Juan Manuel Santos: The peace maker

In seeking to end 50 years of guerrilla fighting, president Juan Manuel Santos is treading a fine political line.

Juan Manuel Santos, Colombia’s president, during a popular event. Santos, in this interview, said: “There are many definitions of governance. The one I have is execution”.  / SIG-COLOMBIA
Juan Manuel Santos, Colombia’s president, during a popular event. Santos, in this interview, said: “There are many definitions of governance. The one I have is execution”. / SIG-COLOMBIA

For much of his career, Juan Manuel Santos has waged war. Now, Colombia’s president is seeking peace. As he sits in the presidential palace in Bogotá, his tone is measured, his gestures controlled and his gaze calm from under slightly hooded eyes. It is the inscrutable mien of a practised poker player – which is fitting, because if politics is a poker game, Santos has recently gone all-in.

For the past 50 years, Colombia has been wracked by Latin America’s oldest guerrilla insurgency. But last September, Santos opened formal talks with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (the Farc) to try to find peace. Success would end a conflict that has become entwined with rightwing paramilitary groups, displaced millions and left thousands dead. As the Farc has also funded itself with narco-trafficking (although it denies this), peace has international ramifications too.

Yet many Colombians, following the failure of all other Farc peace talks, fear Santos in his pursuit of a successful deal has become more of a Chamberlain than a Churchill. Since the talks began, his popularity has slumped below 50 per cent.

Santos leans forward into the bright Andean sunlight streaming through the windows. Nervous presidential aides rustle their papers. On the wall, a portrait of a man on a rearing horse peers out of a grapeshot-ridden period of Colombian history. “I am not an appeaser. What I want is peace”, Santos says crisply, chopping the air with his hand. “Believe me, it is much harder to make peace than war”.

Santos knows whereof he speaks. As defence minister under Álvaro Uribe, the former president, he pounded the Farc’s 8,000 troops relentlessly. Not that this has stopped Uribe from since becoming one of Santos’s most relentless critics.

“No one has hit the Farc harder than I. But all wars have to end at some point, and that requires a negotiated solution,” Santos says. “That is why every military officer fights – so that there may be peace. Still, as I have always said, these talks have limits, and if peace is not possible we shall walk away”.

Having established the point, the emotional temperature in the room drops, his aides relax and the president resumes his inscrutable poise.

Santos, 61, studied at the London School of Economics and, like many well-bred Colombians, has a strand of anglophilia. Indeed, he is a “gent” in the English phrase. The nephew of a former president, his family owned the country’s newspaper of record, El Tiempo, until it was sold in 2007. He is cultivated and urbane, but remains grounded by drawing life lessons from poker.

“Truman and Roosevelt … liked to play”, he says. “It reminded them of everyday life and of governing, that you need to know the rules of the game, when to risk, who your rivals are, and that you need luck and vision in order to win”.

More than anything, though, Santos is groomed for power. He has worked as a minister of trade, of finance and of defence. Before government, he was a journalist and set up a think-tank dedicated to the knotty theme of good governance.

On paper, therefore, few presidents anywhere are as well prepared for the job, including its potential pitfalls. Santos did not need to open the peace talks – continuing to fight would have been the easier path politically. But the stars were aligned, especially after Cuba urged the Marxist Farc to give up its anachronistic armed struggle. So Santos took a calculated risk. As he says, “the potential returns are so high”.

Peace would certainly be a game changer for Colombia’s $390bn economy. “With peace, our economy would do better still,” says Santos.

Colombia is also a member of the Pacific Alliance, a promising $1,200bn trade bloc that includes Mexico, Chile and Peru and is characterised by liberal-minded instincts. Santos is proud if characteristically diplomatic about comparisons with South America’s more protectionist Atlantic economies, such as Brazil and Argentina. “You will never hear me denigrating other countries”, he says. “But it is true we are faster-growing. We also share the same beliefs about the importance of foreign investment and rule of law”.

Yet peace, for all its merits, would also bring challenges. For one, incorporating demobilised guerrillas into national politics could see Colombia’s traditionally centre-right politics swing to the left. That prospect might sit comfortably with the patrician Santos – “I’m a third way kind of guy” – but not with all Colombians, many of whom associate leftwing politics with terrorists. “There cannot be peace with total immunity, so there has to be a process of transitional justice. But where do you draw the line between justice and peace?” he says. “This is the common dilemma of every country that wants to solve a conflict like ours … Still, as [a prominent international prosecutor] said, justice cannot be an obstacle for peace, anywhere, at any time”.

Even if polls suggest that public support for the peace process is growing, this is the kind of talk that so riles Santos’s domestic opponents. It can also feed fears, especially in the business community, that peace could one day unleash a wave of political populism.

Bogotá is a city of glittering skyscrapers and busy shopping centres with an up-and-coming middle class, but to its south are areas such as Ciudad Bolívar, a series of once-green rolling hills now covered with grey shanty towns. Meanwhile Cartagena, on the Caribbean coast, is a colonial jewel that thrums with well-heeled tourists. But around the city live hardscrabble populations displaced by violence from the interior.

Santos – his government’s Tony Blair-esque motto is “Prosperity for All” – has unleashed programmes to combat poverty and inequality. But advancing the agenda has been easier said than done, prompting the criticism that Santos, the former newspaperman, “governs with headlines” and does not follow through.

“There are many definitions of governance. The one I have is execution”, he responds, bristling slightly. He points to the fact that ministries have spent more of their allocated budgets in the past two years than in the past 15, although as he adds, a tough new anti-corruption law has produced inertia in a newly fearful bureaucracy. “We went too far, perhaps [with that bill]”, he says.

At the same time, the economy has come off the boil. A wave of oil and mining investment has brought signs of “Dutch disease”, including an appreciated currency that has punished manufacturers, a major source of employment, as well as agriculture. Although the economy is growing at around 4 per cent, “some sectors are not doing very well”, Santos admits. (He announced a stimulus package two weeks after this interview).

Then there is his management style. This is more chairman of the board than chief executive. His cabinet, perhaps the most competent in South America, is stuffed with capable technocrats. But critics say this is not always matched by their ability to get things done – and there is so much Santos wants them to do: from tax, education, health, pension and justice reforms to trade liberalisation. And all that before even thinking about peace.

This, critics say, is the Achilles heel of his programme: it is too ambitious and too broad. “The number of reforms passed, and their quality, make us probably the most progressive government in the past century”, Santos responds.

He reels off statistics: a drop in inequality; 200km of new double-lane roads built last year and 300km this year (“comparable to Spain at its best moment”); and reparations paid to more than 170,000 victims of violence.

His reform list, though, forces a question on many Colombian minds: with so much still to do, surely he will run again for president in 2014? Santos says he will not decide until November, that he is unattached to power and would just as much be a teacher as president. “Some people think that being in this position is very agreeable”, he says. “I must tell you that sometimes it is very difficult”.

There is no reason to disbelieve him, until the subject of completing the peace process – his potential marker in history – comes up. Domestic opponents say Santos needs a peace deal to launch his re-election bid. A more interesting question, though, is whether peace needs him. After all, signing a deal is only half the process – implementing it will be harder still.

“If peace is possible I would be very irresponsible to my country and future generations if I put in jeopardy that possibility”, he says. It is unclear whether this suggests ambivalence about running again or a hint that he will – perhaps both.

Santos is a Bogotá Brahmin who came to office after deep thought about what Colombia needs – but has been frustrated, perhaps, in the state’s ability to execute those plans. He leaves the impression of a reasonable man seeking to govern a remarkable but also highly unreasonable country.

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