What’s next for peace in Colombia, after Santos’ Nobel win?

Colombia's president faces an uphill battle over a peace on which he has staked his legacy.

John Vizcaino/Reuters
After winning the Nobel Peace Prize, Colombia's President Juan Manuel Santos gestures while talking to people who worked for the peace accord to be approved in the recent referendum, at Narino Palace in Bogota, Colombia, on Oct. 7, 2016.

Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos has a Nobel. The bigger prize is still out of reach.

"This honorable distinction isn’t for me, it’s for all of the victims of the conflict," wrote Mr. Santos in a Twitter post on Friday. "Together we will win the most important prize of all: PEACE."

The Nobel committee's decision was partly designed to urge onward a president who seemed to be flagging in his public appearances after his peace deal with the FARC rebels – a mammoth, five-part series of accords brokered over four grinding years – was voted down in a public referendum.

"The committee hopes that the Peace Prize will give him strength to succeed in this demanding task," chairwoman Kaci Kullman Five said in Oslo, awarding the prize to Santos. 

The prize has buoyed spirits among the peace deal's supporters.

"The story is a curious one: on Monday, we wept with sadness and bewilderment; today, we weep with happiness," said writer Héctor Abad Faciolince.

It remains unclear how profound of an effect the prize will have – not just on Colombia’s political classes, but also with FARC fighters in the field, and the Colombian public itself.

In an interview with Colombia’s El Tiempo newspaper, Guatemalan indigenous rights activist Rigoberta Menchú – the last Nobel Peace Prize winner from Latin America – sounded optimistic about what the prize would mean for the public, whose deeply mixed feelings about the accords were reflected in low turnout for the referendum.

"I think that the call here is for the more than 60 percent of Colombians that didn’t make their voices heard in the plebiscite. I see it as a way of awakening that enthusiasm," she told the paper.

"It’s a way for Colombians to think about their own process and take a leading role in their own process, so this is a prize with a lot of historical importance compared to others received."

The government has returned swiftly to work. Negotiators in Havana have met with their counterparts from the FARC, and both have agreed to renew a ceasefire to last until at least through the end of the month. A separate team from Santos’ cabinet also met this week with former president Alvaro Uribe in the first of a series of meetings with opposition leaders who headed the campaign against the accords.

That campaign may have resonated most deeply with the public on two aspects of the accord: one that allowed FARC leaders accused of war crimes to receive alternative forms of punishment if they confess, rather than jail time; and another that ensured the FARC’s participation in electoral politics. Any renegotiated deal that doesn’t alter the existing accord on those points, says Michael Weintraub, associate professor of governance at the University of the Andes in Bogota, could potentially be unacceptable to the opposition. 

But "the sheer act of participation" from the opposition, Dr. Weintraub tells The Christian Science Monitor, could also bring significant legitimacy to a deal, "even if it looks exactly as it does today."

"Some of this has to do with the optics," he says. "If they can look like the party that swoops in, makes things right, and can collect the mantle," it might mean that the renegotiated deal might not be terribly different in substance, but sufficient to get the endorsement of conservative opponents – and perhaps, enough to convince those members of the public who voted against it.

The longer the process drags out, though, the greater the likelihood that members of the FARC’s rank and file, and the Colombian public, could lose faith in it.

And the very fact of the existing accord’s design, which emphasized the integration of an enormous variety of economic and social elements, might pose an issue in renegotiations, says Virginia Bouvier, a senior adviser for peace processes at the United States Institute of Peace.

"At least the first two years" of the process in Havana "were trust-building between the sides: recognizing what the other side’s fears were, understanding the interests behind the positions on the table," Dr. Bouvier tells the Monitor.

Even if the public approves a new deal, however, a deeper sense of national reconciliation may not be immediately at hand.

"We can’t expect overnight change in the minds of the Colombian public that, these folks were not terrorists, they were citizens just like you and me. How could we possible expect in one month’s time that people would make that change?" she asks. 

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