe eventually had to relinquish his efforts and ended up supporting Santos in the 2010 presidential election.


A member of a traditionally powerful Colombian family, Santos developed an impressive career as an economist, journalist (his family owned the El Tiempo newspaper until 2007) and politician. With ties to the Liberal Party, Santos served in the government of César Gaviria (1990-1994) and the Conservative Party government of Andrés Pastrana (1998-2002) before becoming a close associate of president Álvaro Uribe. After helping Uribe found the Party of National Unity in 2005 (Partido de la U), Santos was named minister of defence and led the war against the FARC guerillas.


Surprisingly, shortly after coming to power, Santos broke with Uribe and signalled that he would be his own man. His break with his former ally began a fierce political battle that continues until today, with Uribe being Santos’ most important political opponent. Rather than keeping with the roadmap to thrash the guerillas, Santos chose to convene a peace process to allow for the FARC a way out of the conflict and build a lasting peace. After a long period of negotiations, the FARC agreed to a peace plan that, according to some human rights organisations, was too lenient on human rights violators and would not deliver justice. Despite the criticism, Santos signed the accord with the FARC guerillas and convened a national referendum to ratify it on October 2 of this year. Surprisingly, with a depressingly low turnout of 37 percent of eligible voters, Colombians narrowly rejected the peace accord, voting 50.2 percent against and 49.8 in favour.


Pressed on

Despite the shocking unexpected defeat, Santos pressed on, getting the FARC to return to the bargaining-table and incorporating demands made by the Uribe-led opposition. The October 7 announcement by the Nobel Prize committee that Santos had been awarded the 2016 Nobel Peace Prize helped the president advance his agenda and secure a new agreement with the guerillas that was ratified on November 30. The ruling by the constitutional court on December 14, legitimising the fast- track requirement for the legislative initiatives that will need to be promulgated to secure the implementation of the peace accord has successfully culminated a long and difficult process. Santos bet on peace and — despite the setbacks and some hard-to-swallow compromises — he succeeded in ending a 50-year armed conflict.


Santos also pushed for tax reform that will increase fiscal revenues to fund the peace effort, strengthen social services and pave the way for Colombia’s future development. Though the country has experienced sustained growth in recent years, the end of the commodity boom presents uphill challenges for future development. High levels of poverty and inequality also hinder progress and threaten political stability. A peace accord is the first step in building a more inclusive country, but in many regards, the next steps will be even more difficult to accomplish. After all, Colombia was highly unequal and poverty was widespread, long before the FARC guerillas emerged in the early 1960s.


Santos’ tax reform package is widely expected to clear Congress before the Christmas recess. With 18 months left in office, Santos will be able to launch the post-conflict rebuilding effort and a national reconstruction push. As the race for the 2018 presidential election also heats up, Santos will need to administer his political capital to secure his already impressive legacy.


As the first Latin American president to receive the Nobel Peace Prize since Óscar Arias won the award in 1987 for his efforts to bring peace to Central America, President Juan Manuel Santos has consolidated his position as the most positively transformative Colombian president in recent decades. With most other countries in the region having been hit by presidential scandals, impeachment, political crises and ineffective leadership, Colombia has made significant progress in 2016 under the leadership of Juan Manuel Santos.