Inspiring words from Colombia’s peacemaker

Posted on Thursday, November 2, 2017

Juan Manuel Santos.

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos speaking to more than 300 people at an event on campus presented by uOttawa’s Centre for International Policy Studies and the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs. Photos: Mélanie Provencher

By Kelly Haggart

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, winner of the 2016 Nobel Peace Prize, spoke to a rapt audience at uOttawa about people who have inspired him in his efforts to reduce poverty and end the 53-year war in his country.

On October 30, 2017, at his only public appearance during a state visit to Canada, Santos recommended three guiding principles to live by: innovate, persevere, and always do what you think is right. He said these principles had served him well in combating Colombia’s severe poverty and long-running civil war.

“We were, after Haiti, the most unequal country in the whole of Latin America. I said to myself, this is really shameful and we must do something out of the ordinary. We must innovate.”

Santos turned for advice to fellow Nobel laureate Amartya Sen, his former professor at both the London School of Economics and Harvard University. Sen had developed a way of measuring poverty based on the basic necessities that families require, rather than just the income they receive, Santos said.

“Almost seven years later, we have reduced extreme poverty by half and that is simply by approaching the fight against poverty in a different way – by innovating.”

'The right thing to do'

Santos, a former defence minister, said he had won the presidency in 2010 by a landslide “because I was a hawk.” But as president, he worked for six years to negotiate an end to the conflict with Colombia’s FARC guerrillas.

“I was warned that people would not understand. If they elected you as a successful war-maker, they will say you’re a traitor if you sit down and negotiate peace. It was a difficult dilemma, but this was the right thing to do. … And now we’re in a phase that is even more difficult than the negotiation itself – constructing the peace.”

He said he was motivated to persevere in his work by the stories of suffering he heard from ordinary Colombians, and was inspired by their capacity for forgiveness.

“For a victim who has seen his daughter or son killed or raped – to pardon the person or the group who did that is not easy. Wars generate hate … and to change that sentiment of hate into something much more powerful, which is love and compassion, is much more difficult. … But persevering is the key.”

Canada provided tremendous support during the peace process, Santos said, adding that Colombia was now going through “a marvellous transition” after achieving “what most people thought was impossible.”

“We now have to construct that peace. It might take some years, but at least we’re not killing each other, and that is a major achievement.”

Jacques Frémont shakes hands with Juan Manuel Santos.

University of Ottawa President Jacques Frémont welcomes Juan Manuel Santos to campus.

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