By Jan Martínez Ahrens and Juan Esteban Lewin, EL PAÍSColombia, September 17, 2022
(Translated by Eunice Gibson, CSN Volunteer Translator)
The former President of Colombia and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize for the agreement with the FARC, in an interview with EL PAÍS, reviews some principal international issues and the current situation in Colombia. “We have to keep on advocating for the re-establishment of complete democracy in Venezuela.” “Duque tried to derail the peace process, but he couldn’t do it.” “Abolishing prohibition is the solution to the war on drugs.”
Juan Manuel Santos, at 72, has reached that point in life from which he can watch history as something far away, and just dedicate himself to his grandchildren. But his political energy, the same energy that brought him twice to be the President of Colombia, and the framer of an agreement with the FARC guerrillas that won him the Nobel Peace Prize, resists that. Santos is living in the present, with passion. He dissects the problems of Ukraine, the United States, or Nicaragua with the same attention that he gives to the secrets of Colombia’s labyrinth. A space he knows backwards and forwards and where some enemies await, such as his predecessor Álvaro Uribe, no matter how he may deplore it.
“Uribe, unfortunately, continues to cling to power, which is a sickness all too common in many ex-Presidents,” he says calmly.
The interview with EL PAÍS takes place in his offices in Bogotá, an elegant and well protected flat where a comfortable silence reigns. Santos answers like an old journalist, weighing every word, although at times he can’t avoid a glint of irony in his eyes. Behind him, on his right, a stand holds a copy of the Peace Agreements of 2016, and on his left, in a bookcase, there is a photograph of him as a Navy cadet. Two points that, joined by the years, form the direct line of his life.
Question: How does the Colombia that President Gustavo Petro is receiving compare with the one that you left to Iván Duque four years ago?
Answer: Unfortunately, we have gone backwards in almost everything. Four years ago, we left President Duque an economy with a level of investment, with single-digit unemployment, inflation under control, external debt and the fiscal situation at acceptable levels, poverty and inequality at historic minimums, and much improved security and international situations. Petro has received a country with much worse conditions than what has been said in the official propaganda: we have lost a level of investment, we have a fiscal time bomb, debt increased by nearly 50%, inflation the highest in this century, double-digit unemployment, poverty through the roof, and inequality increased again. Duque didn’t achieve what every president wants: leaving his successor with a better country than the one he received.
Q. Duque never mentioned your name. Why was that?
A. It’s a paradox, because Duque began his career with me. I got him into the Finance Ministry, and I sent him to a position in the Inter-American Development Bank (BID). He was a hard-working official. He even helped me in the first campaign. But later on, Uribe brainwashed him, brought him into the Senate, and then he became a bitter opponent of my administration. When he became President, I offered him all of my help, as any ex-president ought to do. However, like in an Orwell novel, he decided that I didn’t exist. He wouldn’t even mention my name. A somewhat childish attitude, ridiculous, that nobody could understand.
Q. And how about Uribe? Do you think your relationship could ever be as it once was?
A. Uribe, unfortunately, continues to cling to power, which is a sickness all too common in many ex-Presidents. As long as he stays that way, any reconciliation will be difficult, because he needs to keep on fighting to remain relevant. It’s in his DNA. When he realizes that it’s better to dedicate yourself to your grandchildren and leave the responsibilities of politics to the younger generations, I hope there will be an opportunity for a reconciliation. Once I commented publicly that we should do what Jefferson and Adams, the second and third presidents of the United States did: they were both friends and later on, fierce adversaries, like Uribe and me, but at the end of their lives, they reconciled and even exchanged the most wonderful letters. I said, “Let’s follow their example; let’s not go to our graves with this enmity. Dedicate yourself to your grandchildren as I dedicate myself to mine, and next thing you know, we can be friends.” I guess he didn’t take that very well.
Q. You have been a Minister three times, President in two consecutive terms, forged a Peace Agreement that won you the Nobel Peace Prize. Did you ever dream of anything like that when you got into politics?
A. They said that I was obsessed with being president since I was little, but that’s not really true. I have known how to use opportunities, and I have had a lot of luck. There came a time when seeking a peace became a priority. They even accused me of conspiring with the guerrillas and the paramilitaries to bring down Samper. It was my first attempt to start a peace process and I was supported even by Gabo and Felipe González. Looking back, I am thankful to God for having given me the strength to become President and obtain, among other things, the peace with the FARC. But, to answer your question, the answer is no, I never imagined I would go so far.
Q. And have you suffered in your journey?
A. A lot. Politics is tough and thankless, and making peace is harder than making war. The defeat in the plebiscite was a tremendous blow, undoubtedly, but what always hurt the most was seeing the consequences of the war, mothers burying their children, seeing the experiences of the victims, the funerals of so many soldiers and police, facing the widows and mothers who were asking why their husbands or their sons had to be killed . . .
Q. And in a country that has lived in a civil war for a half century, with 450,000 dead and millions displaced, how long will it take to heal those wounds?
A. It could take generations. Wounds of a war of 50 years don’t heal in a few days. Reconciliation is very difficult, but it’s necessary; it means convincing victims of atrocities to accept and forgive the killers. That’s why a Truth Commission is so important in every peace process. I remember Mandela saying to me, “The truth is what helps the most to heal those wounds.”
Q. During Duque’s term, did you at any time start to fear for the peace process?
A. Duque wanted to derail it and then put a stop to the process, but he couldn’t do it. Congress wouldn’t let him, or the international community either. Finally, he had no option but to get on the train and brag about what he had accomplished, which was very little. With Duque, the peace process passed an acid test, and, paradoxically, came out stronger. We saw that in the most recent elections. Now we need this administration to carry out what it promised; and if it does, just implementing the Agreement will make it into a great administration.
Q. And what are the biggest obstacles to achieving that?
A. The administration needs more organization, more management to implement what’s in the Agreement now, and not allow the Agreement with the FARC to be overshadowed by what they call “total peace”. The people want and need quick results.
Q. There are those who say that the arrival in power of Petro and Francia Márquez could not have been possible without that Peace Agreement.
A. Democracy is more inclusive now than it was before the Peace Agreement, but there’s still a great deal lacking. What I can say is that, for example, people are no longer afraid to go out and protest and some of the stigmas that the Colombian Right has used to keep the forces of the left at bay have been erased.
Q. And what’s your relationship with Petro?
A. I have a good relationship, normal, even though we have been on different sides for nearly all of our political lives. He supported my re-election, and I have to say he did it without putting any conditions on it. Now, I agree completely with his three pillars, which were mine in a certain way: the implementation of the peace process, the transition to a green economy, and social justice. That is what this country needs, and I hope things go well for him. I didn’t support Petro in the campaign, nor any other candidate either. I’ve never been a Petrista, and I’m not one now. What I do think is that if things go well for him now, things will go well for the country. Some say that, because there are ex-Ministers and other ex-officials of mine in his administration, that I’m behind the administration, but that’s not true. The ones that are there are there on their own merit; they aren’t my quota and they don’t represent me. I am retired from politics. However, like Duque, if I’m needed, I’m there.
Q. How do you judge Petro’s first steps?
A. The administration is going in the right direction, but it lacks rigor and method, and it should sharpen its narrative too. The public policies, especially when there are changes in policy, have to be explained very clearly. People have to understand the how and the why. Naturally, people will reject what they don’t understand. That’s why it’s so important to offer clear narratives.
Q. Petro has reactivated the negotiation with the ELN. Will that be successful?
A. I believe so and I hope so. We left that negotiation pretty far along, although there was still a lot missing, and this administration has said that it’s going to continue from that point. That’s the right direction. Peace with the ELN would be very welcome in the country and for everybody that’s suffering from the violence of that insurgency.
Q. The ELN asks not to be equated with the criminal gangs . . .
A. And they’re right. They can’t all be put in the same sack. You have to have some differentiation. The political organizations can take shelter in the Statute of Rome, as the FARC did, and transitional justice can be applied to them. But the criminal gangs can’t get into that lane. With them you can negotiate the penalties and the reincorporation into civilian life, but only when they submit to the legal system.
Q. But dealing with the criminal gangs now, nothing but drug traffickers, won’t that poison the negotiations themselves? Wouldn’t it have been better to wait until the discussions with the ELN have gone forward? Isn’t the concept of total peace overly ambitious perhaps?
A. That’s what I’m referring to when I say that the narratives need to be a little sharper. There is still a lot of confusion about what they call the total peace. With how many groups? Under what conditions? In which regions? All of that has to be clarified. And as long as it isn’t clarified, the people will become more and more skeptical. That’s why it’s so important that there be some kind of clarity as soon as possible about how that’s going to work.
Q. And the Armed Forces. Might they interfere in the negotiations?
A. That’s one more of the negative legacies of the previous administration. They politicized and divided the Armed Forces, promoting the officers not on merit or capacity, but rather on loyalty. Petro and his Defense Minister are going to have to re-establish their legitimacy and favorability. And they will have to recover the control of the countryside in a lot of areas. But, with all of that, I don’t think that the Armed Forces will be an obstacle. There is a mistaken idea that the military automatically opposes the peace processes, because, as many officers have told me, “We are the ones that get killed; we aren’t in favor of war.” All of my predecessors were wrong; they thought that the military would oppose it and push it aside, and by pushing it aside, they would be acting as saboteurs of the processes. We got them involved in it. We placed two of the most popular generals of the Army and the Police as negotiators, and that helped a great deal.
Q. What do you think about the re-establishment of relations with Venezuela?
A. The famous diplomatic wall promoted by Duque and Trump was a spectacular failure. Now Maduro is much more bolted into his power than he was four years ago. And, from the bilateral point of view, breaking off all communication with a neighbor that has a border of 2,200 kilometers makes no sense. Therefore, restoring communication is a step in the right direction but, while that’s true, we have to continue advocating the re-establishment of full democracy in Venezuela.
Q. Right now in America there is a cesspool in politics, and it’s Nicaragua. Do you think the administration in Colombia was wrong in not voting for the OES (OAS) resolution of condemnation?
A. Thirty-seven years ago I and my brother won Spain’s first King’s Prize in Journalism for our chronicles that denounced the corruption and the oppressive regime of Daniel Ortega. At that time, his brother Humberto was the Commander of the Army and his Vice President was Sergio Ramírez. Now, both of them are part of the opposition and the situation is worse. If you ask me if the Colombian government was wrong not to vote for that resolution, I would have to say yes, they were wrong. Fortunately, the Foreign Minister rectified it.
Q. Do you support Petro’s proposal to de-narcotize the relationship with the United State?
A. De-narcotize means abolishing prohibition in the war on drugs and that’s the solution, although I know how difficult it is to sell that idea. Ten years ago, in the Summit of the Americas, I proposed changing the international conventions to permit a more practical and effective focus in the very much failed war on drugs. Obama and then-Vice President Biden and all of Latin America agreed, but in the United Nations we met with the fierce opposition of China, Russia, and the Middle Eastern countries. And what good has it been? The whole world, especially Latin America and Africa, are suffering the growth and empowerment of the mafias. . . We have to abolish prohibition. The evidence shows that, on the contrary, this war will have consequences that will get worse and worse. That’s why de-narcotizing the relationships is completely right, and if Asia or the Middle East don’t like it, well, at least all of the Americas will.
Q. How do you think that, that with the polarization that exists in the United States now, a solution of this kind could succeed?
A. That’s right. Unfortunately there, as in the rest of the democracies, they have forgotten something that George Washington recommended in his magnificent farewell speech: “Don’t forget one word: moderation. If moderation is lost, democracy will cease to function.” The lack of moderation feeds polarization, and polarization makes democracy less effective. Governance becomes more complicated and solving the people’s problems becomes more difficult. That’s why autocracies are on the rise. We have to recover moderation at all costs, accepting the contrary, sitting down to talk, to talk, and talk. The habit of failing to talk to each other is fatal for democracy.
Q. An example is Russia with Ukraine . . .
A. I went to Ukraine with Ban-Ki Moon. Russia’s invasion is reprehensible from every point of view, but we weren’t going there, as part of the Elders, to support anyone in winning the war, but rather to end it. Unfortunately, there are still not any conditions for that because both sides believe they are winning.
Q. And how do you analyze the defeat in the plebiscite on Chile’s new Constitution?
A. Chile now has a beautiful opportunity to unite. The projected Constitution polarized the country. What President Boric has done after the defeat seems appropriate to me: call on the forces of rejection and start to negotiate what I hope will be a shorter but still progressive, modern Constitution with fiscal responsibility, that will unite a majority of Chileans. It’s a golden opportunity that I hope they will embrace, and it will be an example for the rest of the world.
 Gabriel García Márquez
 One-time President of Spain.
 Nelson Mandela, South African freedom fighter who became President of South Africa.