Colombia’s peace process took another unexpected turn Friday when President Juan Manuel Santos was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize — just five days after voters had narrowly rejected the hard-fought agreement.
The international recognition will likely put additional pressure on negotiators trying to revamp and rescue the deal aimed at ending a half-century conflict that has cost more than 220,000 lives.
“This award says to [Colombia]: you have come too far to turn back now,” said U.N. General Secretary Ban Ki-moon. “The peace process should inspire our world.”
News of the award broke before dawn in Colombia. Santos said his son, Martin, woke him up to share the news.
“I am infinitely thankful with all my heart for this honor,” he said, standing by his wife at the presidential palace. “I receive it, not in my name, but in the name of all Colombians, especially the millions of victims left by this conflict.”
The administration and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) have been in negotiations in Havana since 2012 and seemed close to hammering out a definitive peace deal. But on Sunday, voters rejected the proposal, though polls had showed it would easily win approval.
The vote was a huge letdown for Santos who had already taken a victory lap, summoning leaders from around the world to a high-profile ceremony in Cartagena Sept. 26 to sign the deal along with FARC Commander Rodrigo “Timoleón Jiménez” Londoño.
For some, this chaotic week almost seemed like an homage to Colombia’s other Nobel laureate: Gabriel García Márquez, who won the literature prize in 1982 for pioneering magical realism. In his fictional town of Macondo, it rained yellow butterflies, babies were born with pig tails and the blood of the murdered ran uphill.
In that sense, it seemed fitting to give a peace prize to a country that still hadn’t achieved peace, said Luis Castillo, a retiree, in downtown Bogotá.
“They’re giving us recognition for something that hasn’t happened yet,” he said. “As we say here, they put the saddle on the horse before they ever bought it.”
Social media also ran with the imagery.
“Gabriel García Márquez won the Nobel for creating Macondo and Santos [won] for trying to govern in it,” wrote one twitter user.
In a statement, the Nobel Committee said that despite the rejection at the polls, Santos has “brought the bloody conflict significantly closer to a peaceful solution, and that much of the groundwork has been laid for both the verifiable disarmament of the FARC guerrillas and a historic process of national fraternity and reconciliation.”
In a tweet from Havana, FARC Commander Londoño congratulated Santos, saying that without him “peace would be impossible.”
And the government’s chief negotiator, Humberto de la Calle, said the global support was critical.
“This gives us the energy to keep moving forward,” he said, “strength is what this prize gives us.”
The fight ahead?
The administration will need it. On Monday, negotiators and those who campaigned against the deal are expected to begin sharing concrete proposals on how to revamp the accord.
Critics say the 297-page pact is too lenient on a guerrilla group that has waged war on the country since 1964. The agreement does not require jail time for those who committed crimes and will allow them to run for office. The guerrillas have suggested those two issues are non-negotiable, but on Friday reiterated that they are open to proposals that will salvage the peace pact.
On Friday, the leader of the opposition camp, former President Alvaro Uribe, seemed unmoved by the international recognition.
“I congratulate Santos on his Nobel Peace Prize,” he tweeted. “I hope it leads him to change the agreement that has been so damaging to democracy.”
Even so, analysts expect the pressure of the prize will force hardliners to be more flexible.
“I think this will produce a significant change in the obstructionist position that [opponents] of the deal have taken,” said Alejo Vargas, a political science professor at Bogotá’s National University. “This is the international ratification of all the work toward peace that Santos has promoted.”
Peter Schecter, the director of the Adreinne Arsht Latin American Center, said the prize was likely a “bitter sweet moment” for Santos, after seeing his initial proposal rejected at the polls.
“Yet, the Colombian people have decided that the process is not yet over,” he wrote. “We are confident that a consensus among the various sides is within reach and that Colombians will soon enjoy the fruits of peace.”
Although Santos’ work has been embraced by the international community, he’s not without his controversies. He was minister of defense from 2006-2009 under President Uribe when the “false positives” scandal broke, revealing that the military had killed as many as 3,000 innocent people and passed them off as guerrillas in order to boost their numbers.
Santos has rightfully taken credit for ending the practice and bringing the military to justice, but has not escaped the whiff of the scandal.
History of controversy
The Norwegian Nobel Committee is no stranger to controversial decisions. In 1973, U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger was honored for his efforts to achieve a ceasefire in the Vietnam War, which dragged on for three more years. Two members resigned from the committee in protest.
The committee again sought to influence peace in 1994 when it honored Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, who, depending on the perspective, was a freedom fighter or terrorist, along with Israel’s Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres as they sought peace in the Middle East. The accords collapsed.
On Friday, the committee acknowledged that Colombia’s failed referendum “created great uncertainty” about the future. But it emphasized that the vote against the agreement was not a vote against peace, but against a specific agreement.
“There is a real danger that the peace process will come to a halt and that civil war will flare up again,” the award said. “This makes it even more important that the parties, headed by President Santos and FARC guerrilla leader Rodrigo Londoño, continue to respect the ceasefire.”
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, said the committee’s decision was “the right one and fully in keeping with the spirit and purpose of its prestigious award.”
“I hope this decision will lend new momentum towards a settlement in Colombia that will be broadly acceptable and can be put in place as rapidly as possible,” he added.
Regardless of what happens, Santos joins the ranks of Martin Luther King (1964), Malala Yousafzai (2014), Mother Teresa (1979) and Barack Obama (2009) as a Nobel Peace Prize winner.
“This prize has given me more energy, more motivation, to move forward,” Santos said Friday. “We lost a small battle with the plebiscite...but we’re going to win the fight for peace.”
Franco Ordoñez of the Washington bureau contributed to this report