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Genius, passion of Colombian leader and Nobel winner was evident in his KU days

Colombia’s President Juan Manuel Santos is embraced by his wife, Maria Clemencia Rodriguez, after speaking to journalists at the presidential palace in Bogota, Colombia. Santos won the Nobel Peace Prize on Friday, just days after voters narrowly rejected a peace deal he signed with rebels of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, FARC.
Colombia’s President Juan Manuel Santos is embraced by his wife, Maria Clemencia Rodriguez, after speaking to journalists at the presidential palace in Bogota, Colombia. Santos won the Nobel Peace Prize on Friday, just days after voters narrowly rejected a peace deal he signed with rebels of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, FARC. AP

For half a century in Colombia, no one has been able to wage peace with the terrorizing rebel forces of FARC with such grace and hope as University of Kansas graduate Juan Manuel Santos.

On Friday, Santos, Colombia’s president since 2010, received the Nobel Peace Prize for his work-in-progress.

A friend in Overland Park who knew Santos at KU has stayed close as his friend took on the challenges in what has been the longest-running war in the Americas.

“Kidnappings, more than 200,000 murders … drug sales … disruptions to the economy, destroyed roads and bridges — all of this has come from FARC,” said Joe Spease, 63, now the CEO of the clean-energy company WindSoHy in Overland Park.

To know that Santos, 65, is negotiating an end to this war where no one else could fits the image of the young Santos who as a student, even at parties, would turn conversations to political drama of the time — the leftist revolutions in South America, the Vietnam War.

“He always had a very strong, analytical mind,” Spease said. “Always thinking on the problems in society. All the things we saw in him early on are on display now — just wiser, more experienced.”

The Norwegian Nobel Committee honored Santos for his effort, even though his negotiated peace took a fall when a public referendum to enact it narrowly lost in a low turnout just days ago.

Santos and leaders with FARC, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, have not given up on the peace effort and could bring new terms to another vote.

After being told of his award, Santos dedicated the prize to Colombians and the victims of the civil war, and urged people who had rejected the peace accord to join in continuing the efforts for peace.

He praised “especially the millions of victims that have suffered in this war that we are on the verge of ending,” in an interview posted on the Nobel Foundation’s Facebook page. “We are very, very close. We just need to push a bit further to persevere.”

The Norwegian Nobel Committee, in a press release Friday, emphasized “ the importance of the fact that President Santos is now inviting all parties to participate in a broad-based national dialogue aimed at advancing the peace process.”

“Even those who opposed the peace accord have welcomed such a dialogue,” the committee said. “The Nobel Committee hopes that all parties will take their share of responsibility and participate constructively in the upcoming peace talks.”

The talks have been under way four years in Cuba, with Rodrigo Londono as the rebel leader — though the Nobel committee did not include Londono as an honoree.

Londono reacted to Santos’ award on Twitter by saying “the only prize to which we aspire” is one of social justice for Colombia, without far-right militias or retaliation.

He later congratulated Santos, as well as Cuba, Norway, Venezuela and Chile, which helped facilitate the talks.

KU Alumni Association President Heath Peterson shared his praise on the association’s web page.

“This great honor only adds to the immense pride KU alumni around the world have felt for their fellow Jayhawk since President Santos devoted himself to the cause of peace in Colombia,” he said. “Our international missions, as educators and alumni advocates, will continue with an energized pace thanks to President Santos, whom we are proud to call one of our own.”

Santos, not surprisingly, studied economics and poltical science at KU, said Spease, who at the time was studying social welfare.

Santos and Spease were part of a social group on campus loosely organized by Venezuelan student and activist Maria “Maru” Angaratia, who was from a powerful Venezuelan family, Spease said.

The group enjoyed socializing, and Santos liked to sing and play games as much as anyone, he said.

“But instead of just no-holds-barred parties, we got into very serious conversations,” Spease said.

“His genius, his passion and his concern for his country was all there,” he said. “We’re all really proud of him. A lot of bad elements are going away (in Colombia) as a result of this peace agreement. This is really a big deal.”

Santos returned to Kansas in 2012, speaking at the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics when KU’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences honored him with the Alumni Distinguished Achievement Award.

Santos, who was re-elected president by Colombian voters in 2014, said at the Dole Institute that he hoped by the next time he returned he would be talking about peace in his country.

Now the world is watching to see if the peace talks can be revived.

The Nobel Peace Prize makes for a “timely message,” U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said. “This award says to them: You have come too far to turn back now,” Ban said. “The peace process should inspire our world.”

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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