If all the exposure we had to Colombia was through watching the Netflix series Narcos, the country might seem like a lawless battlefield run by drug traffickers and corrupt politicians. Even today, many of these stereotypes persist in the way we think of Colombia, or Latin America in general. Yet, when we look a bit closer, there has been, and continues to be a significant transformation of the country from the heyday of people like Pablo Escobar.
This effort is being spearheaded by a man named Juan Manuel Santos. Controversial to say the least, he is notable not only because he was the recipient of a recent Nobel Peace Prize, but because he is laying out a blueprint for future leaders to follow, a politician creating a harmony between his people and the land they live in. This holistic view serves as an antithesis to the divisions and struggles this country has endured in the past, but is it sustainable, and more importantly, are the Colombian people on board with this vision?
On the surface, there is nothing extraordinary about Santos’ rise to the presidency in Colombia. Santos was born in 1951 to a powerful family in Bogotá, and studied law and economics in the U.S. and U.K. He rose through the ranks of the government, eventually serving as the minister of defence under his predecessor, Álvaro Uribe. In this time period, he was tasked with defeating FARC, the armed Communist group that had been at war against the government since the 1960s. Santos did not seek peace however, and he was in fact known for his unrelenting determination to destroy FARC and dealt it a number of serious defeats during his administration. As defence minister in 2008, he created a diplomatic crisis when he violated Ecuadorian sovereignty by leading a strike against the FARC that resulted in the assassination of some of the highest ranking FARC members.
The first inkling that Santos was looking to create dialogue and resolution was in 1994, when he founded the Good Government Foundation, which proposed peace talks with FARC. As soon as he was elected in 2010, he began secret peace negotiations with FARC, and they were completed in 2016. Although the people initially rejected the proposal, he was able to amend it to the point where both sides were satisfied. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts.
Arguably the most extraordinary part of his presidency is his environmental policies, which have become the cornerstone of his long-term development plans. Now that Santos has reconciled the people of Colombia, he is attempting to reconcile with the land that has suffered through half a century of war.
The land of Colombia is some of the most diverse and beautiful in the world, hosting more than 10% of the world’s bird species, and 15% of frog, as well as species found nowhere else in the world. Since Santos has been in office, he has doubled the size of the Amazonian land protected by Chiribiquete National Park, as well as other important habitats across the country. He has worked to repair land scarred by illegal mining, deforestation and pollution. He has promoted sustainable energy and is working to reach zero net deforestation. All of this begs the question: is Santos ushering in a new era where politicians seek to create harmony between their people and their land?
Not everyone is convinced by Santos’ policies.
Speaking to a friend who lives and attends university in Bogotá, she is not convinced that he’s the best leader for Colombia: “[Santos] is not that bad, [but] not someone good. He made the peace treatment, and it was great, but we still have work to do and he is not taking time to work on it.” He has significant opposition spearheaded by his predecessor, President Uribe, who believes that he’s being too soft on FARC. Many people agree with this sentiment, as they initially rejected the peace deal referendum, but if peace is a means to making the country, the land and its people, unified and able to bring the attention away from the violence and toward the beautiful culture and biodiversity, then surely it is but a small sacrifice.