On October 7, Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for the progress he has made toward bringing an end to his country’s 52-year civil war. On that date, Santos’s official website published an article reviewing the long journey he has travelled in his quest for a way out of this tragic conflict. In the article, Santos referred to a meeting that he organized 20 years ago with Adam Kahane, a director in Reos Partners’ Montreal office, as “one of the most significant events in the country’s search for peace.”
The meeting took place at the Abbey of Monserrat in Bogota in March 1996. Five years earlier, Kahane had led the Mont Fleur scenario project in South Africa, a process that contributed to South Africa’s transition from apartheid to democracy. South African president Nelson Mandela later told Santos about Kahane’s leadership of the Mont Fleur exercise. Inspired by this example, Santos convened the meeting in Bogota to discuss the possibility of organizing such a process in Colombia.
The meeting included top leaders from politics, business, the military, the church, and academia, plus guerrilla commanders who participated by radio from a hiding place in the hills outside the city. The participants were both excited and nervous to find themselves in such an unusually heterogeneous group. Spotting a paramilitary warlord across the room, one Communist Party city councilor asked Santos, “Do you really expect me to sit down with this man, who has tried to have me killed five times?” Santos replied, “It is precisely so that he does not do so a sixth time that I am inviting you to sit down.”
This meeting led to the organization of a scenario project called Destino Colombia, which Kahane facilitated. The project team consisted of an extraordinary cross-section of national leaders, including politicians, businesspeople, journalists, guerrillas, paramilitary members, academics, activists, peasants, military officers, trade unionists, and young people. They met three times in 1997, for a total of 10 days, at a small hotel outside of Medellin. These workshops were the only time, before or since, that leaders of all of these sectors of Colombian society engaged in an open and in-depth conversation about what was happening and could happen in their country.
The Destino Colombia team came up with four scenarios of possible futures for the country. The first, “When the Sun Rises We’ll See,” was a warning of the chaos that would result if Colombians just let things be and failed to address their tough challenges. The second, “A Bird in the Hand Is Worth Two in the Bush,” described a negotiated compromise between the government and the guerrillas. The third, “Forward March!” envisioned the government—supported by a population frustrated with the continuing violence and operating from the principle that “a hard problem requires a hard solution”—implementing a policy of crushing the guerrillas militarily and pacifying the country. And the fourth, “In Unity Lies Strength,” was a story of a bottom-up transformation of the country toward greater mutual respect and cooperation.
Team members did not at all agree on which scenario was preferable—or which way of dealing with the conflict was best. So beginning in 1998, they presented these narratives as alternative possibilities in newspaper articles, television broadcasts, and small and large meetings all around the country. In the years that followed, the Destino Colombia scenarios became a well-known touchstone for conversations among Colombians about the choices they faced.
In 2010, Santos was elected president. He explained the programme of his new government as a fulfillment of the fourth scenario, “In Unity Lies Strength.” In 2012 he said, “It is truly breathtaking to read the Destino Colombia scenarios now, because they seem more prophetic than academic. It is good to know that the best scenario that we imagined 16 years ago is now beginning to be realized.”
Santos places Destino Colombia—both the stories it told about Colombia’s possible futures and the methodology it used for working across deep divides—at the center of his narrative about what has unfolded in Colombia and about his own lifetime political path. This project is now culminating in the almost-completed peace negotiations with the guerrilla forces. Reos Partners congratulates President Santos on his well-deserved prize and is honored to have been able to accompany him for a small part of this journey.