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Colombia's President Wins Nobel Peace Prize


What an astonishing 12 days it has been for the president of Colombia, Juan Manuel Santos. Last week, he signed a peace treaty with the leader of a Marxist insurgency that's carried on a civil war in Colombia for more than 50 years. Then on Sunday, Colombia's voters rejected that treaty by a razor-thin margin in a binding referendum. Now comes this morning - Santos was named this year's recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize.

The Norwegian Nobel Committee said Santos is being recognized, quote, "for his resolute efforts to bring the country's more than 50-year-long civil war to an end." The committee said Santos told them he is grateful and overwhelmed. And let's talk about this with reporter John Otis who has covered the war in Colombia for NPR. He joins us on Skype.

John, good morning.

JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: Good morning, David.

GREENE: So tell us why, in your mind, Santos has been given this award. What did he do to earn it?

OTIS: Well, David, it's interesting. You know, Santos - he started out more as a warrior than a peace activist. He was the defense minister in the previous government. Santos - he led a military offensive that severely weakened their rebel group known as the FARC. That helped catapult him to the presidency in 2010. But once he took the oath of office, he surprised everyone here by just sort of turning around and opening peace talks with the FARC. He decided that they had been weakened so much on the battlefield that now really was the time to open peace talks with the guerrillas who have been fighting for 50 years. It was time to bring this war to an end.

Santos has staked his presidency on this peace process. It's been four very long, hard, tough years of negotiations in Havana, Cuba. The negotiations are not very popular among his people because Colombians don't like the FARC because they've committed so many human rights abuses. Santos lost almost all of his popularity. His job approval ratings are in the basement. But all of...

GREENE: And then saw the peace treaty be rejected by voters, which was them expressing their concern for this peace deal.

OTIS: That's correct. Just on Sunday - you know, Santos said he was going to put this peace treaty to...

OTIS: ...A vote. And on Sunday, voters came out and kind of shocked the world by voting...


OTIS: ...Against this peace treaty.

GREENE: Well, I mean, shocked the world - and this is pretty shocking news that he wins this award after everything we - he's been through - right? I mean, you, as I understand it, there's sort of a personal side to this for you. You did not even expect to be covering this story. A lot of people thought that someone else would get this award. We had to wake you up to give you the news, and you sounded it pretty overwhelmed yourself.

OTIS: It really is amazing because, you know, just last Sunday, this whole thing was rejected by the voters. It was by a very slim margin. But voters said no to Santos' peace treaty, and that threw everything into disarray. The FARC guerrillas were concentrating and preparing to disarm, but now everything's on hold. In fact, I'm down here in southern Colombia. I'm going to be heading out to talk to some of the FARC people about, you know, this limbo that the country's in. It's a huge political crisis. Sunday was the low point for Santos' presidency. People were calling him a lame duck. Some people were even thinking that he might resign.


OTIS: So, you know, this is a tremendous victory for Santos and for Colombia. It's actually only the second time a Colombian's won the Nobel. Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the great novelist, won it in 1982 for literature.

GREENE: All right. I suppose we'll have to see now if winning this award gives him the ability to try and get that peace deal put into effect, even after that vote. Reporter John Otis, speaking to us from Colombia.

Thanks so much, John.

OTIS: Thanks much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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