Former Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos MC/MPA 1981, speaking at a recent John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum, recalled two key pieces of advice that defined his presidency. The first he learned while a student at Harvard Kennedy School: A leader needs to think quickly but judge slowly. The second he learned from former President of South Africa and fellow Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Nelson Mandela who said, “A strong leader finds a way to heal his country.”

Santos, whose Forum appearance was a conversation with Nicholas Burns, Roy and Barbara Goodman Family Professor of the Practice of Diplomacy and International Relations, served as president of Colombia from 2010 to 2018. During his presidency, he oversaw the establishment of the historic peace agreement that ended 50 years of civil war in his country. Santos recalled the unprecedented role that victims of the war played in the negotiations.  “This was the first time the victims of the war were put at the center of negotiations,” he said. “They were the pillars of the negotiations, which is unique in history.” He also stated that the peace process would have not been possible without international partners, including the United States, Russia, Cuba, China, and neighboring Latin American countries. For his efforts in bringing peace to Colombia, President Santos received the 2016 Nobel Peace Prize.


During the Forum, President Santos discussed a number of other topics:

On Negotiating with FARC (the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia)

“I followed what I call the Rabin Doctrine (named for the late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin)—I will negotiate as if there is no terrorism and fight terrorism like there is no peace process. I said to FARC that nothing is agreed until everything is agreed.”


On the crisis in Venezuela

“Venezuela is in economic ruin and political disarray. This is worse than a catastrophe. [It is] the richest country in South America in terms of natural resources, and yet its people are starving without food and dying without medicine.” 

“Venezuela is like a plane running out of fuel. You can have a soft landing or a hard crash. Clearly we need a soft landing, but we must engage all of the key stakeholders to make this happen. The U.S., Russia, Cuba, China all must be involved.” 


On Climate Change  

“We must make the world much more conscious of the need to act fast. We all should be worried about what is happening with climate change ... we must make the world much more conscious of the need to act fast.”


On his decision to go into politics

“An old, wise man said to me, ‘You can become the publisher of a newspaper, and you will have influence all your life, but that is different from having power. Power is getting things done, and you’re a doer… go into politics, go into public service.’” 

“I have a cause, a purpose, something to fight for, something to try to achieve, and that for me was extremely important. And this is something that I advise all of you to do—try to find a goal, try to find an objective, and fight for it. And don’t get discouraged if you fail. You stand up, and that makes life more interesting, much more exciting, and much more fulfilling.”

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos MPA 1981 spoke at the John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum on what drove him to politics, the unique approach to ending a five-decade-long civil war, and the lessons that he learned along the way.

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