Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos invoked the wisdom of University of Virginia founder Thomas Jefferson Wednesday as he described his government’s peace negotiations with Marxist rebels to an audience in U.Va.’s Rotunda.
Following an introduction from U.Va. President Teresa A. Sullivan, Santos shared a famous Jefferson quote.
“He said, ‘I like the dreams of the future better than the history of the past,’ and that is what we try to do in Colombia; we are trying to dream about a better future, and convert those dreams into reality,” Santos told an invited group of students and faculty.
One day after meeting with President Obama in the White House, Santos told the packed Dome Room his government’s negotiations with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, are progressing and hold great promise for the South American country.
“We are advancing in the correct direction,” he said of the peace talks. The rebels have fought a 50-year guerrilla war against the government, funding the insurrection in part with money from drug trafficking.
This was the president’s second official visit to the United States since taking office in 2010. Santos said he was very pleased that Colombia’s improved security situation has made it possible for Bogota and Washington to hold wider discussions on such things as technology, biotechnology and education.
“The traditional items on the agenda, drug trafficking, security … are now secondary,” he said.
Santos said that since taking office, he has worked hard to improve Colombia’s economy, succeeding in lowering inequality, reducing the poverty rate and improving job growth.
“And, said not by me but by the head of the International Monetary Fund, [Colombia] … is one of the most successful economies in the whole word,” Santos said.
During a question-and-answer session, the president said bridging Colombia’s income gap has required several different approaches, including creating affordable housing, offering state-funded primary school education and improving technology.
“Every single municipality is connected by broadband and fiber optic,” Santos said. “What I have tried to do is to give – especially to the poorest people – the same access to the Internet … giving away computers and tablets and connecting every single school.” The goal is to provide even the poorest Colombians with the same access to technology as the rich, he said.
After the talk, Santos said he was honored to speak at U.Va.
“The fact that Thomas Jefferson is the founder and the main inspiration for this University for me is extremely important, because the principles that he cherished are the same ideas that we are trying to pursue in my government and in my country,” he said.
Santos also cited another link between Jefferson and Colombia.
“He even was a very good friend of our liberator, Simón Bolívar,” who was instrumental in the fight for independence from Spain.
Eduardo Lopez, a third-year student from Colombia who was in the audience, said he was thrilled when he learned his president was coming to U.Va. He was impressed with the president’s candor.
“Some of the questions were pretty tough. I don’t even know if I would have answered half of them,” he said.
Santos was a guest of Executive Vice President and Provost John D. Simon.
His address can be viewed here.