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  HOME | Colombia (Click here for more)

Colombia’s Santos Discusses New Peace Deals, Future Referendums, the Nobel Peace Prize

BOGOTA – Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos said he thought a new peace deal with the FARC guerrilla would be possible by the end of November and did not dismiss the possibility of organizing another referendum.

Santos granted EFE an exclusive interview, the first to an international news agency since the peace deals with the FARC were rejected in a referendum on Oct. 2.

Despite the failed outcome, he said he would consider another referendum once a new deal had been made, as “this is one of the options available.”

Santos said the Constitutional Court had determined he could call for a new referendum without the Colombian Congress’ permission, but insisted that as head of state, he had to opt for the choice that would least divide the country.

“I have not dismissed anything, and once the new agreement is ready, depending on the range of consensus, we will determine which path to take,” he said.

He added that he was not afraid of going back to the ballot boxes if that is what it takes to get Colombian peace off the ground, but confessed he never imagined 50.21% of people would vote against the accords.

“I think having lost by such a small margin (50,000 votes) was better than having won, because if we had won by so little the country would be up in flames. However now we have a great opportunity to strike a better deal and a more united country,” he said.

This referred to the opposition headed by ex-president Alvaro Uribe, the leader and senator for the Democratic Center (CD), who Santos invited to open a great national dialogue during the speech where he announced the referendum results.

A few days later, and for the first time in six years, he received Uribe at the Casa de Nariño, the Colombian seat of government, to discuss their differences regarding the peace accords and seek a consensus enabling them to negotiate with the FARC.

“We have restarted a process that should end very soon, in a matter of weeks, not months, that will enable us to implement peace as soon as possible,” he said.

At this point in the interview with EFE he discussed the Nobel Peace Prize he was awarded five days after losing the referendum, which he said came at a very important moment, as it gave the peace process a renewed push.

When asked if he would announce the new agreement on Dec. 10 during the Nobel Prize ceremony, Santos refrained from giving a specific date but did advance that it may happen even earlier.

“I hope, at least by that date, it will be on the negotiating table if not already implemented, although I think its implementation will take a bit longer, but the text and a new agreement is the objective we aim for before the end of November,” he said.

Santos warned that “the passage of time conspires against the process,” so it was important to move quickly as failure could mean a resuming of hostilities against the FARC, which would be a catastrophe.

The President also discussed the negotiations with the National Liberation Army (ELN) guerrilla, which were due to begin on Thursday in Quito, Ecuador, but were delayed because the group had yet to liberate several hostages.

“There was a slip-up the day we were going to begin the public phase because some hostages had yet to be released,” he said, adding that he hoped the negotiations could be reinitiated soon and was very willing to make progress with the ELN.

Santos granted the interview just before the start of the 25th Ibero-American Summit of Heads of State, which he will host on Friday and Saturday in Cartagena de Indias.

This year’s focus is “Youth, Entrepreneurship and Education,” which is why he urged young people to play a greater role in society.

“It is very important for our democracy, and very important for any society, that young people empower themselves and take part in big decisions. And what decision could be greater for a country than peace?” he said.

Once the summit is over, Santos will travel to London, where on Nov. 1 he will begin a state visit to the United Kingdom.

This is the first such visit by a Colombian head of state, which he is very proud of.

“This is the first time in 200 years as a republic that a Colombian president conducts a state visit there. In this particular case it holds some personal importance as I lived in England for 10 years and greatly appreciate the UK,” said Santos.

This visit, during which Queen Elizabeth II is to be his host at Buckingham Palace, is intended to help strengthen ties between both countries that, according to Santos, complement each other.

Here’s the full transcript of the exclusive interview with President of Colombia Juan Manuel Santos, done by Agencia EFE in Bogota:

Q. Mr. President, what are Colombia’s expectations with respect to the theme of Youth, Entrepreneurship and Education that the government has set for the 25th Ibero-American Summit?

A. First, the themes of the Summit are topics of great relevance for any country at any time, but especially now. Latin America, Ibero-America, in general, is competing against other regions of the world on the subject of education, on the issue of what to do with youth, on the matter of entrepreneurship.

These are issues that all countries should establish as a priority, therefore we think that when there is a possibility of it becoming a common priority and we can create synergy with countries to be better educated, more innovative, and that youth is directed towards a better path, that is a guaranteed way towards better societies.

That is why we chose those themes and what we expect from this summit is that it achieves specific proposals, how to collaborate more in the field of education, how can we better undertake businesses, how can we instill in our youth the spirit of entrepreneurship, which is so important and necessary in a rapidly changing technological world, and challenged by what is happening across the length and breadth of this planet.

Q. President, one of the goals of your government is to make Colombia the most educated nation in Latin America by 2025. Do you think that, with the issues of education and youth being the focus of the Summit, the Colombian experience can be exported to other Ibero-American countries?

A. I’m not so pretentious as to say that our experience can be exported, rather that we are trying to learn from other countries, we have a long way to go.

But yes, we have done things that are having a very positive impact on both the quality and access to education. The latest results of the tests that we have done with high school students indicate an unprecedented increase in the quality of education.

Also, programs that are revolutionizing education, including the one we call “Ser Pilo Paga,” that gives scholarships in the best universities to the most talented high school students from the lowest levels of society, and to give an example, (in) the University of Los Andes, which is considered the best private university in Colombia, 40% of the students who enrolled this year, came though that program. What does that do? It greatly raises the quality of education within the university and the competition for admission into the university, and that has a very important snowball effect on education in general.

Q. President, young Colombians have played a role in recent weeks in promoting peace, you yourself sometimes have gone out to receive them. How do we assess the young Colombians’ commitment to the peace process?

A. In my opinion, it has been wonderful. When we heard the results of the referendum, rather than sit down and weep, what I said was let’s use this Chinese proverb that says one must look for the opportunity in the crisis, one must find the positive side, and we immediately began working to unite the country around peace because everyone said they wanted peace. And something that has been especially important to me is (the way) the youth woke up and came out on the streets.


Q. Mr. President, do you hope the Ibero-American Summit, which begins Friday, signals a new boost, an international boost for the Colombian peace process?

A. Absolutely. In all the countries who will attend the summit, (people) have expressed their support, everyone has shown their solidarity with the process we have restarted, a process that should end very soon, in a matter of weeks, not months, that will enable us to implement peace as soon as possible, and for me, it has been very, very important, the endorsement and support from the international community because that has given a lot of legitimacy to this process.


Q. The award, the Nobel Prize, is something so important that it is indeed a huge endorsement of the peace process. But did you really expect it, do you believe that, apart from the president of Colombia, someone else should also have been acknowledged?

A. Well, look. I didn’t expect it, actually, when they called me at 4 o’clock in the morning I thought it was a joke, that someone was taking me for a ride, that someone wanted to play a prank on me. Here in Colombia people often do that. It was literally heaven sent, it arrived at a critical moment and gave additional impulse to move ahead with the process that we are pushing forward and tying up simultaneously at this point of time, and to start a national dialogue, to incorporate the concerns of those who voted “no” to the deal and to have a broader, more comprehensive and better agreement, and that is why there is a saying in Colombia that I believe is very common in Spain too, “no hay mal que por bien no venga” (Every cloud has a silver lining).

I think having lost by such a small margin was better than having won, because if we had won by so little the country would be up in flames. Instead, we now have the great opportunity of having a better agreement and a more united country.


Q. And why did you call for the referendum knowing the complications that such a measure can have on a sensitive subject, certainly on the people?

A. Because I made a promise and I thought right from the start that it was the right thing to do. The President of the Republic has the power and capacity to sign a peace deal without holding a referendum. But it was such an important step to take and I thought it was right, that it was the appropriate thing to do in a democracy and that a referendum would legitimize peace. I confess that I never imagined this would be the result, but once again I believe that we are going to leave this better than we were before.

Q. Well, one of the questions I wanted to ask you is did you, at any time, think you could lose the referendum and if there was a contingency plan for such a situation? Above all, why do you think you lost the referendum, although by such as small margin?

A. The truth is that we never thought we were going to lose. Many people, mostly abroad, ask how it could be possible that a country would vote to continue a war and not for peace. It reminds me of what I believe to be a saying by Erasmus: “a bad peace is always, always much better than a good war.”

Why these results? There are multiple factors. The manager of the “no” campaign himself admitted in an interview that the campaign was based on arousing the anger and indignation of the people through lies. For example, they told pensioners they were going to lose their pensions as it would be given to the guerrillas. They told taxi drivers they would lose their subsidies, which would be used to pay for peace. And they did this with every sector of the population. Well, the campaign was very effective.

On the other hand, the same day hurricane Matthew with all intensity struck the northern part of the country, which is more inclined towards peace and more supportive of the government. So, there were multiple factors, there was a lot of disinformation and I think I am responsible for not having informed the public appropriately and effectively. I thought people knew the deals and what I am realizing in these conversations is that they did not.

Q. What often happens and has been said, for example, with reference to the Brexit referendum, is that the people vote in a sense for one thing, but are actually voting for another. That is, on many occasions it can be to punish the government or a moment when one feels outraged by something. And the reflection is, well, perhaps, if such important matters should be subject to a referendum.

A. Well, we conducted some studies, some surveys among those who voted “no” and why they voted “no.” Most of them voted “no” for a totally different reason. There is a controversy in the country on what is known as gender ideology, which is not related to the peace process, but many of those who wanted to misinform people regarding the process said the peace process would lead to the implementation of a gender ideology. It was not related and that has already been clarified. All the pastors, the Catholic Church already said there is nothing there, but it was different in the campaign. So this is one specific example, among many others, of how people who voted “no” had nothing to do with the peace agreement.

Q. Knowing what has happened and the result of the referendum, would you call for another one today?

A. It is one of the few alternatives available to me. We are drafting a new agreement and when we it is ready, I have several options. The Constitutional Court determined that I could call for a fresh referendum without the approval of the Congress. Those who backed the “no” do not want that because, after everything that has happened, there is going to be an immense majority in favor. But I believe I should opt for the path that is least divisive. The country should be united, look for peace, seek unity. Around the world we are seeing polarized societies, and division only stagnates, it does not allow decisions to be made and society to progress. So I’m going to opt for the path that least divides the country.

Q. And could that path be an endorsement in Congress?

A. It could very well be, and it is what out Constitution establishes, it is one of the paths. I have not discarded anything, and once the new agreement is ready, depending on the range of consensus, we will determine which path to take.


Q. Mr. President, you called for an a great national dialogue on the same day the referendum result was released and invited Pastrana and Uribe and other sectors of society to speak; now, at the start, you told us that everything is advancing and that you expect it to be a matter of weeks, not months. Could there be a new peace deal before the end of the year?

A. My intention and aim is to secure a new agreement before the end of the year and hopefully a lot earlier.

Q. The discussions with the ex-Presidents, with Uribe and Pastrana, do they suggest that that this is in fact possible? Do you see it within arm’s reach?

A. Yes, if there is goodwill on their part, we could easily obtain a new text as many of the issues raised are matters that can be incorporated in a relatively easy manner without altering the document’s essence; it depends on their willingness to do so and their true intent, if it is true they desire an agreement and a prompt agreement, we are going to get a green light very soon.

Q. And once these proposals are taken to the FARC, do you think it will be very complicated to get them to accept the changes or perception? What do the negotiators in touch with them say?

A. Well we have a permanently open communication line with the FARC, and at this moment, there are negotiators in Havana, discussing many of the 500 proposals we have received and we have found a good disposition on the side of the FARC because they also understood that the referendum is an outcome that we must respect and the reason why we must endeavor to find a way to present a new agreement both to Colombia and the world.

Q. Do you think there could be a step back? That is, a return to a conflict situation? Or does that belong to the past?

A. One of the reasons we have to move fast is the fact that the passage of time conspires against the process. A ceasefire like the one we have now is very fragile despite all the protocols and supervision. It is a kind of limbo, anything can happen and that is why reaching a new deal soon is so important.

I am going to do everything I can, everything within my reach, I am working 24 hours a day, seven days a week to obtain a new deal and as soon as I can so we do not start going backwards. It would be fatal for this country if this failed and returned to war with the FARC, it would be a catastrophe and that is why I am confident we will achieve it.

Q. Mr. President, on Dec. 10 you will be traveling to Oslo to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. Could it be we will hear the good news then?

A. That is what I am aiming for, but setting deadlines is counterproductive. Of course I hope, at least by that date, it will be on the negotiating table if not already implemented, although I think its implementation will take a bit longer, but the text and a new agreement is the objective we aim for before the end of November


Q. Do you think the situation with the ELN is more complicated because of the group’s characteristics?

A. Yes, it was a bit more complex. We already have an agenda, it is a smaller group, but it is still important that we make peace with them, as well, and we are going to initiate the public peace process once the conditions we have set are met. There was a slip-up the day we were going to begin the public phase because some hostages had yet to be released. I hope we will be able to initiate it very soon as I am very willing and ready to start moving forward with the ELN as well.

Q. Mr. President, with regards to the ELN, I am not asking for dates, but how do you see the situation? This is something that has to end while you are in power. What time-frames are you looking at?

A. Setting deadlines is always counterproductive. When I started the public process with the FARC four years ago, someone asked and I said “I hope it’s months and not years” and that became a problem for me, so now I prefer not to create any time-frame expectations. Of course it would be best for all of us if a deal was struck as soon as possible. But how soon is soon? It is difficult to say.

Q: If the ELN release their hostages, will the negotiators travel to Quito immediately or will they wait a few days? How do you take that step?

A. We have to see how the situation evolves. In these cases it is always best to elaborate a new plan. This can take time, but it takes two to dance and any decision made must be by mutual agreement.

Q. Did you find negotiating with the ELN more complicated than with the FARC, at least at the start?

A. They are two different negotiations with two different styles. For example, in the case of the FARC we have a very precise negotiating team, some ambassadors and some alternates. In the case of the ELN we are going for a completely different model. There is going to be a big group of negotiators which the head negotiator will be choosing depending on the topics being discussed and the circumstances. So it is not going to be like in Havana, where everyone is there the whole time. Rather, those who are prepared and are suitable for certain topics will be there when those topics are addressed.

Q. You have often said that this is one single peace process with two negotiation tables, but the idea is that the peace process should merge into one. In light of what happened with the referendum and the fact that the process with the FARC was delayed and that the one with the ELN is beginning, do you think the two will end up merging in the end?

A. I will give you an example with one of the topics: transnational justice. The logical step would be to merge both peace processes into one single process of transitional justice, as we are not going to negotiate two. There are certain aspects that naturally flow together. In other aspects, they remain two different guerrillas with two different formats.


Q. Mr. President, the American elections are around the corner. You have probably been asked this a lot, and I will not ask you who you prefer, which you also probably would not say. In any case, imagine that Donald Trump wins. Could this damage Colombian relations with the U.S.?

A. Colombia has had the privilege of having support from both parties for many years. The Colombia Plan was an initiative, quite possibly the most effective one of American foreign policy in the last few years, and it was bipartisan. All of our presidents have made certain that we keep having support from both parties, we have this support today, and I hope we will continue to have it in the future.


Q. Mr. President, let’s discuss the trip you are about to make to the United Kingdom next week. It is a historical event because it is the first time a Colombian president makes a state visit to the UK. What are the objectives of this trip?

A. It is indeed the first time in 200 years as a republic that a Colombian president conducts a state visit there. In this particular case it holds some personal importance as I lived in England for 10 years and greatly appreciate the UK. This will also be the only state visit of the year, and it is the first time in a long time this has happened. And this year it will also be the first one since Brexit.

There is a lot of interest from the UK and Colombia to strengthen diverse aspects of trade and investment. For example, we are going to sign a double-taxation treaty to hopefully promote investment and establish clearer rule games.

England and the UK have a lot of what Colombia needs and I think we have a lot of what they need, so there is an important complementary factor that we are going to take advantage of to be able to generate synergies within this relation, which has been very good. The UK and England have supported us a lot, not only in the peace process but also in other fields like security, intelligence, education, innovation and technology, so there is now a lot that we can advance in other countries.


Q. Mr. President, in conclusion, we started by discussing Ibero-American Summits and one last question: It has been 25 years and there has been a lot of progress in relations between countries that form part of the community. But do you think that there could be something more we could do, be a bit more brave and take a step forward so that the summits are no longer simply testimonial and generate real results?

A. I remember I went to the second summit (in Madrid 1992) which happened when Spain was inaugurating the Seville EXPO92 Fair. I went as substitute of President Gaviria, who could not attend because Pablo Escobar had just escaped from prison. I went to the Seville Fair and on Colombia Day I got to inaugurate the high speed train. Much water has run under bridges since then.

There are generally so many summits that they have lost strength, which is why, for example, we decided we would not organize one every year, but one every two years so that any decision made can be thought through and there can be a greater consensus. I think that we could identify the common denominators we can work together on and make summits more effective, which we can all gain from, but there are indeed too many summits and the quantity has affected the quality.


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