Thursday,19 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1315, (13 -19 October 2016)
Thursday,19 October, 2017
Issue 1315, (13 -19 October 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Saint Santos?

Has the Nobel Committee got the Peace Prize wrong again, or are there good political reasons for the award of this year’s prize to Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, asks Gamal Nkrumah

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Al-Ahram Weekly

Fears of a free-for-all have not stopped Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos from being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for 2016.

“We are proud, and we pray for peace,” Ambassador of Colombia to Egypt Diego Cardona Cardon told Al-Ahram Weekly in the wake of the news. It is hard to fault Cardon’s reasoning, as for prosperity to come about in Colombia, he said, peace was a political necessity and the Nobel Peace Prize was a bonus.

But last Sunday’s referendum on the peace deal in Colombia masterminded by Santos raised profound constitutional questions in the country, a South American nation of 50 million people.

The Norwegian Nobel Committee said it had made the decision to award Santos the prize because of his attempts to secure a peace deal with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). The fallout of the rejection of the peace deal orchestrated by Santos is going to be painful for Colombia’s dispossessed and downtrodden.

FARC leader Rodrigo Londono, who goes by the alias “Timochenko”, did not share the Nobel Prize with Santos. Perhaps this has nothing to do with Scandinavian bias against the FARC, but there are reasons for the Nobel insistence that Santos and Santos alone should win the prize for 2016.

On 17 March 2009, the FARC released Swedish hostage Erik Roland Larsson. Larsson, half-paralysed after suffering a stroke in captivity, was handed over to detectives in a rugged region of the northern Colombian state of Cordoba. Larsson had been kidnapped, presumably by the FARC, from his ranch in Tierralta.

The new peace agreement offered a rare chance to assuage the Colombian underdog’s rage. In 2012, the FARC announced that it would no longer participate in kidnappings for ransom and released the last ten soldiers and police officers it was keeping as prisoners.

On 25 August, Santos announced that a peace deal had been struck and that a referendum would be held in the first week of October. The referendum did take place, and the results were strikingly regional, with wealthy highland cities voting against and rural backwaters voting overwhelmingly for the deal.

The referendum failed, with 50.24 per cent voting against the peace deal. Thus, by a margin of only half of one per cent Colombians rejected last Sunday’s peace agreement referendum. Why did slightly more than half of the Colombian population vote against the agreement? Obviously race and class come into play.

White and wealthy Colombians voted against, while the poor and people of colour voted for. Yet, Colombia is unique in Latin America in that the European elite has managed more than in any other nation in the region to incorporate the non-white segments of the population, especially the mixed race of “mestizos” into the political ranks.

In June 2016, the FARC signed a landmark ceasefire accord with Santos, a former minister of defence, in the Cuban capital Havana under the auspices of Cuban President Raul Castro. The UN estimates that 12 per cent of all the killings of civilians in the Colombian conflict have been committed by the FARC, an armed force of 18,000 men, and the rest of the victims, 88 per cent, have been butchered by government forces, right-wing militias and paramilitaries.

Santos has long realised that the FARC could not be pacified by bribing its leaders, and no one knows for sure who the rank and file of the FARC are or where the group got its seed money. That, however, was no concern of Santos. What he knew for certain was that rural Colombians had genuine grievances.

The Colombian Civil War, now 52 years old, has been one of the longest-running conflicts in the world, killing more than 220,000 people and rendering seven million homeless or displaced. 

In February 2008, millions of Colombians demonstrated against the FARC. And throughout the ensuing negotiations process, Santos was ready to take whatever steps were necessary to prop up one of the fastest-growing economies in the Americas.

In 2012 Colombia’s GDP stood at an impressive $500 billion, or 28th in the world and third in South America. Yet, it cannot be overlooked that, according to official Colombian statistics, in 2015 27.8 per cent of the population were living below the poverty line, of which 7.9 per cent were languishing in extreme poverty.

The international public associates Colombian literature with Nobel Laureate Gabriel García Márquez and his classic novel One Hundred Years of Solitude, but few realise that Colombian literature dates back to the pre-Columbus era. The epic poem celebrated as the Legend of Yurupary remains a marvel of this literature.

When the Spanish arrived in 1499, some of the indigenous people of Colombia, such as the Caribs, lived in a state of permanent conflict, and it is interesting to note that their ancestral lands are among the areas where the FARC has been the most active.

By the time of the arrival of the Spanish Conquistadores, the Inca Empire, penetrating deep into the mountainous terrain that resembled its own bastions in the Andes Mountains of Peru and Bolivia, had subdued most of the indigenous peoples of the southwest part of the country.

The Conquistadores named their new mineral-rich colony “New Granada,” and soon the indigenous peoples told them of a fabulous city paved in gold called El-Dorado. The legend and the gold would play a pivotal role in luring the Spanish and other Europeans to New Granada during the 16th and 17th centuries, much to the suffering of the indigenous people who were ruthlessly treated and decimated. 

Castilian Spanish is the official language of Colombia, even though some 70 indigenous languages survive and are spoken in remote areas. Creole is common in the Caribbean and Pacific Ocean coastal areas where the descendants of African slaves predominate.

Colombia is ethnically diverse, with the elite of European and Levantine origin living primarily in the cities, including the capital Bogota. Some 38 per cent of the population is “white”, mainly of Spanish lineage, but in the burgeoning highland cities and among the bourgeoisie there are a considerable number of Colombians of Italian and German origin.

Another 12 per cent are “black”, but the bulk of the Colombian population is “mestizo” of mixed European and Native American pedigree.

Poorer mestizo people are sometimes derisively called campesinos (people living in rural areas) in Colombia, and they have historically formed the majority of the FARC.

“There is a real danger that the peace process will now come to a halt and that the civil war will flare up again,” said Kaci Kullmann Five, a former Norwegian politician who is now chair of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, in commenting on the referendum decision.

“We hope [the award of the Nobel Peace Prize] will encourage all good initiatives and all the parties who could make a difference in this process in Colombia,” he added.

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