From a hawk to a dove

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos was born in a country at war, among the most violent in Latin America, and went on to wage a career in conflict. All of his predecessors tried to make peace in the 50-year fight with FARC and they all failed. How did he do what people thought was impossible?


It was an honour for President Santos and his family to join us at a recent Virgin Unite gathering and share his wisdom about personal, professional and societal growth – going, as he put it, “from a hawk to a dove”. I wanted to share some of his observations, which I think we can all learn from.

The navy taught President Santos some important lessons early on, which really chimed with my own appetite for being adventurous and taking calculated risks. “Look those ships, they’re safe there in harbour – but that’s not what ships are made for. You have to go out and face uncertainty.”


Many years later, after building careers in journalism and economics, he became Colombia’s Minister of Foreign Trade, which had a huge impact upon his life. He had a 15 minute meeting with Nelson Mandela in Johannesburg, which went on to last five and a half hours. He was amazed by South Africa’s transformative Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and explored the power of forgiveness with Madiba. “He explained to me the importance of the victims, to respect their feelings and what they went through. He said ‘your country will never progress until you finish the war’. I said I will fight for peace.”

As Minister of Defence and then as President he thought strategically, learning not just how but why Colombia had failed to reach peace before. He studied examples of other countries and applied the lessons to Colombia’s unique situation. “I needed to create the necessary conditions to achieve our objectives.” This involved changing the military balance of power, proving to the guerilla movement that peace was in their own interest, and gaining the support of the regional and international community. “I needed to wage war to achieve peace.”

President Santos

He urged his army and police to respect the guerillas and treat them as adversaries, not enemies. “Enemies you destroy – adversaries you defeat, but you don’t destroy. You are brothers of the same nation, you have the same flag. There are effective ways to achieve a successful ending.” As he went from a hawk to a dove, his approval ratings fell – people thought they had elected a war hero, and now he wanted peace. But he had a purpose. “When you have your port of destination you persevere and find a way to continue.”

He tried to humanise his adversaries. “All these guerillas have families, mothers, brothers who they haven’t seen for many years. I believe you have to bring people together, regardless.” His team created a campaign including FARC members’ families, urging them to lay down their arms and be welcomed back into society. They put handwritten messages from family members of individual guerillas in floating, lit-up pods that travelled down rivers used by FARC. They were moved by the messages, and the number of guerillas surrendering grew exponentially, while deaths reduced enormously. “It had an important effect in winning the war in a more humane way and planting the seeds for sustainable peace.”

After six years of negotiations – and a referendum result that split the country - President Santos agreed a peace deal with FARC and went on to win the Nobel Peace Prize. However, he knows that to sign an agreement is one thing – to make it last is another. “The next phase, peace building, is much more difficult. Making war is much easier than making peace. Leadership in making peace is not vertical, it’s horizontal. You have to persuade and convince, not give orders.”

So how do you go about laying these foundations? “Start by teaching children how to respect differences. Everything is connected: war, poverty, climate change. We have to realise we are only one race – all of us, humanity. We have only one house where we live – our world. If we don’t understand that we will continue to contribute to the deterioration of our house and our race. But I am optimistic this is a message more and more understood by the whole world.”

President Santos

We are now privileged to welcome President Santos as one of The Elders, the independent group of global leaders incubated by Virgin Unite and co-founded by Nelson Mandela and Graça Machel. He also serves as a fellow commissioner on the Global Commission on Drug Policy, working towards treating drugs as a health issue not a criminal problem, a topic very close to his heart. President Santos has also launched the Multidimensional Poverty Peer Network, a global network for policymakers engaged in implementing multidimensional poverty measures.

He still believes he has much to achieve. I’m sure his experience and wisdom will be huge assets to these organisations and the world. “The impossible can become possible if you persevere. Go against the current and do what is correct, not what is popular. My port of destination today is to continue.”

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