Colombia, A Laboratory For History

Editor's note:

This essay was written before the suspension of peace talks between President Santos and the ELN. The bilateral ceasefire ended in January, but is expected to resume for four days as the country holds legislative elections.

Juan Manuel Santos
June 23, 2018

Not long ago, Uruguay’s former president Jose Mujica said something that stuck in my mind: “Colombia is a laboratory for history!”

In a polarized world facing numerous political disturbances, sectarian warfare, terrorism, and even the growing and frightening prospect of nuclear conflict, I believe President Mujica was trying to draw attention to my country’s hopeful, and perhaps unlikely, story of peace.

The fact that a country like Colombia was able to end a 50-year-long war that left millions of victims and untold bloodshed between sons and daughters of the same nation is a beacon of hope in today’s disheartening global landscape.

Indeed, the negotiation process and our efforts toward building a lasting peace constitute a true laboratory of ideas, experimentation, and lessons learned that could help find solutions in other parts of the world with similar or worse problems.

“For the first time in the world, a peace negotiation put the victims at the heart of the process, recognizing their sacred right to truth, justice, reparations and nonrepetition. It was a pact of humanity. ”

We found answers in not giving in to terror and by shunning intolerance and hatred toward those who are different. Real answers lie in exercising a type of leadership that seeks to unite rather than divide. We require a constructive leadership that protects democratic institutions.

So what makes the Colombian peace process so special? I have been asked this question many times, and I believe that its most compelling characteristic is that it was not a process designed to set the rules and conditions for ending an armed confrontation. It was much more than that. For the first time in the world, a peace negotiation put the victims at the heart of the process, recognizing their sacred right to truth, justice, reparations, and non-repetition. It was a pact of humanity.

For Colombia, ending the armed conflict also meant creating new possibilities for strengthening democratic institutions across our territory. There were many reasons for our violence, chief among them a lack of state presence in many rural areas. Peace in this context is therefore the seed for development, opportunities, progress, and the welfare of all our citizens, particularly those who suffered the most.

Paradoxically, it is the victims who are teaching the rest of us every single day that it is possible to forgive, to be generous of spirit, and to take firm steps toward reconciliation. They do so in stunningly altruistic fashion: they simply do not want any more victims in the future; they do not want others to suffer like they did. They want justice, but what they really need is truth.

As such, our peace agreement with the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia establishes an integrated system to address victims’ rights, including reparations that began long before the negotiations, a Truth Commission, a Disappeared Search Unit, and most importantly, a Special Transitional Justice Tribunal that is being praised as a model for the rest of the world.

In every peace process, one of the most difficult dilemmas lies in finding a delicate balance between society’s rightful demands for justice and people’s demands for an end to violence. There is no right answer for finding the perfect equilibrium between justice and peace, but international law points in the right direction.

We sincerely believe we created something in our laboratory that helps shed light on this eternal dilemma. We respected our constitution and our democratic institutions, and we abided by international law, including the Rome Statute. Colombia is experiencing a new dawn and a more promising future because it is now free of the terrible weight of its armed conflict.

Implementing the agreement poses great challenges and carries immense implications: for instance, ensuring that government services such as healthcare and education arrive in former conflict zones, intensifying demining efforts, and deploying rural development and illicit crop substitution programs. And of course, putting the Special Jurisdiction for Peace in motion so that former guerilla members can reincorporate into society.

Even though it is a complex, long-term process, one only has to look at our recent history of violence to understand that this is a path worth pursuing and that we have already made historic strides in achieving normalcy as a society.

Just seven short years ago, very few Colombians could imagine the possibility of ending a conflict that their parents, and even grandparents, had known all too well. After half a century, peace seemed like an impossible dream. Thanks to serious, intense, dedicated, and many times frustrating efforts over several years, the impossible became possible.

When I visit foreign countries, sometimes people are surprised to find out that this Nobel Peace Prize laureate was also a defense minister. I suppose I will join the ranks of those leaders who first waged war, only to then become peacemakers. War must not be understood as an end in itself. It is a practical reality. To me, it was a means to convince the guerillas that peace was their only option. We pursued military options with determination and might when the door to peace negotiations was closed, but we sought peace with generosity and equal determination when circumstances changed.

The end of a conflict does not mean exterminating the adversary. To impose solely military solutions and try to decimate the enemy at all costs is very risky business for democratic societies because we become dehumanized. We lose our capacity for compassion, and as a result, we lose ourselves.

The defense of liberty and basic human rights of my fellow Colombians has always been a priority during my years in public service. This is why when it came time to recognize my enemies as human beings, as people with whom we could sit down and have a dialogue, I knew we had to take a leap of faith.

Today, the FARC have turned in all of their weapons to the United Nations and have transformed into a political movement, meeting the most vital objective of any peace process; trading violence for arguments, exchanging bullets for votes. The guns that were once used to kill and maim Colombians are now being destroyed in order to build monuments to peace.

But we are not there yet. Total peace will only come when we strike a deal with the last remaining—and much smaller—guerilla group, the Ejército de Liberación Nacional. We have now arrived at a bilateral ceasefire after months of negotiations, and we are tirelessly working to ensure that it soon becomes permanent.1

The Challenges of Building Peace

In Colombia, generation after generation became used to violence in their daily lives. At times, it seemed like we were cursed, as if we were destined to live in the midst of an internal war forever, to hear news about explosions, kidnappings, and the dead every evening on radio and television.

The peace agreement marked a turning point in our nation’s history. It was a collective decision to say, “Enough!” It was a determined step to break with our painful past in order to walk toward a better future.

Now we are in a transition period that carries its own set of difficulties. For instance, building peace in the hearts and minds of a traumatized society that was taught to hate and fear is an enormous undertaking. This is the biggest challenge we face. Before, the Ministry of Defense had the largest budget in the government. Now it is the Ministry of Education. We have to relearn how to be citizens, and how to peacefully co-exist with those whom we deeply disagree without resorting to confrontation.

I am a practical optimist. I am deeply convinced that the values of unity, love, tolerance, and compassion are far stronger and will always trump fear, hatred, revenge, and exclusion. This does not only apply to the Colombian case; it is a universal truth that does not seem that self-evident these days.

Let’s face it: the world today is facing a crisis of intolerance, of fanaticism, of aggressive and hostile declarations, all contributing to violence and a sense of dread for humanity.

The day I received the Nobel Prize in Oslo I expressed my concern about a world where citizens are making the most crucial decisions, for themselves and for their nations, out of fear and despair; a world where borders are increasingly closed to immigrants, minorities are attacked, and people deemed different are excluded. We must be able to coexist with diversity and appreciate the way it can enrich our societies.

Human history has always been complex, and these times, as any other times, are no different. In this context, the temptations of our darker angels arise: extremism, radicalism, fanaticism, nationalism, racism, populism, and many other strains of thought that pretend to offer easy solutions to our problems.

But those “solutions” are the true problem. As an economist, I have witnessed their impact on societies, and as a public servant, I have seen their corrosiveness in politics. The doctrines of the ideological extremes, whether right or left, are the seeds of exclusion and future violence.

When I was living in London in the 1970s, I was exposed to the Third Way, proposed by the British sociologist Anthony Giddens, which made the case for a pragmatic, middle-of-the-road approach between the economic liberalism of Adam Smith or the neoliberal doctrines of Friedman and Von Hayek, and the interventionist ideas of Keynes. The Third Way does not consider the state and private sector as antagonists, but rather as ideal allies that could assist each other in achieving social prosperity. This doctrine has been summarized in a very simple, yet powerful phrase: “as much of the market as possible, as much of the state as is necessary.”

I have applied the Third Way in Colombia, as have other leaders around the world, and the results have been very positive. In our case, in spite of some of the toughest conditions around the globe, our economy has not stopped growing and has maintained the confidence of foreign investors and international markets, ranking us as one of the best countries in Latin America.

But most importantly, that growth has been inclusive. It has favored the poor more than the rich. In fact, over the past six years, more than 5 million Colombians, about a tenth of our population, have overcome poverty. This is a stunning statistic by any measure.

I have tried to follow the Latin proverb In medio stat virtus, virtue stands in the middle. Between two opposing economic doctrines, I chose the center precisely because the world is not black and white. The same can be said for politics and even national security. The first instinct when faced with a terrorist threat or waves of immigrants or even drugs is to close the borders, impose more controls, and unleash repressive policies and tactics. History has demonstrated again and again that none of this has worked and that, inevitably, it becomes the fuel that feeds the fire.

I am not saying that there is not a place for meeting threats with military force or law enforcement. I have done this myself as defense minister and as president. But we must go beyond that. We must put empathy at the center of our rational thinking so we can understand the motivations of others, their context, and their problems. Only by doing so can we address the real roots of all ills: fear, exclusion, and inequality.

I may sound like an idealist; I have found that is often a criticism of Nobel Peace Prize laureates. But experience has taught me that it is always more popular to wage war than to seek peace. It is always more popular to raise the flags of revolution than to follow the moderate path of reforms. It is always more popular and more emotionally satisfying to pander to the extremes than to promote thoughtful, pragmatic centrist positions.

There is no question that the world feels like it is hurtling toward some kind of major crisis. Historians are not very encouraging as to what may happen next. Some speak of wars that break out when new powers emerge to challenge established powers. Others fear different kinds of unprecedented ruptures that could materialize from the unique nature of our hyperconnected societies.

In these times, we must not underestimate the power of decency and the universal values that hold humanity together. This is not the moment to grow discouraged or to tune out. This is the time to lean forward; to act at the local level and lead; to reach out to others with love, compassion, and respect for all differences. It is the only way forward. It is the only thing keeping us from chaos.

Juan Manuel Santos is the President of the Republic of Colombia, in office since 2010. He was the recipient of the 2016 Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to bring the more than 50-year-long civil war in his country to an end. He is an economist by profession, with a BA in Economics and Business Administration from the University of Kansas and postgraduate studies in Economics and Economic Development at the London School of Economics. He pursued his MPA at Harvard University. Prior to becoming the 32nd President of Colombia, he was Minister of Foreign Trade, Minister of Finance and Public Credit, and Minister of National Defense. He is the author of several books, including The Third Way and An Alternative for Colombia.