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Colombia president’s gay nephew talks LGBT rights, peace deal

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Pedro Santos is the gay nephew of Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos. (Photo courtesy of Pedro Santos)

BOGOTA, Colombia — Pedro Santos, the nephew of Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, was 14 when he came out as gay to his parents nearly a decade ago.

Pedro Santos’ father, Francisco Santos, who is Juan Manuel Santos’ brother, was Colombia’s vice president at the time. Pedro Santos told the Washington Blade on Sept. 28 during an interview at a coffee shop in the Chapinero neighborhood of the Colombian capital of Bogotá that he planned to tell his parents over dinner at a restaurant, but he had to abruptly cancel the reservation because his brother was admitted to the hospital with appendicitis.

Pedro Santos instead brought his parents to a McDonald’s near the hospital.

“Now imagine my dad is in office,” Pedro Santos, who is now 22, told the Blade. “He has 100 bodyguards. My mom has 100 bodyguards. I have 100 bodyguards. They evacuate the McDonald’s. The McDonald’s is secured for my mom, my dad and me and we’re in this small table for three people in this regular McDonald’s with 100 people listening to me coming out to my parents.”

Pedro Santos described the scene to the Blade as “crazy.”

“I’m just sobbing and sobbing for one hour until my father tells me, ‘You’re gay, right?’ and I tell him, ‘Yes I’m gay,’” he recalled, noting his parents’ reaction was “beautiful.”

‘I can talk from a place of privilege’

Pedro Santos sat down with the Blade against the backdrop of the expansion of rights based on sexual orientation and gender identity in Colombia and the implementation of an LGBT-inclusive peace agreement between the country’s government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia that his uncle helped to broker.

Gays and lesbians have been able to legally marry in Colombia since the country’s Constitutional Court in 2016 ruled banning marriage between same-sex couples was unconstitutional. The Colombian Congress in May rejected a proposed referendum on whether to rescind adoption rights to same-sex couples.

Juan Manuel Santos’ government in 2015 issued a decree to notaries and registrars that said transgender people could legally change their name and gender on identification cards and other government documents without surgery.

Angélica Lozano — a bisexual woman who is the first openly LGBT person elected to the country’s congress — in March told the Blade during an exclusive interview that she plans to run for a seat in the Colombian Senate. Her partner, Sen. Claudia López, is running for president as a candidate for the centrist Green Alliance (Alianza Verde in Spanish.)

A rainbow crosswalk at an intersection in the Chapinero neighborhood of Bogotá, Colombia. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity remain commonplace in Colombia, in spite of these advances. Former President Álvaro Uribe — under whose administration Francisco Santos served as the country’s vice president — and former Inspector General Alejandro Ordóñez are among the most vocal opponents of LGBT rights in the country.

Pedro Santos — a photographer who lives part-time in Brooklyn, N.Y., and spent the bulk of his childhood in Spain — last spoke with his uncle five years ago at his sister’s graduation. Pedro Santos told the Blade that his uncle is “somewhat” responsible for advancing LGBT rights in Colombia, but acknowledged violence and discrimination remain serious problems.

“I can talk from a place of privilege,” said Pedro Santos. “I’m a gay male and there are a lot of trans women and trans men that don’t come with the same luck as we do.”

Father’s party ‘misconstrued the truth’ before peace referendum

Juan Manuel Santos was Colombia’s defense minister during Uribe’s government. Voters in 2010 elected Juan Manuel Santos to succeed Uribe, who was unable to run for a third term under the country’s constitution.

Juan Manuel Santos had already begun to move away from Uribe’s right-wing policies by the time he took office. These differences became stark after Juan Manuel Santos and FARC Commander Rodrigo “Timochenko” Londoño in 2016 announced a peace deal to end the decades-long war that killed more than 200,000 people.

Colombia Diversa and Caribe Afirmativo — two Colombian LGBT advocacy groups — took part in the peace talks that began in Havana in 2012.

Uribe in 2013 founded the right-wing Center Democratic Party (Partido Centro Democrático in Spanish) of which Francisco Santos is a member.

Uribe and Ordóñez ahead of last October’s referendum on the agreement urged Colombians to oppose it because it “put the stability of the family at risk.”

They sharply criticized Juan Manuel Santos and then-Education Minister Gina Parody in the months leading up to the vote over a proposed handbook that contained guidance on how schools can respond to LGBT-specific issues. Uribe and Ordóñez used the controversy to galvanize opposition to the agreement, which Juan Manuel Santos and Londoño signed in the city of Cartagena six days before the referendum.

Pedro Santos recalled the streets “were filled with homophobes, with people who were chanting that we were not humans, that we should not deserve a vote or we should not deserve to get married.”

“It was for the first time that I really got scared that I actually live in a country where there’s no space for me,” he told the Blade. “I had never felt that way before. It was very scary.”

Pedro Santos’ cousin, who is Juan Manuel Santos’ son, outed him on Twitter in August 2016 when he asked his father during the protests, “I’m just wondering what Pancho Santos may feel about having a gay son.”

“He literally outed me,” Pedro Santos told the Blade. “No one knew I existed.”

Pedro Santos said he understood from which his cousin was coming “because I understand what my father’s party was doing is very wrong.”

“But I don’t think you should mix family and politics,” he added. “It just agitated everything.”

Voters narrowly rejected the agreement during the referendum that sharply divided the country.

“My father’s party misconstrued the truth,” Pedro Santos told the Blade. “They started using the Christian vote and the very conservative vote to go against those education (standards) so a lot of people came out to protest those things.”

Pedro Santos supports peace agreement implementation

The Colombian congress last November ratified the peace agreement.

FARC guerrillas have moved into resettlement areas the Colombian government established, but they have criticized them because of a lack of water and other basic infrastructure. The guerrillas have officially disarmed under U.N. supervision and formed a political party.

Pedro Santos noted his father and his party are “very against” the agreement. He told the Blade he was also opposed to it before congress ratified it.

“These people have massacred us for 50 years,” said Pedro Santos. “They have literally played football with our heads, that’s how crazy they were. It’s things that people can’t imagine, right, so they came here and they say we want peace.”

Pedro Santos mocked the FARC’s ability to form a political party under the agreement. He also told the Blade the decision to award Juan Manuel Santos the 2016 Nobel Peace Prize “should have raised a few eyebrows over here.”

Saul Castellar, left, speaks with Ludwin Cabas, manager of a “House of Peace” (“Casa de Paz” in Spanish) in Soledad, Colombia, on March 13, 2017. Caribe Afirmativo, an LGBT advocacy group that works throughout northern Colombia, has opened four “Houses of Peace” throughout the region in order to support the implementation of the peace agreement. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)​

In spite of his reservations, Pedro Santos told the Blade he is willing to support the agreement’s implementation.

“I can just cry about it and try to deny it happened or help people and try to make it work,” he said.

Pedro Santos told the Blade his father respects his position.

“He’s very fine with everything I do because he understands I’m very neutral to everything,” he said. “He respects my position.”

’Everybody hates’ Trump in Colombia

Pedro Santos was not in the U.S. when President Trump was elected.

Lozano in March told the Blade she was concerned the Trump administration would cut aid to Colombia. Pedro Santos said this concern has decreased amid growing tensions between the U.S. and North Korea and Trump’s rhetoric towards immigrants and other disadvantaged groups.

“The precedent that he’s setting is I’m white so I have the power to mock you and I have the power, like I own you basically,” Pedro Santos told the Blade, referring to Trump’s response to the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va., on Aug. 12 that left Heather Heyer dead. “All of this is just letting white people know it’s okay to be racist, which is not and this is setting a horrible precedent for the U.S.”

Pedro Santos also discussed the Trump’s decision to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program that has allowed roughly 800,000 young undocumented immigrants to remain in the U.S. and obtain work permits.

He told the Blade he has undocumented friends who have been living in the U.S. “for their whole lives.” Pedro Santos added some of his friends’ relatives have been deported.

“It hits very close to me because I’m a brown kid,” he said. “I am someone who is looked down upon. People don’t know how to differentiate it over there (in the U.S.) and even if I come from a family that has more money I am still a brown kid.”

Pedro Santos ended the interview with a blunt assessment of how Colombians view Trump.

“Everybody hates him,” he told the Blade. “Even the people who are the closest to the far-right think he’s atrocious.”

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