Interview with His Excellency Juan Manuel Santos, Former President of Colombia

Interview with His Excellency Juan Manuel Santos, Former President of Colombia

On April 22, 2019, former President of Colombia and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Mr. Juan Manuel Santos spoke at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy after a screening of his new documentary, "Port of Destiny: Peace". His interview was conducted by Bowen Peard and Fatima Taskomur of the Fletcher Forum of World Affairs.


FF: You were a Nieman Fellow at Harvard and have notably served as president of the Freedom of Expression Commission at the Inter American Press Association. How do you view the development of journalism over the past several decades? Furthermore, what should be journalism's role in promoting a healthy civil society?

JMS: Well, journalists are typically known as the watchdogs of society. That's why many governments don't like journalists, because they only criticize and are not accustomed to celebrating the successes of governments. This is a normal bias in journalism, and this basic principle to go after the truth and to discover what is going wrong is something that journalism should never surrender. In today's world, what I'm worried about is how journalism has lost a bit of its depth because of social media. For example, the editor, the publisher, or the journalist [who normally] takes time to investigate is now pressed by social media and media technology to deliver, and that lowers the quality of the journalism that we have.

FF: Now, we'd like to transition into your role in peace talks with the FARC. Following the peace talks, the decision first went to a referendum and was rejected by the Colombian people in 2016. This was a blow to your administration’s strategy in ending the conflict. Could you please talk a little bit about your administration's reaction to this outcome and your steps in the peace agreement afterward?

JMS: When we lost the referendum, it was very surprising because we thought that it would never happen, so I decided to seek an opportunity from the crisis that we had. I took advantage of the fact that the leaders of the no-vote had always said that they were also in favor of peace. So, I brought them in and told them, “What is it that you don't like about this peace process? What peace do you like?” We then started negotiating around the amendments and proposals that they had. We ended up with a better peace agreement as well as a stronger peace agreement. Many of the changes that we made did not fundamentally change what we had a negotiated in the first agreement. In a way, we were all far better off afterwards than before.

FF: A theme we've been exploring at The Forum this year concerns local movements and grassroots activism. How did you encourage local movements and grassroots efforts towards this peace agreement?

JMS: As a matter of fact, with the money that I earned from the Nobel Peace Prize, I started a foundation to help the victims of the FARC. We help these victims by giving them the tools to be leaders in their own regions at the grassroots level. We are working in three areas. The first is conflict resolution, or the idea that you can solve problems without violence. The second is reconciliation with the environment. If we want to fight climate change, we need to take the fight to the grassroots level because that's where decisions are really made. It’s also where deforestation is taking place, which is of special importance to fighting climate change. If you create leaders at a grassroots level that have good objectives, then the effect will be much bigger. The third item has to do with fighting poverty—not through the traditional methods, but through something called the multidimensional index, which is something that a Nobel laureate of economics, Professor Amartya Sen has discussed for quite some time. We’ve begun to implement his ideas in Colombia, but must continue to do so moving forward.

FF: Speaking of re-purposing good ideas, what are some characteristics of the peace process in Colombia that can be applied to other contexts or to other countries? Conversely, what are some things that made Colombia unique that can't be applied elsewhere?

JMS: It's not easy to answer that question because peace processes all have their unique characteristics. What I can tell you as applicable to all peace processes is the need to find the correct set of necessary conditions. Each process has different conditions, but if you don't have certain necessary conditions in place, then it will be very difficult for a peace process to be successful. Also, the personal and political wills of the heads of the different parties involved have to be very clear in that they do want to reach an agreement. When somebody goes to a negotiation table not convinced that an agreement can be turned to his or her advantage, then reaching an agreement is going to be nearly impossible. Finally, the support of the international community and the support of the [countries in the] region in asymmetrical wars is fundamental in any peace process.

Now, what unique aspects does the Colombian peace process have? Well, one unique aspect that could be applied to other processes is that we put the victims and their rights—their rights to reparations, to justice, to the truth, and to non-repetition—at the center of the solution. It worked very well in the Colombia case and should work well in other cases because that would give you a very logical framework for any negotiation. Something else that is unique to the Colombian peace process is what we're doing to combat illegal drugs. Colombia has suffered so much because of problems that other countries might not experience. Another unique [feature] is the fact that two parties sat down and created a very sophisticated transitional justice system to guarantee that there would be no half-measures or impunity, but at the same time, would allow peace to flourish. This could also be applied to other peace agreements.

FF: Looking at your personal background, you spent a lot of time in the US at various educational institutions like the University of Kansas, Harvard, and Fletcher, and we're curious to hear how you believe those experiences shaped your perspective on international relations as well as your approach to your career in Colombia and in politics.

JMS: Well, contact with the rest of the world is always something that is positive - it allows you to see the world and your own country with a much wider perspective. It helps you to see that you are not alone in the world, but at the same time, that you're being watched by the world. You also can learn very much from experiences in other countries that you can apply to your own country. With any piece of further education, you learn how to use the tools you gain in the classroom to achieve professional objectives. For example, the first lessons in negotiations I received were here, in the United States. Here, I learned how to use history and how to use other similar experiences in order to not repeat mistakes. I also learned to create a strategy to be able to get to what I call “a port of destination.” You can say that my education in the US has taught me a lot to achieve objectives and has opened up windows to be a much more effective diplomat.

FF: And with that we’re out of time. Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us.


Juan Manuel Santos served as the President of Colombia from 2010 to 2018. He received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2016 for negotiating a peace deal with FARC guerillas, ending decades of conflict. He has also served as the Minister of Foreign Trade (1991-1994), Minister of Finance and Public Credit (2000-2002), and Minister of National Defense (2006-2009).

He has held a number of economic and media positions, such as economic advisor to the International Coffee Organization, Vice Chair of Inter-American Dialogue, and president of the Freedom of Expression Commission for the Inter American Press Association. He was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University in 1988.

He earned his Bachelor’s degree from the University of Kansas. He also holds a Master’s of Science in Economics from the London School of Economics, and a Master’s of Public Administration from Harvard Kennedy School. He was a Fulbright visiting fellow at the Fletcher School of Law Diplomacy in 1981.

"SI (y) NO" by crossmedialab.ujtl is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Courtesy of CrossMediaLab UJTL / Flickr

"Press conference: Juan Manuel Santos, President of Colombia, at the OECD" by Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Develop is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Courtesy of OECD -Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development / Flickr

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