BOGOTA – By winning the Nobel Peace Prize, President Juan Manuel Santos got a big boost Friday in his efforts to save an agreement seeking to end Colombia’s half-century conflict.
The prize, announced by the Norwegian Nobel Committee, puts pressure on both conservative critics and leftist rebels to find a way forward after the shocking defeat of the accord in an Oct. 2 referendum.
Santos dedicated the prize to his fellow Colombians, especially the victims of the bloody conflict, saying it would redouble his commitment to end hostilities that left 220,000 dead and almost 8 million displaced.
“I invite everyone to bring together our strength, our minds and our hearts in this great national endeavour so that we can win the most important prize of all: peace in Colombia,” Santos said alongside his wife in his first public appearance after being notified he had won in a pre-dawn phone call from their son.
Colombians are split on their support for the peace deal.
Some see it as the best chance in a generation to halt the conflict with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC; others are outraged that rebels behind scores of atrocities, from kidnappings to attacks on civilian targets, probably will never spend a day in prison and instead be reserved seats in congress to smooth their transition into a political movement.
The accord’s defeat in the referendum by the narrowest of margins – less than half a percentage point – humiliated Santos, especially since polls had predicted it would pass by an almost 2-1 margin. He had signed the deal with the FARC just six days earlier in front of world leaders.
Now he’s scrambling to save the accord. This week, he dispatched negotiators to Cuba, to see if the FARC will make additional concessions, and presided over meetings with opponents led by his former ally turned archrival: ex-President Alvaro Uribe.
Uribe, who inflamed widespread hatred of the rebels by warning that the peace deal would take Colombia down the path of communist Cuba, emerged as the big victor in the referendum and is pushing for harsher punishment for the FARC.
But he’s been conciliatory so far, and even sent Santos a congratulation of sorts on winning the Nobel.
“I hope it leads to a change in the accords that are damaging for our democracy,” Uribe said in a message on Twitter.
Nobody knows how the impasse will end but most analysts agree that a bilateral cease-fire already in place can’t endure for too long without resolution. Amid such uncertainty, the Nobel prize gives some oxygen to Santos’ efforts, although how much is unknown.
In Bogota’s Plaza Bolivar, where thousands gathered Wednesday in the biggest street demonstration in years to demand the peace deal be saved, an activist distributed white daisies symbolizing peace. A small group camped in the plaza since then celebrated with shouts of “Peace deal now!” and “Colombia wants peace!”
“Even though Uribe won the vote, I think Santos has some advantage right now,” said Adam Isacson, an analyst at the Washington Office on Latin America who was in Colombia for the referendum.
Nobel committee secretary Olav Njoelstad said there was “broad consensus” on choosing Santos. It was the first time the peace prize has gone to Latin America since 1992, when Guatemalan indigenous rights activist Rigoberta Menchu won. It is Colombia’s second Nobel honour after beloved novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez won for literature in 1982.
But in a departure from its tradition of honouring both sides of a peace process, the five-member committee conspicuously left out Santos’ counterpart, rebel leader Rodrigo Londono, from the honour, a move that could further strengthen Santos’ hand in wresting concessions from the rebels.
“We’re not going to destroy what we’ve designed, and that has received so much international praise,” the FARC’s chief negotiator Ivan Marquez said from Havana upon learning of Santos’ Nobel.
The rebels and the government on Friday invited the United Nations and regional government to send observers to monitor the cease-fire already in place
Santos, the Harvard-educated scion of one of Colombia’s wealthiest families, is an unlikely peacemaker. As Uribe’s defence minister a decade ago, he dealt some of the biggest military blows to the FARC, including a 2008 cross-border raid into Ecuador that took out a top rebel commander and the stealth rescue of three Americans held captive by the rebels for more than five years.
Though nominally Marxist, the FARC’s ideology has never been well-defined. It has sought to make Colombia’s conservative oligarchy share power, and prioritized land reform in a country where millions have been forcibly displaced, mostly by far-right militias in the service of ranchers, businessmen and drug traffickers. The FARC lost popularity as it turned to kidnapping, extortion and taxes on cocaine production and illegal gold mining to fund its insurgency.
Santos and Londono met only twice during the entire peace process: last year when they put the final touches on the most-controversial section of the accord – how guerrillas would be punished for war crimes – and last month to sign the accord.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who was present for the ceremony, called this year’s Nobel Peace Prize a “timely message” to all people working toward national reconciliation.
“This award says to them: You have come too far to turn back now. The peace process should inspire our world,” he said.
Ritter reported from Stockholm. Associated Press writer Mark Lewis contributed from Oslo, Norway.