Valedictory Exercises 2017: Santos Speech

Juan Manuel Santos
Valedictory Exercises, May 19, 2017
University of Virginia

Dear President Sullivan and Members of the Board, distinguished members of the faculty, honored alumni, family members, friends, and - most importantly - the next generation of leaders from across the world!

I feel extraordinarily honored and touched to stand in front of all of you today, and especially the students of the graduating class of 2017, as you celebrate this momentous milestone in your lives! As a parent of one of today´s graduates, I can feel the pride and joy that your family members are experiencing right now.  Let me take this opportunity to offer my deep gratitude for the education and experiences this great and world-famous university has offered my son Esteban and his fellow classmates. 

I feel another connection here too because my country happens to have been established in the same year that Thomas Jefferson founded this university - 1819. We will reach our two hundredth birthday together! Indeed, Colombia was inspired by the very same principles embraced by the founders of this great nation: liberty, equality and democracy. These principles lit the path that led toward our freedom; they fashioned our own birth as a nation, and they continue to guide our way forward even today and will -no doubt- into the future.  

So, what thoughts can I share with you, a new generation of young women and men, as you go out into the world to seek adventure and the fulfillment of your dreams? I suppose I could talk to you about the recipe for success…or the value of wisdom and knowledge…or perhaps the meaning of life…But I am no Steve Jobs! I feel more comfortable talking to you about something a bit more awkward, but more practical to this occasion: failure. 

I want to talk to you about getting knocked down. About the intrinsic value of defeat and what happens when it seems like every obstacle is in your way. Right now, if you have read the international polls suggesting that Colombians are one of the happiest people in the world, you might be wondering: 

"Why is their president being such a downer? We want to be successful!  We don't want to be failures!"

Well, of course you want to be successful. The problem is that success has no guaranteed formula. The only guarantee is that you will face failure more often than success. But if you learn how to use the incredibly valuable lessons that failure offers you to further your goals and dreams, then, and only then, your life will end up being a true success.  

So first, let's consider what success actually means. Is it professional excellence? Is it measured by how many zeroes are in your bank account? Is it the pursuit and exercise of power? I am certain that most of you already know there is much, much more to success than any of these simple and basic definitions. 

My favorite definition of success was beautifully articulated by Ralph Waldo Emerson almost two centuries ago. He wrote:

"What is Success?

To laugh often and much

To win the respect of intelligent people
and the affection of children;

To earn the appreciation of honest critics
and endure the betrayal of false friends;

To appreciate beauty;
To find the best in others;

To leave the world a bit better,
whether by a healthy child, a garden patch or a redeemed social condition;

To know even one life has breathed
easier because you have lived.

This is to have succeeded."

I love this definition and my favorite part is the line that says: "To know even one life has breathed easier BECAUSE YOU HAVE LIVED." That, honored graduates of the Class of 2017, is the true definition of success: to make a difference, to help a friend, a fellow citizen, your community, or your nation be a little bit better, simply BECAUSE YOU EXISTED!

So if that is success, then what is failure? To illustrate this point, let me tell you a few personal stories about my life, defined by a journalist friend of mine as a true paradox: a successful life full of failures and defeats. As a young man about your age, I was a cadet in my country's Naval Academy and there, in my sailing classes, I learned my first valuable lesson, captured perfectly by the Roman philosopher Seneca,"Ignoranti quem portum petat, nullus suus ventus est." Which essentially means: "If we do not know what port we are steering toward, no wind is favorable to us."

My own interpretation of this phrase is one that has guided my life ever since: "When we do know what port we are steering toward, even the most contrary winds can help us reach it." This is what we did in Colombia! We set our sights on our most important port of destination, the most important destination any nation can seek: PEACE.

Peace after more than fifty years of conflict. And we made use of the most ferocious storms and the foulest winds to help us get there. You see, for most of the almost 200 years since our independence, Colombia has lived a painful history of internal war and violence. During the 19th century, we were the country with the most civil wars in all of Latin America. More recently, for more than 50 years, we suffered an internal armed conflict with a Marxist guerrilla group called the FARC. This conflict devastated our country and left over 8 million victims, with over 220,000 dead.  Almost all of my predecessors attempted to defeat the guerrillas militarily. But failure met their efforts. In a geography as vast and complex as Colombia's - our country is larger than California and Texas put together - with jungles and mountains everywhere, that kind of victory proved to be virtually impossible. Many tried to negotiate a resolution through dialogue with this guerrilla group, the oldest and most powerful in the Americas. None of these worthwhile attempts succeeded. Neither side believed in the other's willingness to make and maintain peace. We needed to create the conditions to overcome this mistrust.

The lesson is: You have to know your port of destination, but also understand the weather conditions and the routes you must navigate to take you there. More than 25 years ago, when I met Nelson Mandela in South Africa, he made me realize that we Colombians could not dream of having a prosperous nation if we did not end our internal armed conflict.  In Colombia, generation after generation became used to violence in their daily lives, in the news, everywhere, like a bizarre alternative reality. Because no one in my country younger than 70 had ever experienced a single day of peace, I set peace as my personal port of destination. On the way, however, I experienced many more failures than successes. It was a long, hard journey. I stumbled many, many times. But each time, I picked myself up and tried to learn from each defeat. I sought to overcome each setback. I was stubborn, persistent, and resolute. I became obsessed with reaching this dreamed-of destination for my generation and most importantly, the next generation.

In the 1990s, as a private citizen and journalist, I began to reach out to members of the illegal armed groups. Big mistake! I was denounced as a conspirator against the government. Some years later, when I was Minister of Defense, I became very popular because I delivered the most crushing military strikes that the FARC guerrillas had ever seen, taking down many of their top leaders. When I became president, many thought I would continue on the path of war and seek the complete destruction of my enemies. It was the easy, natural, and popular option. So, when I announced instead that I would seek peace through dialogue, I was called a traitor. Sadly, many in Colombia still think of me that way. And I learned that, ironically, it is much more popular to make war than to seek peace. My polls went down dramatically. My advisers suggested I should pull back. But even in the face of these odds, I decided to stay the course. I knew deep down in my heart that as long as there was even a slight chance - a small opening - to bring to an end such a bloody and tragic war, I just had to try. If I hadn't, I could never have forgiven myself…

You too will discover someday that your conscience will whisper in your ear, late at night, telling you the right thing to do. I ask you, follow that voice! It's the voice of your inner wisdom! In 2014, I ran for reelection, right in the middle of the peace negotiations. And guess what? I got fewer votes in the first round than a candidate who had run against the peace process. We won in the second round, but our troubles were not over. Late last year, the unthinkable happened. After six years of incredibly difficult negotiations, a peace agreement was signed. Our dream was on the verge of becoming reality.  As I had promised the Colombian people, I put the agreement to a popular vote in a referendum. And again… guess what? To everyone's surprise, the NO vote won, albeit by an extremely small margin. We experienced a kind of Brexit after Brexit! We had a Fake News problem before Fake News became a hashtag. We had underestimated how a campaign of lies and messages of fear, division, and exclusion would sway many votes and deter many voters. The country and the international community were shocked.

So what did we do? I immediately accepted the result and embarked on a strategic dialogue with the opposition. I met with many of the leaders who had criticized the agreement and dedicated myself to listen to their concerns. Despair was beginning to take a hold of Colombia. But then our young people - people like you - decided to take their future in their hands, and they went out to the streets, to the plazas, to demand peace now, a new agreement now! And exactly four days after losing the referendum, I got a very surprising call informing me that I had won the Nobel Peace Prize. It was like a gift from God!

There's another lesson here: Whenever you are in deep trouble, PRAY! God is merciful…With this new and unexpected momentum, we went back to the FARC and re-opened negotiations. The end result was a better agreement than the original. In fact, many experts consider this peace agreement as the best and most comprehensive signed so far in the world to resolve an internal armed conflict. So as you see, precisely through failure after failure, defeat after defeat, we were able to create new opportunities and we made what seemed impossible, possible. In the words of Jefferson: "Nothing can stop a person with the right mental attitude from achieving his goal."

So today, dear members of the great and formidable Wahoo Community, Colombia is finally building an enduring peace. Today, in our military hospitals, the beds that once were full with wounded soldiers are now almost empty. Today, thousands of guerrilla fighters are laying down their weapons, learning new skills, and getting ready to reintegrate themselves into society under our democratic system based on the rule of law. Our ship is finally arriving at its destination. Not because it was easy, but because it was hard. It was with these wise words, that JFK summoned your grandparents' generation to support a mission to the moon.

So as you leave here today, ask yourself what is and what will be your port of destination? What is your moonshot? Every storm, every foul wind, every force in the universe, will help you get there. That I promise you. Today's polarized world is facing political upheaval, the threat of terror, eruptions of brutal sectarian warfare, and the rising - terrifying - possibility of nuclear conflict. The answer is not to give in to fear, intolerance and hatred toward those who are different than you.  Your generation can not and must not retreat and give in to these regressive and sinister forces!  Your generation must lead NOW, not later. NOW! Your leadership must unify, not divide. And that leadership must be wise at your young age.  That is the responsibility you will carry starting today, no matter your chosen profession.  Your generation has compassion. Your generation believes in the unifying power of love. Your generation sees diversity as a strength, not a weakness.  You will do the right thing for the rest of us. Because you understand that this is not the moment to come apart, but to come together. This is not the moment to turn away, but to reach out.This is not the time to disconnect, but to re-connect. Differences in race, creed or sexual preference cannot distract us from this essential, indisputable truth: we are all humans. We are all one! We are only one people, and we call it… the world! We are only one race, and we call it… humanity!

So dear graduates, I urge you to be successful in making a difference; in creating a more compassionate, tolerant, loving world. And let it be said about you that "one life has breathed easier because you have lived". Our future depends on YOUR success! Congratulations, CLASS OF 2017!