Santos, peace, and the Nobel prize

On Oct. 7, Colombia’s president Juan Manuel Santos was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for 2016. This comes on the heels of a referendum in which Colombian voters rejected Santos’ peace accords with the rebel Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) by a razor-thin margin. The announcement surprised some Nobel observers who argued that the negative vote in the referendum had sunk the Colombian president’s Nobel. Some went so far as to declare Colombia “off the list of Nobel Peace Prize contenders” (in a headline, no less). So, why did Santos win and what does it mean for peace? Here are five questions on President Santos and the Nobel Peace Prize.


  1. Why did Santos win? Didn’t peace fail in Colombia?
    The peace accords failed the vote, but peace is still alive — though at serious risk. Before the vote, Santos repeatedly said that there “was no Plan B” if the accords were rejected by voters. That seems to have been the case. Neither the government nor the opposition had a clear next step. However, Santos quickly convened opposition leaders, including former president Álvaro Uribe, and made public declarations that Colombia should not return to arms. This was echoed by the leadership of the FARC, though the group is not yet leaving its weapons. In this context, the Nobel is not only a recognition of Santos’ efforts over four years. It is a statement from the committee that the peace process must continue — and that it should move forward under the leadership of President Santos. The talks have continued this week, as the “No” camp is clarifying its own position.
  2. Why did the award go to Santos alone?
    In the past, the Nobel committee has recognized former adversaries with shared awards. Most notably, this includes Nelson Mandela and F.W. de Klerk in South Africa and Yasser Arafat, Yitzhak Rabin, and Shimon Peres in the Middle East peace talks in 1994. Could this award have been shared with the FARC leadership? The ‘No’ vote erased that possibility, but it was small to begin with. The referendum made clear the group’s deep unpopularity given a record of rights violations, and Colombians would have bristled at a FARC leader’s inclusion. Certainly, many despised Arafat for his past actions, too, but the Palestinian leader could claim a large constituency in a way the FARC cannot. More importantly, it would not have been helpful to the ongoing talks with the opposition, and that was a foremost concern for the committee. While the award has Santos’ name on it, the committee’s statement goes to great lengths to recognize the Colombian people and victims of the conflict — and to urge them to continue working for peace.
  3. Is the Nobel Committee trying to influence the peace process?
    Yes, in a sense. The award is a statement of support from the international community for peace. International support is fairly undivided, even as the question splits Colombians. The peace process brought together the Obama administration with Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, one of the few issues on which the two governments agree. The award may buttress Santos’ prestige and position to some extent, but the fact is that he remains unpopular domestically.
  4. Will the Nobel Peace Prize help the cause of peace in Colombia?
    Perhaps not. In the wake of the referendum, it has become increasingly clear that leaders of the opposition were less concerned about particular clauses of the peace deal than about their political futures and legacies. Above all, it seems that Uribe seeks to place his own stamp on the agreements — and to claim a share of the credit for the peace. The prize further marks Santos as the man of peace, and it might not help relations between the current president and his predecessor. There is an element of ego in the political contest between the two men. At the moment, the key questions are whether the two sides can agree on a deal, and whether that deal will be palatable to the FARC leadership and rank-and-file, as well as to victim’s groups who strongly supported the initial accords. It is not clear any of those actors will be impressed by the Nobel.
  5. Would Santos have won if the referendum had passed?
    Quite possibly, but with a very different narrative. If the referendum had won by a wide margin, as many pollsters expected, then Santos would have won for bringing the Colombian population from war toward peace and forgiveness. With peace hanging in the balance, the Nobel is a vote for hope. The referendum made clear the political gamble Santos took for peace. The Nobel is a fine reward, but ultimately a lasting peace with broader domestic and international support is the prize Santos wants and Colombia needs.

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