Editor’s note: The following is the transcript of Juan Manuel Santos’ Feb. 4 Landon Lecture at K-State’s Forum Hall. Santos is the former president of Colombia and the 2016 Nobel Peace Prize laureate.
Thank you and good morning. Dear General Myers, President of the university, his wife, Mary Jo. And I want to take the opportunity to thank you. Thank you in the name of all Colombians. General Myers was the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff when President Clinton went to Colombia to launch Plan Colombia. We were on the verge of being declared a failed state. And at that time when the Democrats and the Republicans spoke to each other, they constructed a foreign policy initiative called Plan Colombia, which was the seed of the tremendous change that Colombia has had from being a failed state to being the most successful, best performing country in Latin America last year. Thank you, General Myers.
And it’s been said that it’s been the most successful bipartisan foreign policy initiative that the U.S. has launched in the recent past. I want to also distinguish former Senator, Nancy Landon Kassebaum. She also helped Colombia when we had difficult moments. And I want to distinguish the members of the Landon Lecture Series Committee, thanking them for this invitation.
And last but certainly not least, I want to distinguish my good friend, Ed Seaton. We’ve known each other for a long time. I want to pay tribute to him in the name of all the good journalists in Latin America, because he has been an example of somebody who has defended the freedom of the press, freedom of expression throughout all his life. We have had in Latin America many problems with authoritarian regimes and dictatorships. And the freedom of expression has always been one of our most important flags. And Ed Seton, one of the most important persons to inspire the journalists in Latin America. Thank you, Ed.
And I want to thank him also because almost for 10 years he’s been trying to invite me to be present here at the Landon Lecture. Almost 10 years. At the beginning I said, “Well, Ed I don’t know. I graduated from KU. K-State that’s like a hostile territory, isn’t it?” He said, “Don’t worry, don’t worry.” And he kept on insisting. And then I became President and he continued to persevere.
And then he said, “Well why don’t we plan something to dilute that hostility? Something that can make your presence as a KU former student more agreeable in Kansas State University.” “Like what?” “Like a very special event. One of those events that only happened 50 years intervals. Like a Super Bowl.” “Yes. Maybe a Super Bowl.” “That Super Bowl would be a tremendous event to sort of distract the hostility. And so but we must make that Super Bowl special. Who can talk to Mahomes and make it that only in the last quarter or in the third quarter you were about to lose? And then turn it around and that makes the triumph much more exciting. So that would be the effect will be much stronger.” I said, “Okay. But why don’t you put in a national ingredients — something from Columbia. Shakira!” And so, “Okay, let’s put Shakira in.” “And Shakira in the halftime,” but then he said, “But you must go to the Super Bowl and cheer for the Chiefs.” And I said, “Of course.” And I went to the Super Bowl and I cheered for the Chiefs and we won.
And he said, “But you must take the proof that you were there.” So here I am. The Chiefs — this is a — now I want to also take this opportunity to punish my son Esteban. He’s a Patriots fan. Last year he made a lot of fun of his father because they won and the Chiefs lost. So I said, “Son, don’t worry, God is merciful. The time will come.” So I said, “I’m going to punish you because you’re going to have to wear the Chief’s hat in the presence of a whole state of Kansas.” Esteban, please.
A few words from a very wise man. “We must face the challenges of new realities of international life today. The world is an armed camp. An uneasy peace is maintained while a power struggle continues to build up. You should respond to the new nationalism and other new challenges in international relations in our continuing search for world peace.” That was the Landon Lecture in 1966 — peace.
And I come in peace to talk to you about peace. Peace doesn’t just grow naturally. You have to construct it — carefully construct it. And you can never forget that you make peace with your enemies, not with your friends. And so you have to always keep in mind you have to build bridges to construct that peace. And every process to reach peace has two phases. What is called peace making, and what is called peace building. There are different. Peace making is when you sit down, negotiate, lay down your arms and you have peace. But you really don’t have peace. Then the peace building starts. That’s when you go to the hearts of the people and heal the wounds. And that takes a long time and it’s more difficult. So these two phases are very important.
I was born in a country at war in 1951. I remember the first national cycle championship in Colombia. It was a race from a small town in the coffee region to the capital city. And it was launched because the country wanted to see that there was some region in Colombia that was at peace. Colombia had been a very violent country and we have had many, many wars. And I had two important experiences that marked my life. The first one was when I went to the Navy. And there I arrived and the officer in charge said, “Santos, you go get this boat and learn how to sail.” I had no idea. And I tried to maneuver the boat — ferry boat — I couldn’t. And he taught me a very important lesson of life that is applicable to the life of everybody — to enterprises, to countries. He said, “If you want to sail and be a good sailor, you always need to know where you want to go and you need to choose a port of destiny where you want to really get to. And you can use all the winds even if they’re contrary to get there. Don’t forget that — choose a port of destiny.” And that was a very important lesson that I learned in in my years in the Navy.
And many, many years later I was the Chairman of the United Nations Conference for Trade and Development. The next Chairman was Nelson Mandela. And I had to go to Johannesburg and give the chair to Mandela. That was in 1994. I remember arriving to Johannesburg I turned on the television and in real life there was a program which was so real. The victims and the perpetrators of the war in South Africa were getting together in real life. And some of them embraced. Others shouted at each other. It was very strange.
And that afternoon I had a 15 minute talk with Mandela to give the Chair to Mandela. And I ask him what is this? He said, “No this is a healing process.” He said, “This is the way that we have to heal the wounds of such a long war.” And he started to explain to me how he made peace. And this 15 minutes we ended up talking for more than four hours. And at the very end he told me, “You have a beautiful country. But that country will never take off if we don’t find peace.”
And a few months before I’d been in New York, I was the Minister of Foreign Trade. We had just opened our economy. We needed foreign investment. And we were with other two ministers in the — I remember the Chemical Bank was the organizer of this big conference with CEOs all around the United States to sell Colombia. To seek investment. And in the middle of the conference a big bomb in Bogota exploded. Of course the news came immediately, the conference failed, and the CEO of a very important company here in the US went to me and said, “Listen your plans are great. Your country is a beautiful country. But as long as you have this war don’t think about having important investment.”
And those two experiences sort of illuminated my future. And I found my port of destiny was trying to seek peace for my country after 50 years of war. So I started to study peace processes around the world and why all my predecessors as president had tried to negotiate peace and failed. And after studying different processes what could be applicable to Colombia? What lessons could be learned? There were three necessary conditions to have a successful peace process that we identified. First of all, one which is almost common sense, the military balance of power had to be in favor of the state. Because as long as the guerrillas thought that they could win through violence they would never negotiate in good faith. Number two condition, the commanders of the guerillas personally in their personal lives had to be convinced that for them that it was much more important or it was more profitable — better — to negotiate peace than to continue the war. , and a third condition which is present in every what you call asymmetrical wars in today’s world, is that you need the support of the region, of the neighbors. Even in Afghanistan if you want peace you have to have the support of the neighbors. Otherwise, it’s almost impossible.
So after learning these processes and conditions I founded a new party in Colombia called the U Party. And in the year 2006 this party broke 157 years of a bipartisan tradition. Liberals and Democrats had always won the legislative elections. And for the first time in 157 years my party won the majority. And I had the power to choose a ministry and I chose the Ministry of Defense. Thinking on the two first conditions. So that’s when I had to be a hawk. I had to be successful in the war against the FARC if I wanted to eventually have peace. And as Minister of Defense we made a complete overhaul of the intelligence. I went to a friend of mine — he was a good friend for a long time — I wrote a book with him, the former Prime Minister of the UK, Tony Blair. And I said to him, “Mr. Prime Minister I need your help. I’m gonna be become Minister of Defense. And I need your help in what the British are the best in the world.” And he said, “What is that?” “Intelligence.” And he said, “You have it,” and MI6 gave me a crash course in intelligence and I went and made an overhaul in the intelligence. The CIA helped me. The Mossad – Israel helped me. And we transformed the intelligence of the military forces. And that helped tremendously to shift the balance of power in our favor.
Another very important aspect of this intelligence had to do with my new technological chip called the beacon. That’s the very last chip that you put it somewhere and the airplanes and helicopters can pinpoint where the beacon is. So through using the intelligence I started to put the beacon in the places where the high commanders of the guerrillas were. And we — and General Myers knows very well — we had the strategic advantage of the air. And we started bombing the camps where the commanders were. So the commanders started to think that it might be better to negotiate peace than to continue the war. And I was very successful making war.
At the same time, something which is extremely important — the legitimacy of the armed forces. And we started to change the culture of the armed forces to respect the human rights of the communities. You have to win the hearts of the community if you want to win the war. And I remember a former general, he was also a historian that came to me when I was Minister of Defense. And he said, “I know that you want at the end to negotiate peace. So don’t treat the FARC as your enemies. Don’t define them as your enemies, define them as your adversaries. And there’s a difference.” And I said, “What is the difference?” “The enemies you destroy. The adversaries you beat. But they are Colombians. They are human beings. And if you want peace treat them as adversaries and not as enemies.” And that was extremely important because as the war kept on going that type of attitude contributed tremendously afterwards to make a successful peace process.
So I became very successful in making war. So successful that I was the most popular person in Colombia and I got elected President with the highest amount of votes by the highest margin ever. And I then in my inauguration speech talked for the first time of sitting down and negotiating peace with my adversaries, with the FARC guerillas. A very wise man, former Minister of Foreign Affairs of Israel, he was the architect of the Camp David Agreement between the Palestinians and the Israelis. His name is Shlomo Ben-Ami. I had met him before. He went and visited me and said, “Listen, you’re taking a very difficult decision. You are now the most popular person because you were successful at making more. If you sit down with your adversaries they will call you a traitor. You will lose your political capital. But,” he said, “it’s the only way to end this war in a negotiating table. To think that you can simply wipe out all the guerrillas is militarily impossible.” And I remember this Churchillian phrase that said, “Do the right thing, however difficult or unpopular it may be.” I said, “This is the right thing.”
And another condition to make this switch from hawk to dove — from war to peace was to have enough backing. And in government — when you’re the head of government — the ideal situation is to have popular support and the majority in Congress. That’s the ideal. You might govern having popular support without having a majority in Congress. Or you might govern having a majority in Congress without having popular support. You can still survive. What is very difficult is when you have no popular support and no majority in Congress. Then you’re in trouble. So at the beginning of the government I remembered a lesson from a book of a historian who was here giving a Landon Lecture, Doris Kearns Goodman. She wrote a book called The Team of Rivals. And in the Team of Rivals I learned how Lincoln created a majority in the US Congress to approve the abolition of slavery by inviting his former rivals to become part of his cabinet. So I did exactly the same thing. I invited my former rivals to become part of the government so my majority in Congress was 80 percent. And with that I could allow my popular support to come down if I maintained that majority. And that was another very important condition.
So we needed a third condition — the support of our neighbors. And when I was elected we had no diplomatic or commercial relations with our neighbors to the north, with Venezuela — with Chavez. No diplomat diplomatic relations with our neighbors to the south, Ecuador. We had a hostility coming from Brazil and from Peru. We were in trouble. So I also remembered another lesson from a great American president, Ronald Regan when he went to Gorbachev who was also here. Both of them were here at the Landon Lecture, Gorbachev and Regan. And he said to Gorbachev, “Listen I will never become a communist. And you will never become a capitalist. But let’s work together for an superior motive.” That was to bring down the nuclear arsenal. And they both agreed and they worked and they succeeded.
So I went to Chavez and said more or less the same thing. And I quoted Reagan and Gorbachev, “I will never become a Bolivarian revolutionary, and you will never become a liberal Democrat. But we can work together for something that will be in your interest and in my interest. Peace in Colombia.” And he said, “Okay,” and we shake hands. And he was very important in this process. And with Chavez on board the then-president of Ecuador, who didn’t like to me because I had bombed Ecuador, a FARC camp in Ecuador territory. So I was not very much liked by this president. I said the same thing to him. Ecuador was also suffering from the war. And he said, “Okay, let’s do that.” And so the third condition was fulfilled. Having the support of the region. And then having the support of the international community. I came to ask for the support from President Obama, who gave me the support immediately. I went to Europe and the international community started supporting the peace process.
So we negotiated for six years. The first part was a secret agenda for two years. Completely secretly we negotiated the agenda. That was 50 percent of the negotiation. Then we made public the agenda. We negotiated and we started the public part of the negotiations in Cuba. And after six years we finally signed the agreement. During that process, my popularity went down tremendously. It was some of the conditions that I learned from my studies of other peace processes and from the group of advisors that I invited to be my advisors in the peace process from abroad. I brought in people who had real life experience in negotiating peace processes. I brought in Shlomo Ben-Ami, I brought in Jonathan Powell, who was the former Chief of Staff of Tony Blair, chief negotiator of the Northern Ireland Peace Agreement. I brought in the commander of the guerrilla forces in El Salvador, Joaquin Villalobos, who was a chief negotiator for the guerrillas in the Salvadoran peace process. And other people who contribute with their experience. And they said to me, listen because you now have the military balance of power — carrot and stick — don’t negotiate a ceasefire until you have an agreement. It’s going to be very difficult because people will not understand. You are at war and the same time talking to these people. That be very difficult politically. But it will be in your advantage.
And it was very difficult. I remember one time that 14-15 soldiers were slaughtered by the guerilla and suddenly it touched like a moral fiber of the Colombian population. And everybody said, we need to finish the negotiations. These people will never negotiate in good faith. My sons, Esteban and my older son and my wife came to me and said, hey, are you crazy? Don’t you hear the people? Everybody wants you to finish the negotiation. I said to them, “I can’t. Precisely. This is war and precisely to avoid these type of situations is that we have to continue. We have to persevere.” And Shlomo Ben-Ami said to me, that’s the right thing. Because in other circumstances making peace could cost your life. That’s what happened to Rabin, the Israeli Prime Minister when he did what you did, he said, I will negotiate with Arafat — with terrorism — as if there is no terrorism. And I will continue fighting terrorism as if there is no peace process. And that is exactly what did — talk and war at the same time. Difficult but necessary.
And my political opponents of course started to take advantage. This is part of the process. He’s a traitor. He was elected to continue the war, now he’s making peace. Therefore he betrayed you, the Colombian people. And it was not easy to explain to the people why I was doing what I was doing. I mean it’s easy but when emotions get in front of the arguments then the arguments become difficult to portray. And I had promised the Colombian people that I would make a referendum at the end of the process. I was absolutely sure that we were going to win. I mean who was going to vote against peace? Because we ended the negotiations. The guerilla gave their arms in record time, they became a political party, and we submitted the agreement to a referendum.
And to my surprise I had two enemies, or two circumstances that made that very difficult. I was defeated by a very small margin, but I was defeated. And how was I defeated? First of all, climate change. Why do I say climate change? Hurricanes in the Caribbean usually go north of Colombia. They don’t hit Colombia. They hit the Caribbean islands and sometimes Mexico. But this time, the day of the vote the Hurricane Mitchell hit Colombia all the Caribbean coast. We lost four and a half million votes and we lost the referendum by 50,000. So that was one circumstance.
The other circumstance is something that you all are very aware of. Something called the fake news. You cannot imagine what they said about the process. That I was a communist. That I was educated in Kansas but really I was a KGB agent and all kinds of — and suddenly one week before the referendum, all the priests and the evangelical pastors were preaching against the agreement. And why? I said why? There was a chapter in the agreement called the gender chapter, which was to give the woman victims a special treatment in the post-conflict. Because usually in wars the women are the more victims of the victims. But that was changed to say that in the agreement there was something called the ideology of gender, something that every religion says this is completely nonsense. I think it’s nonsense that you are not born a boy or a girl, but you are made a boy or a girl through life. And then they said the agreement is going to destroy the Colombian family. And the priest and the pastors started to campaign against it, against the yes vote. And so we lost. Fortunately we had a way out. We renegotiated the agreement with the promoters of the no vote. We then didn’t go back to a referendum because that was established in the law. We went to Congress. We had it approved by a huge majority. And then the peace agreement started to be implemented. So we finished the first phase peacemaking. And then we started the second phase peace building.
I remember the Pope, he was a great ally in the peace process. I visited him about four or five times in Rome. And I used to say to him — Pope Francis he always encouraged me to continue — I said, “This is very difficult. Why don’t you go to Colombia and give me a hand? You know, this is very difficult.” And he used to say, “President Santos, I pray a lot for you.” I said, “If you, the Pope, has to pray a lot for me that means I’m in deep trouble, you know?” And he said, ”No, no. Don’t worry. Continue. I will go to Colombia when you and the Colombian people will need me the most.” And he chose to go to Colombia after the signature of the agreement, after the guerrillas had given up their arms to the United Nations. And he went and he put the title of his visit, “I’m going to Colombia to push the Colombians to take the first step towards reconciliation.” And he said that this is the most difficult part of the peace process. And that’s when you have to really persevere. And it has been. Because that is the part where you need to heal the wounds. You need to change the attitudes of the people.
But I was very much energized. At the beginning of the process a professor of leadership that I met at Harvard, Ron Heifetz, he went to Columbia and he said, “You’re going in a very difficult path and you will need something to reenergize you. You’re going to feel very discouraged and about to throw in the towel.” And he said, “Talk to the victims. Ask them about their traumas.” And I did that. And I remember one victim whose name is Pastor Amita. Her father was killed, her brother was killed in about five years interval. And then her son was tortured and killed. And about a week after that somebody came to her house wounded and said, “I need some help.” And she helped him. She put him in her son’s bed. And she cured him. And when he was going out he saw a photograph of her with her son, the one tortured and killed. And he stood shocked and said, “Is that your son?” And she said, “That was my son. Why?” He said, “I must tell you, I was the one who tortured and killed him.” And she looked at him and suddenly embraced him. She said, “Thank you.” And is this guy said, “Why are you thanking me?” “Because what you did — the fact that you had the courage to tell me that you were the perpetrator — relieves me from hating for the rest of my life.” That type of stories were the ones that encouraged me to continue in this fight for peace.
So this is where we are now. And I want to conclude by simply making a summary of the few lessons that I think are important to leave with you. The first lesson is that making peace is much more difficult than making war. In making war you need a vertical type of leadership. You rally the forces and as long as you are winning and showing the trophies that you are winning, your popularity will be maintained very high. Making peace, the type of leadership you need is much more horizontal. You don’t give orders. You persuade. You convince people to forgive. You try to change their sentiments. And that is much more difficult.
Another lesson is do what is right. Do what is proper. Not what is popular. And sometimes that is very difficult. But in the long run in politics, or in your personal life, or in business that always is better. A very important lesson.
The most important virtue of any leader is to develop what they call empathy. Empathy is nothing more and nothing less than being able to put yourself in the shoes of the people you are leading or in the shoes of the people you are negotiating with. Understand their feelings, understand their reasoning, their problems, or their hopes. This is extremely important when you’re in a company, when you’re in government, or anywhere when you want to lead.
And last but not least, be bold, be ambitious. It is always better to feel sorry for what you did than to feel sorry for what you didn’t try or do. I think to myself and I tell my sons, can you imagine — I could have kept my popularity for four years more. But can I forgive myself for not trying to make peace, even if I had failed? So that’s the lesson I want to leave with you: always do what is correct, take risks, know where you’re going, and you will live a peaceful life. Thank you very much.