Juan Manuel Santos: “All peace processes are imperfect”

Colombia’s president discusses the accord reached with the FARC to end 52 years of war

Throughout the afternoon of August 23, Colombia’s President Juan Manuel Santos was following the final phase of four years of negotiations with the leftist rebels of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), aimed at securing peace after five decades of conflict in the South American country. Around 6.45pm, Santos received a phone call from Foreign Minister María Ángela Holguín. “We’ve just finished,” she told him.

Juan Manuel Santos after the interview aboard the presidential plane.
Juan Manuel Santos after the interview aboard the presidential plane.CAMILO ROZO

More information

“It’s been a very difficult four years, and we were close to throwing in the towel. But this is an agreement that will change the history of Colombia. It’s been hard, but building peace is going to be harder,” Santos told EL PAÍS in this exclusive interview given aboard the presidential plane.

In the run-up to a referendum to be held on October 2, Santos must convince Colombians that the peace deal with the FARC can work. Before then, an official signing ceremony is to take place in the capital of Bogota on September 26 to be attended by regional leaders.

Question. Your chief negotiator, Humberto de la Calle, has said he would like to have achieved more. What more would you like to have accomplished?

Answer. De la Calle said what many people thought, myself included. In an agreement of this type, there are always many people who will be unhappy. I’m sure that the majority of Colombians would have wanted more justice for those responsible for war crimes. But our goal was always to reach the maximum justice that a peace deal would allow. All peace processes are imperfect.

Q. The government and the FARC have agreed to set up a special jurisdiction for peace, which will hold trials of those accused of crimes against humanity. After half a century of war, how long will it take to set those trials up?

A. We have to be pragmatic and realistic. The court has to investigate the most important cases first, so as to inspire trust and so that people can see that justice is being done. But we should not deceive ourselves: it is impossible to deliberate over every case in a war that lasted 52 years.

Q. What is the main challenge ahead of the referendum on October 2?

A. To nullify four years of lies and disinformation that have confused a lot of people. We know that when we explain the accords to people they almost always say: “Ah, I didn’t know that, I had understood something else.” The challenge is to inform people properly.”

Q. How are you going to do that in four weeks if you couldn’t do so in four years?

A. Our campaign will be intensive but simple. We’re going to achieve this. Perhaps we won’t convince everybody, because we would have liked more time, but I think it will be enough to win the referendum by a wide margin.

Q. The political elite in Colombian society has not been affected by the violence in recent years, yet most of them oppose the peace process; while those who have been affected accuse politicians of being out of touch. Which of the two groups will you be paying the most attention to?

A. The attitude of the victims has been one of the great lessons we have learned from this conflict. I thought they would be the hardest, but they have been the most generous, those most prepared to forgive. I don’t understand how my fellow politicians from the elite, because that is where I come from, are able to tell so many lies about the benefits of peace.

Q. Does it bother you?

A. I find it sad that there are people who don’t understand how important it is to move forward and leave a peaceful country to our children. This is about politics. A lot of people are thinking about the elections in 2018. But when you think in purely political terms, you distort reality. I am also saddened by the hatred and envy so many of these people are able to generate. This is what has brought Uribe and Pastrana [two former presidents] together.

Q. What happens if the referendum goes against you?

A. Simple: the guerrillas return to the jungle and the armed conflict continues.

English version by Nick Lyne.

More information