In 2008, Juan Carlos Santos, the minister of defense in Colombia and a University of Kansas alumnus, was waiting to hear what happened to a top secret mission to free hostages in the jungle.
Santos had planned to have government soldiers disguise themselves as international peacekeepers and then free the hostages. The rebel group, FARC, who had three American prisoners, had been clashing with the government for more than 50 years.
This moment could make or break Santo’s career. But he couldn’t tell anybody, not even his closest advisers. He had to remain stoic.
This was a skill he learned playing poker late into the nights at Delta Epsilon fraternity at KU, he told the university when he returned to speak in 2012. He had learned to take huge risks without flinching.
After freeing the hostages, he continued his attacks on rebels. But two years later he became president of Colombia and took a softer approach: He returned land that had been taken from the poor over decades of fighting. These actions paved the way for peace negotiations in Colombia.
On Friday, Santos was award the Nobel Peace Prize for negotiating a peace treaty with FARC.
But during his talk in 2012, he had already predicted that it would be a struggle to win full support for any peace agreement. Colombia voted against the peace treaty this week.
“There will be people on both extremes that will not be satisfied,” Santos told the crowd at KU in 2012. “The people who would like more justice will say this is unacceptable, and people who would like more peace will say this is unacceptable. But if the big majority of the country takes a decision, and I hope it will, and we negotiate a good agreement, then that’s the only solution we have.”
University of Kansas
Santos was not a great student at KU, he said, but he was disciplined. He didn’t hold any leadership positions, but he studied hard and graduated with a dual degree in business and economics a semester early in 1973.
He had come from a privileged family, and had to put aside golfing and dog training in order to fit in. He joined a fraternity where he would learned to sing to sorority girls and sled on lunch trays.
He grew his hair out and grew a beard, while his freshman roommate at McCollum Hall was drafted into the Vietnam War. He attended concerts by James Taylor, Jefferson Airplane and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. He invested his poker earnings in a little takeout pizza joint called Pizza Hut and, with the earnings, bought his first car.
He owed his life to a fellow KU alum, he said. “We were in a party and I was flirting with a very beautiful girl,” Santos said. “And he came to me and said to me, ‘You must leave now.’ And I said, ‘Why?’ ‘This is the girlfriend of the fullback of the football team.’ ”
Santos went on to study at prestigious programs at the London School of Economics, Tufts and Harvard, but he said his foundational experiences of American democracy were formed in Lawrence.
“Living in Lawrence and KU taught me to appreciate and admire the U.S., the American way of life, your strong commitment to certain values, to freedom, democracy, and this has been present in my mind and my heart throughout all this time.”
Santos attended KU in large part because his older brother had heard about its strong journalism program. But it was his decision to leave journalism a couple of decades later that would become his defining moment.
He had been offered a job as the country’s first foreign trade minister. Some of his family members were furious. They thought it jeopardized the independence of El Tiempo, the national paper that had given his family prominence throughout his childhood, and which he had helped run for seven years.
But Santos had been diagnosed with cancer, he said, a diagnosis that later turned out to be false, but which made him reconsider his priorities.
As the country’s first trade minister, he helped create the institution necessary to support foreign trade, he said. Then as finance minister he helped the country to multiply its investments in public infrastructure many times over. And then as defense minister he helped continue to take out the country’s top drug lords.
Santos vacillated over the course of his public career about whether he wanted or was fit for the presidency, he said. But he was so successful as a civil servant, he said, that he gained more confidence, and when he had a chance to run for president in 2010, he decided to extend his influence.
And he admitted gaining influence was not just a matter of idealism but pragmatism. “You don’t get to where I am by being simply a good guy,” Santos told the KU alumni magazine. “I try to do it as little as possible, but I must confess, yes, sometimes you have to step on other people. Unfortunately, politics is something that brings out the worst in humankind. If you use it correctly, it’s very gratifying. But sometimes you have to play hard.”
In addition to leading peace negotiations, Santos has been one of the most aggressive world leaders at pushing change in drug policy.
Santos made the push in front of 32 other leaders in America. He had seen that, even though Colombia’s economy was booming, and the drug trade was shrinking, the problems had just been pushed elsewhere. Drug cartels had popped up and grown stronger in Central America and Mexico, he said.
“People go, ‘Oh, you are proposing the legalization of drugs; how awful,’” Santos said at KU in 2012. “Nobody is proposing any legalization of drugs. Simply let us discuss the issues and see if we can fight together because no country by itself can win this war on drugs. We need a multilateral, international position.”
Two weeks after his talk at KU, Santos began talks with FARC, in Oslo, Norway, talks that would four years later lead to the Nobel prize. But not, as of yet, a peace accord.
The challenge, he said, in 2012, to creating peace is the tradeoff between justice now and peace in the future. “If you ask a victim that question, they will always answer, ‘We want more justice,’ because he has been a victim. If you ask the same question to a future victim, they will always say, ‘We want more peace.’”
By the next time Santos returns to KU, he said, he hoped to return with peace at last.
“When we reach peace after persevering,” Santos told the crowd as he accepted the highest alumni award the university offers, “we will say thank you to the University of Kansas for your generosity and hospitality and all that you have done for me.”