Juan Manuel Santos has been a public servant in Colombia for 21 years. He has definitely been a man of controversy from his early days in politics, from continuous attacks on the FARC guerilla in the past to receiving a Nobel prize for his progress in peace in the present day. Now he is serving his second and last mandate as President, and changes are many under his governance. A historic peace deal between the Colombian government and FARC was reached, which many thought could finally end the longstanding conflict in one of the most discussed countries in South America.
However, on October 2, it turned out that many were opposed to the peace treaty. In the weeks leading up to the election, many Colombians were angered by what they saw as insufficient punishment for the FARC members, who were seen as guilty of a number of crimes towards the people. In the end, this was one of the main reasons why this peace deal was not implemented. Under the original deal, FARC leaders would be able to serve in Congress, with a guarantee of 10 seats, while fighters who confessed to their crimes would be spared time in jail and instead ordered to carry out community development work in areas hit hard by the conflict. However, before the deal was voted down, President Santos received the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to end the conflict. The nomination stated: “For his resolute efforts to bring the country’s more than 50-year-long civil war to an end”.
FARC was founded in the 1960s by left-wing militants and defense groups, as a result of political violence in Colombia, known as “La Violencia”. This term refers to tensions between the Liberal and Conservative parties, historically resulting in violent political conflict, particularly in rural areas. Guerrilla groups arose primarily because of political exclusion and serious land inequity. Due to different opinions of economics and dissatisfaction with the result of the solutions of La Violencia, these groups started a rebellion.
An estimated 220,000 people were killed in the 52-year conflict between FARC and the Colombian government, which displaced around 5 million people. Not only have people fallen victims to the tactics of the ‘guerillas’, but also to para-military groups. The groups have committed crimes under international law and serious human rights violations, sometimes acting with the support of state actors, including members of the security forces.
This was not always Juan Manuel Santos’ approach to the FARC. During his predecessor Álvaro Uribe’s presidency, Santos worked fiercely against the group in his role as Minister of National Defense. During his time as minister, he authorized a controversial bombing of a FARC camp in Ecuador, without informing the Ecuadorian government. Yet in 2010, when Santos became president, he surprised many by breaking with his former policies. He did so by working in a more peaceful and diplomatic direction. He also prosecuted members of the previous Colombian government for abuses of power.
In 2012, President Santos confirmed that his government had been holding secret peace negotiations with the FARC. As a result, tension emerged between former allies of Santos and Uribe. The former president was not in favor of a peace deal, which led him to become the head of the country’s opposition. After a hostile and tight campaign race between Santos and Uribe in the 2014 election, Santos won a second term in office. He did so mainly by promising to continue pursuing a peace deal with FARC.
The government and FARC reached a temporary cease-fire in mid-2016, after almost four years of formal and two years of secret negotiations. On September 26, President Santos announced that his government had reached a deal with the FARC that would finally bring “a long-lasting peace” to Colombia. Santos and the FARC leader Timoleón Jiménez, “Timochenko”, signed the deal in Cartagena the same day. However, President Santos had promised the Colombians that any agreement would have to be approved by the country in a popular vote.
The final results show that 50.22% of voters chose to vote ‘no’. This was a blow to President Santos, who has seen his popularity suffer in his pursuit of the deal. FARC leader Timoleón Jiménez also released a statement expressing sadness at the result. Santos commented on the outcome, saying: “I hear those that said ‘no’ and those that said ‘yes’ and we all want peace. Tomorrow we will get all our political parties together to continue dialogues and finding alternatives for peace. I will not give up, I will continue to fight for peace,” His Nobel Prize can now instead be seen as an encouragement for peace processes and further efforts especially in Colombia, despite the results of the referendum.
The unexpected defeat of the peace treaty through the referendum has left Colombia’s political future and long-term stability uncertain. Santos is seemingly in a dilemma of trying both to satisfy FARC demands and keep the respect of his people. A revised agreement was accepted and signed by both parties at the end of November. The agreement is now waiting to be approved by Congress, which will decide whether Colombia transitions towards a more durable peace or is awaiting more years of continuing violence.