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Nieman’s 80th Anniversary Reunion Weekend

Transcript: A conversation with Juan Manuel Santos

Gene Robinson: We’re here to introduce President Santos whom we do not know as President Santos. We know him as Juan Manuel. That’s who he was. He is Juan Manuel. We knew we met Juan Manuel not as a statesman, certainly not as a Nobel Prize winner, but as a journalist.

Juan Manuel’s family owned, operated, and worked at the best newspaper in Colombia, “El Tiempo.” This was during the time of the drug wars in Colombia. It is difficult to remember and really to imagine the bravery that it took to do what Juan Manuel and his family did in those years.

I remember right after my Nieman year, I became the post correspondent in South America. I had a secret weapon in Colombia, which is Juan Manuel. Rosental had the same secret weapon.

I remember my first trip to Colombia. I knew nothing. I could barely speak pidgin Spanish. I knew nothing. I dropped in and see Juan Manuel. He’s like, “Don’t worry.” He organized a meeting of all of these up and coming future leaders of Colombia.

We all went out to this ranch outside of Bogota. He arranged this whole thing, sat down, and just offered to explain Colombia to me. I know there was a future defense minister there who’s a future Mayor of Bogota, a future Colombian Ambassador to the US.

The US Ambassador to Colombia was there, too. Of course, the future President of Colombia was there. I got a wonderful education on Colombia. In other trips, I got a different kind of education in Colombia.

I remember me being in Bogota when the newspaper “El Espectador,” the competitor, was blown up or an attempt was made to blow up the newspaper ‑‑ a car bomb ‑‑ right in front of the paper. That was the kind of daily risk that his family undertook.

His family was shocked and dismayed when he became a turncoat and went into politics instead of journalism, but that worked out OK.

They finally came around, I think, when he became vice president. They said, “Well, OK, Juan Manuel. It’s OK,” and of course when he became president.

I think his approach and the great accomplishment of the peace agreement in Colombia ‑‑ I always thought that Juan Manuel approached it with journalistic values and an almost journalistic method, which involved fact‑finding and dealing with the reality on the ground as it was rather than the reality as one’s ideology or one’s beliefs wanted to make it.

I really think journalism was responsible for your Nobel Prize, Juan Manuel.

Rosental Alves: I think that Harvard and the Nieman was also very, very important in that, and I am sure that in the conversation that we’re going to listen now, this will come up and I also want to introduce Margarita. She’s not from the best Nieman class ever, but…

Margarita Martinez: The second best. [laughs]

Alves: …the second best. As you know, she has had a tremendous access to all this negotiation process, the Mission Impossible that Juan Manuel made possible of ending the longest armed conflict in our hemisphere.

This was really something that you have to be very brave, very risk‑taker to start a negotiation like that in Colombia, a very divided country, after thousands and thousands of deaths becoming the normal.

It has to take a lot of courage for someone from the presidency of Colombia taking this kind of risk and I commend Juan Manuel for that.

Juan Manuel Santos:  Thank you.

Martinez: I’m just going to jump in. With all this distinguished audience, no one has had twists and turns in their lives like you do. You started as a journalist, a Nieman Fellow, a politician, president, Nobel Peace Prize. How’d all this shift came about? [laughs] The Nieman had something to do with it?

Santos: First of all, thank you for inviting me. It’s a great honor to be here. As I’ve been saying, 30 years ago I was here as a Nieman Fellow and since then I’ve been repeating myself ‑‑ the best year of my life was the Nieman.

Margarita’s asked me, what happened? What ticked you off to do what I did on the peace process? The Nieman Fellowship had a lot to do with it.

This story started 50 years ago. When I was in the Navy, I was a cadet and the officer gave me a sailboat with two other cadets and said, “Go and sail.” We didn’t know what to do and we jumped in and the wind really was a big problem.

Then he said, “To learn how to sail, you have to have, like in life, like in everything, a port of destiny. If you have a goal, then you can use the winds to get there,” and then he taught me how to sail.

That lesson has been very important in my life, and many years later, I was a Nieman Fellow. I invited Howard Fineman to Colombia. That was 1988, in the middle of the war. He took a friend ‑‑ a great man, Thomas Winship.

He was the former editor for two decades of “The Boston Globe.” Here there was a former managing director of the Washington Post, former editor of the Boston Globe in Colombia. I invited them to small house that we have about 70 miles from Bogota. Micro‑climate.

They went there. We went to sleep. Next morning, I woke up and I said, “Where are my American friends?” The person that was with us said, “Oh, they left about three hours ago. They went walking.” “Walking?” “Yes. They were walking in the forest, in the jungle.” I said, “My God.”

I started waiting for them. It was about 8:00 in the morning, 9:00, 10:00, 11:00. I was, “My God. What am I going to tell the American people?”

“That these two very important journalists had been kidnapped by the guerrillas.” Suddenly, they appeared. They were completely sunburned, but with a smile from ear to ear. Big smile both of them.

Both of them were passionate bird watchers. Colombia is a country in the world that has the largest amount of species of birds. More than Brazil, Rosental.

They knew that. That’s why they accepted my invitation to go to Colombia. They said, “We had never, never seen so many birds in such a short period of time.” They brought out their cameras, and their notebooks.

Then Howard said, “You know, this could be a paradise for bird watchers, but you would never have a large number because of your war. You must stop the war.” That was 1988.

Three years later, I changed my profession. I went to public office. I renounced my status of journalist. Sometimes I say, “I’m sorry I did that.”

I was the first minister of foreign trade. I had to open the economy. I went to New York. I remember very well. There was a former chemical bank that organized a big conference. We were in the middle of the conference. I went there to sell Colombia. We wanted to attract investors.

Suddenly, in the middle of the conference, we got news of a big, huge bomb in the commercial center of Bogota. Of course, the conference collapsed. The idea of selling Colombia simply disappeared. One of the CEOs of a big company that was present, he came to me and said, “Minister, if you ever want to really have big investment in Colombia, you must stop the war.”

Since then, I started saying, “We must stop the war.” I started studying all the peace process around the world. What could be applicable to Colombia, and the peace process that we in Colombia had tried to make that failed, and learn the lessons from each process. That sort of gave me an idea of what to do. How to go about seeking a process that could be successful.

I discovered a series of conditions that had to be created. Necessary conditions for successful peace process. For example, you needed that the correlation of military forces was in the favor, the upper hand was in the hands of the state. That the commanders of the guerrillas personally had to be convinced that for them, their personal lives would be better to seek peace than to continue war.

You had to get the region to support the peace process. In today’s world, any asymmetrical war, no matter where in the world, needs regional support to be solved. Conflict, non‑conflict needs regional support.

That’s why I had to make peace with Chavez in Venezuela, and Correa in Ecuador, and with Lula in Brazil. We were the black sheep, and I had to convert that into completely opposite of rallying support.

Another very important condition was to recognize your adversary. Your enemy. You have to dignify him. To bring to the table in a dignified way. That was very difficult, but we did that. Those four conditions were necessary. They were implemented slowly but surely. Those were the basis for the process.

Of course, the victims became a crucial element in the process. Again, Harvard helped me in that. Professor Heifetz, professor of Kennedy School of Leadership, he went at the very beginning of my presidency. I met him many times before.

He said, “President Santos, you’re doing something which is going to be very difficult. Extremely difficult. And you’re going to feel disillusioned, willing to throw in the towel, and simply go away and not to persevere. Whenever that happens, talk to the victims. Talk to the victims because they will re‑energize you.”

I did that as a matter of discipline. I chose certain moment in every week, and I chose different victims that I invited them to my office to ask. I asked them, “Tell me your story.” Those were the most terrible dramas that you heard, but then they all said at the end, “President, you must persevere. You must continue. We don’t want other people to suffer what I suffered.”

That was extremely, extremely important. I stopped there and…

Martinez:  You were an unlikely leader of a peace process because you have been a defense minister of very rivaling government. Under President Uribe, Ecuador had been bombed to kill a very important guerrilla commander. We had really bad relationships with Venezuela that was a leftist government. You were a very strong and decisive minister of defense.

How a very effective, in terms of war, minister of defense becomes a leader of a peace process that it was, as Rosental said, mission impossible three times. For 50 years, Colombia had this war. They had three failed attempts, and each attempt brought even more violence. How did it happen?

Santos: One of the conditions that I said was the military correlation of forces in favor of the state. I was a very successful minister of defense in the war against the FARC. That also had to do with the strategic goal and the intelligence. I went to seek out help with the British intelligence. I came to Washington to seek help with the American intelligence. They helped me.

We started also to strengthen the military armed forces. That was a necessary condition to bring the FARC to the table and have a successful negotiation. The switch was something that people did not understand. It was very hard politically. I got elected as a successful hawk.

I was the most successful minister of defense. I had a series of high‑value targets other than we either arrested or killed. When I got elected, I said, “Now, what we’re going to go to a peace process.” People did not understand. They started calling me traitor, that I had been elected to eliminate every single guerrilla, which was impossible.

When I said, “No, now is the moment to sit down and start a peace process,” people did not understand. It was very difficult for me to explain to them that the way to end the war was through a peace process. I remember very well one of the international advisors that helped me in the process, his name is Shlomo Ben‑Ami. He was a former minister of foreign affairs of Israel.

One of the architects of the Camp David agreement who said to me, “President Santos, you can continue the war. You were elected with the highest number of votes in the Colombian history and you have more than 80 percent favorability in the polls. You can continue for the rest of your government and maintain that popularity.

Or, you can start a peace process. Lose all your political capital, even maybe your life, like happened to Rabin and to Sadat. That is the only way you will end the war.” I decided to follow his advice of going to the difficult path. That’s how we ended the war.

Martinez: Just a little bit of context so the peace process was four years. President Santos called for a referendum for the Colombian people to say yes or no. Talking about binaries, we just talked to one of the professors. How can someone lose a referendum on peace?

Santos: Have you heard of fake news?

Martinez: That’s too easy.

Santos: That was a big blow. I never thought. When I started the process, many people were afraid. They said, “No, Santos is going to give the country away to the communists, to the Venezuelans.” There was a lot of criticism because I switched from being a hawk to being a dove.

One of the steps I took was to promise the Colombian people that I would, at the end, put the agreement to a referendum. That’s what I did, at the very end. Everybody advised me against it. Two weeks before, the Brexit had happened. The constitutional court offered me a way out. I said, “No, no, this is a promise I have to keep.”

I was quite confident. All the polls showed that the yes was going to win by a large margin. Unfortunately, Hurricane Matthew appeared and touched Colombia. Colombia usually is not touched by hurricanes. This time, the whole of the north of Colombia, the same day of the referendum was really flooded by the Matthew.

We lost about four million votes of the north of Colombia which were very favorable to me. Basically, the No vote was induced by a very successful campaign of fake news saying that the agreement will end military and that the new policemen would be the FARC guerrillas. That we’re going to take the money from pensions to subsidize the guerrilla movements, all kinds of fake news.

We lost by a tiny margin, less than one and a half percent, but we lost. We’d been negotiating for six years. We had already signed the peace agreement. This is a war that has costed more than eight and a half million victims. The longest war in the American hemisphere with the most powerful guerrilla.

I can’t really simply have this disappear. I said, “Let’s try to find a way to strengthen the agreement.” I asked the leaders of the No vote, “OK, why don’t we sit down? What are your objections? You can’t be against peace. You said you wanted peace, but you have another peace.” I got a list of their objections.

Then, I renegotiated with the FARC in Cuba, a double negotiations. We were able to incorporate about 95 percent of the suggestions that the No vote had tabled. We, then, presented that new agreement to Congress, which was the way that I should have done since the beginning. I was not obliged to put the agreement to a referendum. The congress approved it by a huge majority.

Then we had, at the end, a better agreement, a stronger agreement. Of course, I still am accused of betraying the democratic rules by not abiding by the referendum. The constitutional court gave me that option and I took it. I thought peace was much more important than anything else.

Martinez: When you think back, there are many lessons to learn. I was always [inaudible 25:47] but how poor, for a president that has been a journalist, the communications of the peace process were. Among the lessons, is that one of the lessons you have?

Santos: Definitely, yes. When you look back and say, “What went wrong?” The information, the communication. What happened? A peace process is like an artist painting his work of art. The artist doesn’t want the people to see the work of art when it’s 25 or 50 percent. It’s when it’s complete. We had established a procedure, which is very common, that nothing is agreed until everything’s agreed.

We decided to apply that in our information to the press. We will not inform about the peace process until we have an agreement. If you analyze the different segments of the peace process by themselves, they were going to be very unpopular. “Oh, you’re giving the guerrillas a judiciary benefit,” or, “You’re giving them a space in the Congress.”

It was much better to wait to have all the package and then say, “This is the cost of peace and this is the benefit of peace. And, as usual, the benefits of peace is going to be much bigger than the cost of peace.” That did not work out. Then the opponents of the peace process started to fill in the vacuum.

They started saying, “Oh, Santos is selling the country. He has already sacrificed private property. The industries are going to be nationalized.” The fake news again. People started to get very nervous. We had to undo our policy and decided to start informing, almost on a daily basis, what was happening.

When you inform, on a daily basis, what is happening, you get a lot of different interpretations because you only get a part of what the whole package is. That was a big cost for the process. At the very end, when we had all the package ready, the perception of many people was different from what the final package was.

We had to start doing a campaign of explaining the peace process. That took time. We still, today, are in that process. That was a major challenge. I think it’s one of the most difficult challenges of any peace process. No peace process in the world has been successful in their communications.

The worst thing you can do is through trying to stop the information going out. Even worse is trying to censure some kind of information. It’s a cost that you have to live within any peace process.

Martinez: I covered this for many years, for almost five years now. You said several times that you had to had a skin of a crocodile because it was incredibly hard, the opposition and what you were doing against the country that had lived with war for so long that it seems like the normal way of living. Can you elaborate on that?

Santos: Yes. You have to have a thick skin. It’s difficult. For example, I decided to follow, what I call the Rabin doctrine. Rabin, when he sat down with Arafat, he said, “I will sit down with Arafat to negotiate the peace process as if there is no terrorism in the Middle East, but I will fight terrorism as if there is no peace process.”

I decided to apply that same doctrine in the peace process. I talk with my adversaries, my enemies as if there’s no war, but I continue the war as if there is no peace process. Separate the two. This is very difficult.

For example, one of the many difficult situations was a massacre that they fought, the guerrillas, committed in the southern country. They killed about 16 soldiers and wounded another 30. The country was really in uproar.

My sons and my wife said, “You can’t continue this. You have to stop.” I said, “No. I have to continue because it’s exactly what I want to stop is these things repeating themselves more and more. You have to persevere.” I told my kids, I told my wife, and I told the Colombian people, “No, no. On the contrary, the rules were made by me. This is what war is. This is what we have to end.”

To explain that is very difficult. To receive the criticism on a daily basis is very difficult. But when you’re absolutely clear of what you want, when you have this port of destiny quite clear, then you have to continue no matter what happens.

My polls, of course, came down terribly. I remember both great leaders, Churchill and Abraham Lincoln sometime in their lives said, “You must do what is correct, not what is popular.” And I persevered.

Martinez: Do you think that history would recognize you as…Sometimes I feel like Mikhail Gorbachev is so widely recognized internationally, and in his own country, not so much. Do you think maybe that’s something that could happen to you? You just recently left the presidency, so we don’t know but…

Santos: I don’t want to compare myself to Gorbachev [inaudible 33:00] .

But, no. I think the people are understanding that it’s better to live in peace than to live in war. In a month and a half, my polls have gone up tremendously.

I am quite happy.

Martinez: We’ll see. [laughs]

Santos: This type of processes, you need to allow things to settle down. The peace process in Northern Ireland, for example. I don’t know how many of you have seen the movie called “The Voyage.” It’s a conversation between the two leaders, two sides.

At the very end ‑‑ this is a true story ‑‑ they said to each other, “Do you understand that our people, your people and my people, will say that we’re traitors, but the world will applaud us?” That happened to Mandela also.

President Clinton sent me a book about his speeches, and he underlined an anecdote that he told. That Mandela called him once and said, “President Clinton, they are really tearing me apart. They’re criticizing me a lot.” He said, “Who, the people who had leaders on the upper side?” “No, no. My own people.”

This is a cost of the peace process. This happens everywhere. In Salvador, it happened. In Guatemala, it happened. In Sri Lanka, it happened. Then afterwards people realize that what you did is the best possible solution. Any peace process is not a perfect peace process. Any peace process, you have to decide where to draw the line between peace and justice.

Always, there are people who would like more peace, or others who would like more justice. There will always be people who are not satisfied. In the long run, it must be real and logic, and the classic people say it’s much better to have peace than to have war.

Martinez: It seems obvious, but [laughs] not for [inaudible 35:23] . Can you tell this audience what’s the status now of the peace agreement? There’s a new government. The right‑wing part, the extreme right‑wing party is now in power. They have been in power for a couple of months. Do you feel anguish about what is going to happen with that legacy?

Santos: A bit, but not too much. Why? We were very careful in trying to make this process irreversible. Fortunately, we were in a way able to do that.

Our constitutional court, which is the highest court and it would not be changed in the next four years, when they accept the peace process and they gave their blessing to peace process said for the next three presidential periods, there cannot be any law or any reform that goes against the implementation of the agreement.

Second, this peace process is very sui generis. Usually, the peace processes are limited to what they call the DDR. It’s demobilization, disarmament, and reintegration of the insurgency into civil and political life.

That part, the DDR, has already been accomplished. They gave up their arms to the United Nations. They demobilized, and they are now reintegrated into civil life, and into political life. We gave them five seats in the Senate, five seats in the House of Representatives, and they are right now being politicians.

You can summarize the peace process in a photograph that was published this year in the elections. The commander of the FARC, for the first time, went to vote in his life. Never voted before. Alone, disarmed, as a member and leader of a political party. That changed the bullets for the votes.

We added two very original things in this peace process. One is it’s the first peace process that is negotiated under the umbrella of what is called the Statute of Rome. This is a international agreement which was negotiated to facilitate the resolution of armed conflicts.

No other agreement has been negotiated under the umbrella of the Statute of Rome. We decided to do that. We brought in the International Penal Court. We approached the process with a human rights approach. At the same time, the Constitution of Colombia had to be taken into account.

All these elements are present. We had gave ourselves 15 years to implement the transitional justice. It’s a special court that has already been formed. It’s already working. There will be no impunity with war crimes and crimes against humanity. The most responsible of these crimes will be judged, sanctioned, and condemned.

This is very unique peace process where two sides negotiate a special transitional justice system, and accept to be judged by the system. At the same time, we negotiated development plans, 15 years development plan, 16 development plans for the areas that were more affected by the conflict.

For 50 years, many areas, the state simply did not go there because we couldn’t go there. They are very rich areas that are completely abandoned. We have 16 development plans drawn up by the community to be implemented in the next 16 years. This is the big challenge.

The new government started saying that they’re going to tear the peace agreement apart. Then they realized that this impossible legally and politically. People will not accept going back. Nobody can imagine the FARC going back to the mountain and continue the war.

They can sabotage part of the implementation of the development plans, but again the people of those regions are claiming, “No, no. we want those money. We want that development to come to our regions.” That’s why I say this peace is irreversible. What we’re seeing in these two months is that the government has realized that there’s no way that they can change what has been agreed.

Martinez: There are at least two big problems. Some of the guerrillas are going back into units or into the jungle again. The beginning was 10 percent. Now the last statistic is 18 percent. And were again full of coca leaves which has been the fuel for the war. How do you see those challenges for Colombia?

Santos: The drug issue is a very important issue that is very related to the war and to the peace process. I forced the FARC to accept, as one of the items of the agenda, the relationship with the drug trafficking. They didn’t want to accept because they have always said, “We are not drug traffickers. We tax drug traffickers. That’s how we finance the war.”

They protected the coca cultivation, and I said, “No, you must accept not only that you will cut all the links to the drug trafficking, but you will help the persons to substitute illegal crops for legal crops.” It was a very difficult negotiation but finally we agreed that.

We started implementing that. The FARC are helping in the regions that they used to control this substitution of illegal crops for legal crops. Something happened in the last two and a half, three years. When we started talking about that, the people said, “Oh, there are going to be benefits for people who have coca plantations.” The coca plantations increased tremendously.

There was a perverse stimulus, but then we said OK, we need to have a structural solution because we have been spraying the coca plants for 30 years, with the help of the US. You spray it, and the day after, they replant it with more productivity. It’s like a static bicycle. You do all kinds of efforts, but you don’t progress.

That has happened in Colombia for the last 35 to 40 years. We have been the number one exporter of cocaine to the world markets. We have lost our best leaders, our best judges, our best policemen, our best journalists, and we still are number one.

The only we can solve that problem is to give the persons an alternative. The way to give the person an alternative is to go to the areas where the coca is grown and give them an alternative. That we could not do before because of the war. Now, we’re doing it.

This year, 2018, already 55,000 hectares have been withdrawn voluntarily and replaced by legal crops. At the same time, we’re are fortunately eradicating another 70,000. That’s 120,000 for this year. We have about 200,000 hectares in coca.

In one year, we will be able to decrease more than 50 percent of the coca production, but on a permanent basis. Not on a very short‑term basis as we did before. I hope that the government will continue to support this process because it’s the only way.

At the same time, we need to continue to stimulate the discussion worldwide, because 45 years ago in the United Nations, the war against drugs was declared. 45 years later, the war on drugs has not been won by the world.

We still have the same, or even a larger problem with drug trafficking in the world. One country, Colombia, cannot solve the problem. It has to be a multilateral problem. I am sorry that Samantha Power left. I wanted to thank her for her kind words and tell her we miss her. The world misses her.

The world misses the approach, for example, that Obama had with the drug issue. It’s a practical approach, a pragmatic approach. The purely punitive approach has failed. We have tried it. It doesn’t work. We need a much more pragmatic approach for the drug trafficking. That’s what we have to continue to discuss with the rest of the world.

The United States, as a main consumer of drugs, has to be present in that discussion but also the other countries, the Europeans and other countries that produce the drugs.

Martinez: Just last question then he’ll take a couple of questions. There’s a wave of nationalism, populism, despotism, in the world. Now you are not only a former president but a Noble Peace Price. What is your take on all this that is happening in the world?

Santos: It’s very worrisome because the extremes are taking over. The center, what you call liberal democracy, is weakening. The technology, in a way, is helping the process. You know this better than I do. You’re all journalists. How the social media in certain ways reemphasizes the extremes. Your followers are the ones who think like you do. Then you’re energized by that.

There is a process of polarization in almost every country in the world. The big challenge today is to see if we can, the law of the pendulum, we can again re‑energize the center. Re‑energize more pragmatic type of politics. Politics have always been a exercise of negotiation. It’s not black or white. It’s not a zero‑sum game. It’s you win a bit, I win a bit.

Unfortunately, the polarization has made politics a zero‑sum game. That makes the dialogue very difficult. More and more difficult. We need to reestablish this dialogue. To accept that other people think differently from what you think.

I’ll tell you an example with the FARC. This is a lesson that a Colombian general gave me. He said, when I started, “Treat them not as your enemies, but as your adversaries.” The word “enemy” means you have to annihilate them. You have to simply wipe them out. Your adversary, you have to simply beat him, but not kill him. They are human beings.

That approach was, for me, extremely important. In today’s world, the polarization, you have to start thinking in those terms. We are one world. We are one race, the human mankind. If we understand that, then we can talk to each other and we can agree on things.

Otherwise, if we continue polarizing then very important matters like climate change ‑‑ for me, it’s the most important challenge that we have today as humanity ‑‑ will simply not be able to have any success. Fight against climate change. What we’re seeing is precisely that.

The polarization is making those types of decisions more and more difficult. That’s what we have to try to reverse and find a common ground. Finding common ground is absolutely essential for successful politics.

Martinez: They tell me here that there are no questions that I misunderstood, or that there’s [inaudible 50:41]. Just one more question. What did you bring with you to Colombia from your Nieman year?

Santos: Rosental mentioned. I came here, recently married, and I had one whole year of honeymoon.

It was like a love story but without that favorite final.

It was a love story. I went back to Colombia re‑energized and really was the best year of my life. Journalism is something that I have in my blood. I was born with the smell of the ink, of the newsprint. My father, my grandfather, 100 years in the business. I miss being a journalist. It’s much better to be in this side, attacking, than in the other side, receiving.

Again, it was the best year. For the Niemans that are here, the new ones, it’s like a sponge. You just receive and receive, and it’s the best thing you can be, you can have in your life.

I remember Howard. He was a great person, great man. The anecdotes that he told us during his years at the “Washington Post.” His relationship with Ben Bradlee and Nixon. Fascinating anecdotes that I’m sure all of you have in different parts of the world and different parts of your experience.

I think one of the richest, most fulfilling programs in the world is Nieman Fellowship.

Martinez: Thank you. [laughs]