Images of white doves were stenciled on government-issued umbrellas, pinned to the lapels of dignitaries and blown into the air. If there was any doubt about President Juan Manuel Santos’ priority during his next four years in office, the symbolism around his inauguration Thursday likely put them to rest.
“Colombia’s search for peace could be the good news that humanity needs,” he said shortly after donning the presidential sash, “the end of the last remaining conflict in the Western Hemisphere.”
Santos, 62, won a second term in June on the promise that he would broker a peace deal with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). But even as the end of negotiations is within sight, the government needs to address the factors driving the conflict — inequality and lack of education, Santos said.
“It’s one thing to end the conflict and it’s another to build peace,” he said.
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The inauguration — rich in drama and protocol — drew representatives from more than 120 nations and the presidents of Mexico, the Dominican Republic, Honduras, Paraguay, Ecuador, Panama, Peru, Guatemala and Guyana.
Thomas Shannon, the counselor to the State Department, led the U.S. delegation.
After almost a half-century of conflict that has left at least 220,000 dead by some estimates, Colombia began seeking a negotiated solution with the FARC in 2012 and hopes the smaller National Liberation Army (ELN) will join soon. It was that stance that helped him clinch a tight election.
But on Thursday, he went beyond his usual stump speech to address some of the root causes of the conflict, particularly deep inequality concentrated among rural farmers, indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities.
“We’re proud of our diversity,” Santos said, “but it’s also a country that is too unequal, we need to close the gap.”
He said the administration would continue offering free homes to the poorest, create 2.5 million additional jobs and give more money to state and local governments to tackle their needs.
Santos said education would be the third pillar of his term, vowing to make Colombia “Latin America’s most educated country” by 2025. Santos asked congress to allocate more money to education than to the military in next year’s budget.
“That’s never happened before,” he said. “And it should be that way from now on.”
He also said he would seek to extend hours at public schools and increase pay and training for teachers.
Santos has come closer than any other president to reaching a negotiated solution with the FARC, but he warned the guerrillas that recent attacks on infrastructure, which have left swaths of the country without power and led to the deaths of civilians, undermined their cause.
“The violent acts in recent weeks are an unacceptable contradiction that threatens the [peace] process,” he said. “The patience of Colombia and the international community is not infinite.”
For some delegations, the issue has resonance.
El Salvador’s Vice President Oscar Ortiz was an FMLN guerrilla who was involved in the 1992 peace process that ended decades of civil war.
For El Salvador, “it’s been 22 years of transition, but now we have a strong right-wing, a strong left-wing, a strong system of political parties and strong institutions that are increasingly independent,” he said. “But each country has to find its own path.”
Raja Edirisuriya, the Sri Lankan ambassador to Colombia, said his island nation has much to teach Colombia about fighting guerrillas. After more than 30 years of skirmishes and failed peace attempts with the Tamil Tigers, his nation decided to eliminate the rebel group in 2009.
“President [Santos] needs to make a very strong decision on what he wants to do,” Edirisuriya said. In Sri Lanka’s case, when it was decided that they could not negotiate with the Tamil Tiger’s in good faith, “the only avenue we had is to go after them and eliminate the terrorists.”
The United Nations is still investigating allegations of human rights violations that occurred during that 2009 campaign.
Despite the huge crowds and delegations from far-flung nations, there was one notable no-show at the event: former President Álvaro Uribe, a one-time ally turned fierce Santos critic.
In a statement, Uribe said he and his colleagues from the Centro Democrático party decided against attending to protest what they say was Santos’ abuse of power during the election.
They also said they were protesting the presence of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro. Maduro, however, never made it to the event.
As he wrapped up his speech, Santos said this was “Colombia’s hour” and asked the nation to imagine what might be accomplished in a decade with peace, equality and education.
“The country would be completely different forever,” he said. “It would be a country that is unstoppable, prosperous and admired.”