Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos wins Nobel Peace Prize for efforts to end his nation's 52-year civil war

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos has been on an emotional and psychological roller coaster during the past two weeks.

On Sept. 26, with great fanfare, he was joined by presidents from across the region to sign and celebrate a historic peace agreement with his country’s largest rebel army. Six days later, his country’s voters rejected the pact, handing Santos a devastating defeat.

And Friday, Santos was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace, a crowning achievement for his efforts to end one of modern time’s longest civil wars.

Santos said he was overwhelmed. He received the prize, he said, on behalf of the “millions of victims who have suffered” in the 52-year conflict.  

Now, he must test whether having the Nobel gold medallion will strengthen his hand as he attempts to bring opponents of the peace deal on board, while continuing to keep the guerrillas off the battle field. He said the prize represented a mandate.

And members of the Oslo-based Nobel Committee said that was their intention. In a statement, they said they hoped the prize would encourage the 65-year-old Santos and “give him strength” to win approval for a lasting peace pact.

“The award should also be seen as a tribute to the Colombian people who, despite great hardships and abuses, have not given up hope of a just peace, and to all the parties who have contributed to the peace process,” the Nobel Committee added.

After more than four years of arduous negotiations, Colombians last Sunday voted down the peace deal with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), a Marxist rebel group, by a razor-thin margin.

Among the chief complaints from voters — galvanized by former hard-line President Alvaro Uribe — was that under the deal guerrillas are granted immunity from prosecution if they confess to their many human rights abuses and other crimes.

Whether a Nobel can assuage such criticisms remains unclear. Santos has said he will attempt to forge a new national consensus, but must do so without alienating the FARC. Uribe congratulated Santos for the Nobel win but did not cede any ground.

"I hope it [the prize] leads to changing agreements that are harmful to democracy," Uribe said via Twitter.

Bernard Aronson, the Obama administration’s special envoy to the Colombia negotiations, said Friday that the Nobel was a great honor for Santos but that it might not change too many minds in Colombia.

“Those who supported the deal and voted yes may be energized, while those who opposed it may not change their views,” Aronson said in a conference call with reporters.

Santos was clearly deeply disappointed when the peace deal was rejected by voters 50.2% to 49.8%. He was not legally bound to hold the referendum but did so, he said, in the interest of drumming up democratic support. Pushing the accord in the first place had expended enormous amounts of his political capital, and the loss threatened to undermine his credibility.

The Nobel could not have been a stronger morale booster, said Javier Corrales, political science professor and Colombia expert at Amherst College.

“Santos' defeat on Sunday seriously demoralized him,” Corrales said. “The award could help reignite him a bit, but mostly by rekindling trust among his supporters, more so than by softening his opponents.”

The award conforms with the Nobel Committee’s aim, which at times is to encourage peacemaking activities as much as to reward them, said international relations professor Bruce Bagley of the University of Miami. Many observers noted that Santos’ peace efforts were more popular internationally than at home, where at least 220,000 people have been killed in the conflict and 7 million displaced from homes and farms.

“Santos deserves the Nobel. His vision, political commitment and dogged persistence made the final deal possible,” Bagley said. “Clearly the committee wants to strengthen his hand and encourage completion of the accord in the wake of the narrow defeat of the plebiscite.”

It was also not immediately clear why the award went only to Santos and did not include the FARC. 

Traditionally, the Nobel Committee has awarded both sides of a conflict ended by peace agreements, such as the late Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin of Israel, who shared the prize with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in 1994.

Some experts said the committee may be signaling that the prize goes to those who seek peace through diplomatic, not military, means — even though Santos earlier was a defense minister leading a major anti-guerrilla offensive. The FARC is regarded by Washington and others as a terrorist organization, and the Nobel Committee might have been reluctant to include it, although Arafat’s enemies regarded him as a terrorist.

Not including the FARC could help Santos’ efforts to woo opponents who rejected the peace pact, in large part because they want to see the ex-guerrillas punished. It is easier, perhaps, to punish someone whose name is not inscribed on a gold medallion. Including the FARC, this argument goes, would only harden the animus.

For Santos and his efforts, the Nobel can cut both ways in a country as sharply divided as Colombia, several analysts said. Some Colombians were resentful at what they saw as the president’s “premature” celebration of the accord, complete with foreign dignitaries and lavish musical displays. They didn’t like being told by the international community how they should regard the peace accord.

“It’s hard to balance the positive results of the prize, in terms of explicit statements of support from the international community, with the types of resentment the prize might create among members of the political opposition,” said Arlene Tickner, international relations professor at Rosario University in Bogota. “It puts Santos in the limelight, whereas internally he continues to be a very unpopular president.” 

Under the peace accord, the FARC was to take several critical steps, including laying down weapons, moving to approved zones, severing ties with drug-trafficking networks and confessing to crimes. That entire process is now in limbo.

However, the FARC’s top negotiator, Rodrigo Londoño, has said his organization remains committed to a cease-fire that is in place. How long that remains the case is a potentially dangerous gamble.

“Nobody is rattling sabers, and that’s a good thing,” Aronson said. But that may not last forever and makes finding consensus within Colombian society especially urgent, he said.

Santos and Uribe met this week, with both men announcing afterward that they would try to find common ground to come up with a new deal. It was not clear, however, that the FARC would accept possible jail terms for alleged crimes, a Uribe demand.

Many pundits assumed after the defeat of the peace deal at the polls that the Nobel Committee would take Santos off the prize candidate list. Despite the vote, the committee decided to make the award in light of Santos’ “resolute efforts” and as a tribute to “the countless victims of the civil war.”

“The fact that a majority of the voters said no to the peace accord does not necessarily mean that the peace process is dead,” the committee said. “There is a real danger that the peace process will come to a halt and that civil war will flare up again. This makes it even more important that the parties, headed by President Santos and FARC guerrilla leader Rodrigo Londoño, continue to respect the cease-fire.”

President Obama was among the chorus of international congratulations, saying the Nobel Committee sent "a message that in a world of conflict, the pursuit of peace must be supported and encouraged." 

Secretary of State John F. Kerry, who attended the peace deal ceremony, noted again how heavily invested the U.S. is in the Colombian peace process and said he was confident “this can still work out.” Successive U.S. governments have spent billions of dollars to shore up Colombia’s military, police, relocation programs and judicial institutions.

Born in Bogota into one of Colombia’s wealthiest families, Santos was educated at the University of Kansas and Harvard University. As defense minister, he was at the front lines of the struggle against the FARC, overseeing a cross-border raid into Ecuador that took out a top commander. The rejected peace deal, in addition to sparing ex-rebels of jail time, would have given the FARC 10 seats in congress, with the expectation they would transition into a political movement.

In a trip to Washington this year, Santos spoke of the challenges he faced persuading his people to accept a peace agreement.

“Most Colombians have never seen one day of peace,” Santos said. “Colombia got accustomed to war. You ask people what they think about peace, and they are afraid. It is change."

Special correspondent Kraul reported from Bogota, Colombia, and staff writer Wilkinson from Washington. Staff writer Barbara Demick in New York contributed to this report.

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UPDATES:

3:05 p.m.: This article has been updated with fresh comments from analysts.

9:55 a.m.: This article has been updated with additional comments and reaction.

6:20 a.m.: This article has been updated with additional Times reporting from Colombia.

3:50 a.m.: This article has been updated with staff reporting.

3 a.m.: This article has been updated throughout with additional details and background.

This article was originally published at 2:10 a.m.

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