The news that Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos won the Nobel Peace Prize came as the second shock in a week to the Colombian people — including Santos.
The first shock came five days earlier, when Colombian voters rejected the peace agreement Santos had negotiated with the guerrilla group known as FARC, or the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia.
Practically no one expected Santos to win after voters had said «No» to his peace plan in last weekend’s referendum. Pollsters had incorrectly predicted a landslide victory for the agreement, and in the aftermath of its razor-thin defeat, the head of Peace Research Institute Oslo told journalists that, «Colombia is off any credible list.» So when Santos won the Nobel, the reaction, initially, was disbelief.
But the Nobel Peace Prize is not an emblem of solid, neatly wrapped-up achievement, as we have seen many times in the past. It is often an embrace of a cause; an aspirational encouragement; a sign that the international community strongly supports the goals and recognizes the efforts of the winner.
In that sense, Santos very much deserved the honor, as do the Colombian people. They value the encouragement — though all the evidence shows that Colombians are fully motivated to pursue peace, even without international honors.
Those who reported the «No» vote with a headline saying that Colombians had rejected peace got it wrong: Colombians do want peace.
The past few weeks in Colombia’s peace process have looked as if someone had scrambled the calendar. On September 26, world leaders gathered in the city of Cartagena for an exuberant celebration of a peace deal that had not yet been approved. And months ago Santos, along with FARC chief Rodrigo Londoño Echeverri, known better by his nom de guerre «Timochenko,» became favorites to win the Nobel. Then the deal was rejected by voters.
Yet ironically, lasting peace in Colombia is more likely now than it was before the referendum, in my view. At the time of the Cartagena signing, someone asked me if I thought Santos deserved the Nobel. My response then was that it would be premature. Now I think he stands a better chance of securing a reworked peace deal that will ensure a durable peace.
Colombians deeply yearn for peace after 52 years of war with FARC, but the deal as initially negotiated had serious flaws. Peace, if it is to last, requires a strong foundation.
Many cynics viewed the referendum campaign as a political match between Santos and his predecessor, former President Alvaro Uribe, who led a military campaign against FARC that turned the tide of the conflict. Uribe had once been a close ally of Santos but he became his nemesis. He led the push to reject the deal.
But it wasn’t only politicians pointing to dangerous flaws in the deal. Human Rights Watch warned that the agreement’s justice portions were woefully inadequate, allowing war criminals to escape punishment in contravention of international law. The head of HRW’s America’s division called the deal «naïve» and «built on a grotesque foundation of impunity.»
The deal negotiated by Santos and Timochenko simply gave too much to the FARC, and did too little to punish both FARC and those members of the Colombian military who may have committed war crimes.
FARC started in the 1960s, in the height of the Cold War, aiming to bring an end to Colombia’s terrible poverty through revolution. But over the years their ideological aims took a back seat to their criminal activities. They entered the drug business, and committed horrific crimes, including massacres, kidnappings, rapes, forced recruiting of child soldiers and much more. Their actions are responsible for enormous suffering in Colombia, including the displacement of millions of people. Most Colombians view them as criminals. By some counts, they are viewed sympathetically by only 3 percent of the population.
The peace agreement aims to bring them out of the jungle and into the political arena. But many Colombians are distraught by the deal’s guarantee that FARC will get ten seats in Congress before winning a single vote, and they want to make sure those guilty of serious crimes will be banned from office. Colombians also want FARC, which made enormous sums in kidnappings for ransom and drug trafficking, to use its funds to pay compensation to its victims, something the rejected agreement did not require.
The truly good news, better than the Nobel, is that the outcome of the referendum rejecting the agreement did not mark the end of the peace process.
All sides immediately said they are ready to get back to work. Santos quickly dispatched negotiators back to Cuba to talk to FARC.
FARC said «Peace is here to stay,» and Uribe said he and his party want to find a deal that negotiates «peace with justice.» He said he would support amnesty for the vast majority of FARC members, but those who committed the most serious crimes must be punished.
The path forward will not be easy. Santos had argued that the agreement that took four years to reach allowed for the most justice consistent with peace. It will be extremely difficult to convince FARC leaders that they should sign a deal that may put them in prison.
The decision by the Nobel committee was, at first glance, disconcerting. But it was not wrong.
The one true disappointment is about the group that was favored to win the Nobel this year: Syria’s White Helmets, volunteers who risk their lives rushing into the sites of attacks to try to save others, could have used a morale booster, as well as the money and recognition from the prize. Unlike the Syrians, Colombians have reason to be optimistic about the prospects for peace in their country.
Frida Ghitis is a world affairs columnist for The Miami Herald and World Politics Review, and a former CNN producer and correspondent. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.