In Colombia, a Nobel peace prize that divides

Friday's awarding of the Nobel to Colombia's president gives him new momentum to try to renegotiate a peace deal with the FARC that voters rejected. But it also reinforces opposition concerns about international meddling in domestic affairs.

John Vizcaino/Reuters
Colombia's President Juan Manuel Santos addresses the media next to his wife and first lady, Maria Clemencia de Santos, after winning the Nobel Peace Prize, in Bogotá, Colombia, Oct. 7, 2016.

Friday’s announcement that Juan Manuel Santos had won the Nobel Peace Prize enhances the international reputation of the Colombian president and should provide a boost to his efforts to renegotiate a failed peace deal with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (or FARC).

But here in Colombia, the announcement has elicited separate responses, illustrating the widening social divisions regarding how to conclude the 52-year conflict. While the prize bolsters national pride (Colombia has only won one other Nobel: Gabriel García Márquez, for literature), it also reinforces the perception among the peace deal’s opponents that President Santos cares more about his international reputation than those he was elected to lead. That perception, which has dogged Santos since the beginning of the peace process, threatens to harden opposition to any renegotiated agreement, especially if it does not address more forcefully concerns over leniency toward the rebels.

“He’s a traitor,” says María, a No voter in Bogotá who asked that her full name not be used. “He’s arrogant and he doesn’t care about Colombians, just what all the US and the Nobel prize people think of him.”

“They have to understand that peace is for us, between Colombians, not for them,” says Daniel Garcia, a No voter in Medellín who, like many Colombians, takes issue with parts of the deal that allow rebels to avoid jail time for atrocities if they confess to their crimes to a special tribunal.

“These are terrorists and they have to pay with jail,” he adds. “To achieve a real peace, divisions in the country must be bridged and that isn’t done with a big show for world leaders.”

Even moderates have criticized Santos for failing to reach out to opposition voters during peace talks – voters he now needs.

“He left them behind during the negotiations,” says Rafael Fernández de Castro, a professor of public affairs and international relations at Syracuse University in New York. “Santos has not showed himself to be a skillful politician … but now he must understand that those radical No voters are a necessary evil if the accord is to pass.”

The deal to end the longest war in the Americas, a war that has left 220,000 dead and nearly 7 million displaced, was painstakingly negotiated over four years in Cuba. On Sept. 26, Santos and the FARC signed a peace deal in an elaborate ceremony attended by United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, US Secretary of State John Kerry, and hundreds of diplomats and heads of state. Polls suggested the deal would easily get approval in an Oct. 2 referendum.

Instead, a razor-thin majority (50.2 percent) of voters rejected the agreement.

The surprise rejection exposed political fault lines in Colombia and strengthened the hand of former president Álvaro Uribe, who had led the opposition to the peace agreement.

But his position may have been weakened Wednesday when the manager of the No campaign revealed that they deliberately sought to misinform and spread fear. Former Sen. Juan Carlos Velez told La República newspaper that the aim of the campaign was "to get people to vote while angry." He also revealed that one of the country's major television networks had contributed to the campaign.

With each passing day, social movements in support of the peace deal are gaining momentum. On Wednesday, 30,000 people marched through Bogotá to Congress to demand a swift resolution to the talks. Similar marches have taken place across the country.

On Thursday night, people began camping in tents in the historic Plaza de Bolívar, where they plan to remain until a deal is reached. Now, there are 50 tents, with more supporters arriving daily.

The Nobel prize offers international legitimacy to such protests and reinforces Santos' message that a negotiated solution to the conflict is best. Indirectly, it may also put Mr. Uribe in a political bind.

“The peace prize may harden the anti-Santos die-hards who represent perhaps 30 percent of the electorate,” Adam Isacson, senior associate for regional security policy at the Washington Office on Latin America, writes in an email. But “if the peace process collapses in Colombia, Uribe will get most of the blame."

"He has to deal with the Pottery Barn rule: ‘You broke it, you bought it,’ " Mr. Isacson says. "He knows that. If he digs in – trying to harden the parts of the accord that were the most difficult to negotiate in the first place – he will cause the talks to fail.”

That may be a prize Uribe will decide to decline, if he wants to broaden his political appeal beyond the deal's most ardent opponents.

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