Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos is one of the world’s most respected leaders.
He won the Nobel Peace Prize for his work ending the hemisphere’s longest armed conflict with Marxist rebels. He was named to Time Magazine’s 2017 list of 100 Most Influential People.
Yet his approval ratings in his own country are historically low. In fact, his ratings are only slightly higher than that of the FARC, the insurgency group that has terrorized his nation for decades.
The White House announced Thursday that Santos would meet with Trump on May 18. During their White House visit, Santos will lean on that international support as he asks President Donald Trump to fulfill a $450 million promise made by his predecessor to support the peace deal. The challenge is his local opposition may have got to Trump first, and they don’t like how Santos plans to use the money.
In a rare moment, Santos shared how the local criticism has affected him. He acknowledged it’s been one of the most difficult aspects of his presidency.
“My adversaries, political enemies, have demonized me,” he told an audience at Bogota’s Javeriana University a few days ago. “ ‘Santos is a traitor, traitor, traitor.’ And that has been very difficult for me because that image for any ordinary citizen is easy to sell, really.”
The worldwide jubilation that followed the historic peace deal signed late last year bwith the rebel group Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, the FARC, never really took hold inside Colombia, where sobering realities surrounding implementing the complicated deal, uncertainty in Venezuela and a corruption scandal threw the nation into a political tailspin.
Santos climbed to the top of Colombian politics as a fighter rather than a peace advocate. A former newspaper man, Santos served in several administrations, but came to distinction in 2006 when he was named defense minister by then-President Álvaro Uribe.
The two men led a successful military offensive against FARC that helped weaken the rebels and bring them to the negotiating table. He won the presidency in 2010 promising to continue hard line national security policies.
While Santos started off with high approval ratings in the 80s, his support has deteriorated over the years as he sought the backing of the international community for his peace efforts.
In one comprehensive poll conducted by Gallup, Santos had just a 24 percent approval rating in February. By comparison, the FARC had a 19 percent approval rating.
Santos’s greatest adversary was once his biggest cheerleader. Uribe, the popular two-term president, who handed the presidency to Santos in 2010 believing he would continue his hard-line policies. But Santos soon began to make clear that he had his own agenda, and he would do things differently in an effort to bring peace to Colombia.
Uribe spearheaded the “no” campaign, urging Colombians not to support an accord that would give the FARC guaranteed congressional seats and immunity from jail sentences. In October, voters did just that. Santos went ahead anyway and pushed the accord through the Colombian Congress, which approved it in November.
My adversaries, political enemies, have demonized me.
Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos
Since then, Uribe’s attacks have not let up. He’s called Santos a “Castro-Chavista,” a reference to the twin nemeses of conservative Latin Americans, Cuba’s Fidel Castro and Venezuela’s dead leader Hugo Chavez. He’s complained his former defense minister is seeking peace “at any costs.” He’s warned that once the ex-guerrillas entered politics, Colombia would end up with a left-wing dictatorship.
“He feels personally betrayed by the Santos government,” said Arlene Tickner, a professor of international relations at Rosario University in downtown Bogota. “He’s convinced that he put Santos in the presidency. And that he betrayed him.”
Obama’s promised $450 million to help implement the peace plan is in doubt as the Trump administration plans to slash foreign aid as part of 31 percent cut to the State Department’s budget.
The United States continues to play an outsized role in Colombia’s internal politics. A Trump declaration of support would go a long way toward shoring up Santos’ domestic backing.
(Uribe) feels personally betrayed by the Santos government.
Arlene Tickner, Rosario University
But before Santos gets his chance, Uribe appears have delivered another blow by successfully getting in front of President Trump for an impromptu hello at Trump’s Florida resort, Mar-a-Lago. Another opposition leader, former Colombian president Andres Pastrana, who was reportedly with Uribe, described the meeting with Trump as a “cordial and very frank conversation” about problems in Colombia and the region.
The Trump administration discounted the interlude as nothing “beyond a quick hello.” The administration has given no indication of whether they will support the peace plan or place more conditions on any U.S. aid.
Santos is only the second Colombian to win a Nobel, following novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez, who received the prize for literature in 1982. Santos deflected the praise and dedicated the prize to his fellow Colombians, especially the victims of the long conflict.
“To make sure that there is not even one more victim in this conflict we must reconcile, unite and finish this process and begin to construct a stable peace,” he said in short remarks.
In a profile in Time Magazine, former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt, who was a FARC hostage that Santos helped free, said Santos brought friends and enemies to the table and accomplished the impossible: peace
“I pray that we in Colombia will live up to his legacy,” Betancourt wrote.
The White House said Thursday that Trump and Santos will discuss the peace accord, transnational organized crime and countering democratic backsliding in Venezuela.
In his presentation at Javeriana University, Santos confessed that he’s struggled to communicate his message to the Colombian people. But he said people in Colombia should be dancing for joy over the peace deal, like he is. But they’re not.
Instead, his name serves as a frequent punching bag on conservative radio.
“That has been painful and difficult,” Santos said. “But there, you have to persevere, because when you are convinced that you are doing the right thing, success is the best antidote to those kinds of difficulties.”