If you have read any of Steven Cohen’s recent in-depth reporting from Colombia for The New Republic (see here and here), you’ll know that, when it comes to the principal actors, there are no good guys in the Colombian conflict. The government, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the renegade paramilitary forces that control large areas of the Colombian countryside, and the paramilitary elements that have embedded themselves in all branches of the ruling class—their internecine struggle for power has resulted in misery for countless people who have been killed, “disappeared,” and displaced. It is not a conflict that lends itself to easy classification or description, extending to the U.S.’s war on drugs and Big Agriculture’s outsized presence in the country. Let’s just say that you should think twice about buying that banana at the supermarket.
That is why it’s troubling that the Norwegian Nobel Committee awarded the Peace Prize to Santos for his efforts to bring an end to the fight between the government and the FARC, a 52-year-old insurgency that amounts to longest-running conflict in the Western Hemisphere. Santos suffered a heavy setback this week when Colombians voted in a plebiscite to shoot down his peace agreement with the FARC, and the Peace Prize is an attempt by the Nobel Committee to swing public opinion in favor of peace. Nothing wrong with peace, of course. And there are signs that the award has rejuvenated momentum for the ratification of an accord. But then why wasn’t a representative of the FARC included? And is Santos himself really worthy of the award?
As Cohen reports, Santos presided over one of the worst atrocities of recent years as defense minister in the government of his predecessor, former President Alvaro Uribe. Under a program that compensated soldiers for targeting FARC fighters, the military killed thousands of innocent civilians and pretended they were rebels killed in battle. Uncovered in 2008, the so-called “false positives” scandal has been laid at the feet of Santos for introducing an incentives structure that was bound to result in extrajudicial killings. Then there are the economic agreements that Santos has pushed in the aftermath of the FARC peace deal, including one that distributes land to landless peasants, only to demand that they develop the land in conjunction with agro-national companies that, with the help of paramilitary gangs, have been booting farmers from their land for years. One lawmakers told Cohen it was a “declaration of war on the peasant farmer.”
As I said, it’s complicated. There is no agent in the Colombian conflict who is not somehow implicated in a blood-chilling web of violence and power. The problem with awarding Santos the Nobel Peace Prize is that it makes things very simple, boiling the conflict down to a champion of peace battling the forces of inertia and darkness.