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What Good Is a Nobel Peace Prize in Colombia?

Some see the Nobel Peace Prize as an inspiration for Colombians to seek peace. Others see it as an affront against the president's opponents.

BOGOTA, COLOMBIA - OCTOBER 02:  Colombia's President Juan Manuel Santos (C) makes the victory/peace sign with son Martin Santos (L), wife Maria Clemencia Rodriguez (2nd R) and daughter Maria Antonia Santos (R) after voting in the referendum on a peace accord to end the 52-year-old guerrilla war between the FARC and the state on October 2, 2016 in Bogota, Colombia. The guerrilla war is the longest-running armed conflict in the Americas and has left 220,000 dead. The plan calls for a disarmament and re-integration of most of the estimated 7,000 FARC fighters.  (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)
BOGOTA, COLOMBIA - OCTOBER 02: Colombia's President Juan Manuel Santos (C) makes the victory/peace sign with son Martin Santos (L), wife Maria Clemencia Rodriguez (2nd R) and daughter Maria Antonia Santos (R) after voting in the referendum on a peace accord to end the 52-year-old guerrilla war between the FARC and the state on October 2, 2016 in Bogota, Colombia. The guerrilla war is the longest-running armed conflict in the Americas and has left 220,000 dead. The plan calls for a disarmament and re-integration of most of the estimated 7,000 FARC fighters. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Five days ago, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos’s legacy was tarnished on the international stage when Colombian voters shockingly voted against the peace deal he helped to negotiate that would have ended the country’s 52-year-old conflict with the Marxist FARC rebel group.

But on Friday, in a signal that despite the failed referendum, his efforts still have the backing of the international community, Santos woke to news that he had won the Nobel Peace Prize for his role in the talks.

Colombia watchers hope that the award will inspire Colombians — and especially those who voted against the deal — to rise up united to find a new solution to end the war. The Nobel Committee even echoed that sentiment in their statement accompanying news of Santos’s award.

“The committee hopes that the peace prize will give him strength to succeed in this demanding task,” committee chairwoman Kaci Kullmann Five said on Friday. “Further, it is the committee’s hope that in the years to come, the Colombian people will reap the fruits of the reconciliation process.”

But there is one key person who the Nobel Prize likely won’t convince: Álvaro Uribe, Santos’s political opponent and presidential predecessor who led the “no” campaign against the deal.

“I congratulate Prez Santos’s Nobel [win],” he tweeted on Friday. “I hope that it leads him to change accords that are harmful for democracy.”

Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, told Foreign Policy in a phone call on Friday that discontent about the award is only to be expected in Uribe’s camp, which saw the agreement as too gracious toward the FARC, considering the militants had committed atrocities and terrorized the Colombian population during its decades-long revolt against the central government. For his part, Santos was willing to make concessions with the FARC that Uribe was not, a move that ultimately appears to have lost him the referendum.

Much like another seemingly premature Nobel Peace Prize — that given to President Barack Obama in 2009 — the award could breed some ill will at home. “There are other Colombians that will resent this award going to Santos because they believe that he not only hasn’t accomplished anything, but that he’s let the FARC off too easily with the peace agreement,” Shifter said.

Those who back Uribe could even see it as a personal affront against the former president. “Uribe has a lot of envy of Santos,” Schifter said. “And that is the real risk, that it could sort of become even more difficult to work things out with him unless he’s magnanimous about this going to Santos.”

In an e-mail to FP, a congressional aide reiterated the difficulties this creates for Santos’s already complicated relationship with Uribe, and said that the award is not expected to change the political climate in Colombia.

“Uribe is a force to be reckoned with and a Nobel Peace Prize won’t convince Uribe to come on board,” he said, pointing out that Santos will likely make “good faith efforts” to include Uribe and make changes to the accord, but that ultimately Santos can still rewrite the agreement and put it into force anyway.

“I don’t think it will have much of an impact,” he said.  

Still, others remain hopeful that the prize will do enough to sway public opinion, considering the vote margin that made the referendum fail was so tiny to begin with.

Adam Isacson, a senior associate for regional security policy at the Washington Office on Latin America, said that if the process ultimately fails, “it’s Uribe who will get most of the blame.”

“It increases the pressure on him to cooperate with Santos,” he wrote in an email to FP. “It also gives him an incentive to throw the hardliners in his ‘No’ coalition under the bus, at least partially, by agreeing on more modest changes to the accord.”

And Jason Marczak, director of the Latin America Economic Growth Initiative at the Atlantic Council’s Latin America center, reiterated Uribe’s potential role in cementing a more inclusive peace deal this time around.

Although exactly what role Uribe might play remains unclear, “what’s important from the peace prize is the fact that it’s an international stamp of approval that the broader global community is firmly behind Colombia and its president,” Marczak said.

FP Senior Reporter John Hudson contributed to this report.

Photo credit: Mario Tama/Getty Images

Siobhán O’Grady is a freelance journalist working across sub-Saharan Africa. She previously worked as a staff writer at Foreign Policy. @siobhan_ogrady

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