Colombia: a tale of two leaders

Juan Manuel Santos has made a refreshing start as Colombia’s president by departing from the policies of his predecessor, Álvaro Uribe. But to map a new political direction he will need support from uncertain allies, says Adam Isacson.
Adam Isacson
19 August 2010

Colombia’s new president might appear to be have earned a long honeymoon. Juan Manuel Santos’s second-round election victory on 20 June 2010 gave him 69% of the vote, a decisive defeat of his main rival, former Bogota mayor Antanas Mockus, and thus a robust mandate; the political parties that pledge to support him control 80% of both houses of Colombia’s new congress, elected in March 2010 (see "Colombia: the green wave that wasn't", 7 June 2010). Yet in the interregnum until his inauguration on 7 August, and in the weeks since, he has chosen not to rest on his achievement but to test the limits of his political inheritance.

Juan Manuel Santos is a scion of one of Bogotá’s leading families, with a Harvard University education and ownership of a media company that publishes Colombia’s most-circulated newspaper. He has been a long-term heavyweight on Colombia’s political scene who has served as a cabinet minister under three presidents, including Cesar Gaviria and Andres Pastrana). His political career has been marked more by calculating pragmatism than by personal loyalty or strict adherence to principle, reflecting the fact that Santos is above all a master of political manoeuvre who knows power and how to acquire it.

A political shadow

But for all these favourable circumstances and credentials, Santos’s honeymoon could be shorter than expected. He is neither a natural nor a particularly charismatic politician. More seriously, much of his electoral success is owed to the popularity of his predecessor, the two-term Álvaro Uribe, who left office only because Colombia’s constitutional court decided in February 2010 that he could not run for a third term (see "The next Colombia", 31 March 2010).

Uribe’s record represented a potent boost to whichever figure who, from the same political wing, sought to inherit his office. The previous president is a tireless far-right politician with a strong populist streak whose hardline security policies reduced (though never eliminated) the violence wrought by leftist guerrillas and rightist paramilitaries in Colombia’s forty-year internal conflict. A solid majority of Colombians - feeling safer than they had in many years - chose to rally around Uribe, overlooking a host of human-rights and corruption scandals; in eight years, his approval-rating never dipped below the high 60s (see “Álvaro Uribe, otra vez? Colombia's re-election debate”, 29 May 2009).

Santos was the Uribe government’s defence minister for nearly three years, a period that coincided with several celebrated victories against Colombia’s largest guerrilla group, the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia / Farc) (see Colombia: a miraculous rescue, and what comes next", 7 July 2008). It is natural, then, that the public tend to associate the two men. But they are in fact very different sorts of politician.

Santos is neither a bedrock conservative nor a populist. His exact beliefs may often be hard to identify, but he professes to be a technocratic “third way” moderate (indeed, this once-renowned phrase formed the title of a book he published in 1999, with Britain’s then prime minister Tony Blair listed as a collaborator). Santos did not support Álvaro Uribe’s first election in 2002, but by the end of the latter’s first four-year term had joined forces with the popular president as head of the largest pro-Uribe party, Partido de la U ("La U"). This was composed of politicians who, like Santos himself, had deserted Colombia’s traditional Liberal and Conservative parties. After Uribe’s re-election in 2006 he moved to the defence ministry, where he never publicly strayed from the president’s political views.

A five-fold break

This makes it all the more remarkable that since either his election victory on 20 June or his inauguration on 7 August, Santos has departed from Uribe’s policies on no less than five fronts:

* Venezuela Álvaro Uribe had adopted an increasingly confrontational tone with neighbouring Venezuela, led by Hugo Chávez. In late July, while still president, he convened a special session of the Organisation of American States to voice accusations that Hugo Chávez’s government was fostering the presence of Farc guerrillas in Venezuelan territory. On 10 August, within seventy-two hours of taking office, Santos was hosting Chávez in Colombia for a meeting at which the two presidents agreed to restore diplomatic relations and to improve trade links

* Peace Álvaro Uribe, whose father was murdered by the Farc, sought to defeat the guerrillas on the battlefield; he insisted that peace talks would only be possible if they were a discussion of surrender terms. A week before Santos took office, Alfonso Cano - the Farc’s paramount head - released a rare video in which, amid a raft of hostile rhetoric, he indicated that the group might be open to negotiations without the preconditions it had demanded in the past (see Ana Carrigan, “Colombia's guerrillas: between past and future”, 2 July 2008). In his inaugural speech, Santos appeared to respond by indicating that “the door to negotiations is not locked”

* Judiciary Álvaro Uribe quarrelled constantly with Colombia’s judicial branch, which sought to investigate human-rights abuses and scandals involving the presidents’ associates; struck down security measures that would have curtailed civil liberties; and ended the president’s effort to run for a third term. The relationship between president and judiciary got so bad that Uribe sued the supreme-court’s chief justice for libel, and made fierce accusations against judges: that they were “nostalgic for terrorism”, “lending themselves” to terrorism, and “trafficking in witnesses”. For his part, Santos has taken immediate steps to improve the atmosphere, for example by meeting with justices to initiate a dialogue that Uribe never maintained

* Land Álvaro Uribe’s presidency was a period of increasing concentration of wealth in what already was one of the world’s most unequal countries. The inequality grew especially in the rural sector, where agricultural policies - where subsidies to land-titling explicitly benefited agribusiness and large landholders, while small family-farms suffered. Land-tenure is a hugely important issue in Colombia and underlies much of the decades-long conflict. Here too, Santos has sharply moved from Uribe’s approach: by nominating an agriculture minister who was a strong critic of the former president, naming an advisor whose last book condemns the country’s recent history of systematic despojo (plundering) of poor-people’s land, and calling in his inaugural speech for smallholders “to be owners of the most productive lands in Colombia”

* Military When he was defence minister, Santos presided over the most horrific scandal to hit Colombia’s troubled military during the Uribe government: the revelation that the armed forces murdered perhaps 2,000 civilian non-combatants, falsely claiming them as combat-kills in order to reap rewards for high body-counts (see Jenny Pearce, "Colombia: who are the enemies of peace and democracy?", 9 April 2008). Colombia’s human-rights groups criticised Santos for responding too slowly to these allegations, while the relatively mild human-rights measures Santos did take in the wake of the scandal - firing twenty-seven officers, and passing human-rights cases to the civilian justice system - made him unpopular with officers who sought to defend the institution at all costs (a hard line supported by Uribe). Now, Santos has named a military high-command from a different faction, one considered to carry less political baggage.

An uneasy coalition

These more moderate moves by Santos are a welcome break from the Uribe government’s excesses. But it is not clear how much he will be able to bend the pro-Uribe coalition - upon which his ability to govern depends - before it breaks.

Colombia’s economic and political elite is small, but not monolithic. Álvaro Uribe, like no modern Colombian president before him, was able to govern by knitting together a coalition joining two very different
power-centres: the urban “cosmopolitans” and the rural “warlords”.

The urbanites are in the media, banking, service and manufacturing sectors, and the political groups who ran the country for the past few
generations. They tend to be highly educated and rather moderate in their politics, though there are a handful of ideologues on the right and
left. Some may have corruption issues, but most are not directly
involved in organised crime, narco-trafficking, paramilitarism or other
illegal violence. Juan Manuel Santos, like most “cosmopolitans”, did not
support Álvaro Uribe at first, but threw his support to him before very long.

The warlords are the political bosses of Colombia’s small cities, rural regions and zones of greatest conflict and narco-trafficking; they are large landholders, cattle-ranchers, extractive-industry chiefs, and rough-and-tumble politicians who run things in vast areas of Colombia where the central government holds little sway. They are the beneficiaries of the enormous land-concentration - often called a “reverse land-reform” - that Colombia has suffered since the 1970s. Many warlords operate in an environment of illegality, are linked to organised crime and sponsored by the pro-government paramilitary groups who have killed tens of thousands of Colombians since the 1980s.

Most are very hard-right in their political views - and most supported Uribe from the very beginning. They may seem like throwbacks to Colombia’s lawless past, but this group’s rise to national power has in fact been recent; even after the congressional elections of 2006, Colombians were shaken by revelations that a third of those in office may have been tied to the paramilitaries.

Álvaro Uribe himself, a large landholder from the countryside outside Medellín who took courses at Harvard and Oxford, comfortably bestrode both “cosmopolitan” and “warlord” sectors. So does Colombia’s military. The 69% support received by Juan Manuel Santos - which included a big get-out-the-vote effort in rural areas and small cities - underlines the fact that the new president is inheriting the pro-Uribe coalition. But it is already plain that Santos is not Uribe.

A warning-sign

Moreover, Santos is now breaking clearly with Uribe in ways that are likely to please neither the former president nor the regional “powers” who supported him. Santos has reinforced his breach with Uribe on Venezuela, justice and land by notably appointing a cabinet that contains not a single figure from the “warlord” sector.

This is good for Colombia. The regional warlords and political bosses in the coalition are huge generators of violence and corruption, and a major brake on Colombia’s modernisation. Juan Manuel Santos is right in effect to challenge the big landowners, mafiosi, or hardline military officers on issues like land, human rights, and relations with Colombia’s leftist neighbours.

The question, however, is whether he can control those sectors if he continues to move in this direction and if these sectors in response move into the opposition. A Santos that starts redistributing land, seizing
narco-traffickers’ assets, or firing abusive generals will be on a
collision-course with some very dangerous people - people who use terror to get their way, and whom Uribe’s predecessors were unable to control.

Álvaro Uribe presided over a decline in rightist and organised-crime violence, in part because he negotiated a deal for the paramilitary groups’ partial demobilisation. Already, that decline has begun to be reversed: fighting between narco-gangs has caused the murder-rate in Medellín to more than double since 2008. If Santos confronts the warlords, will the killing start again in earnest?

A key choice

It’s a terrifying prospect - but Colombians are already beginning to
wonder. In the early morning of 12 August 2010, a car-bomb exploded outside the headquarters of a radio network in central Bogotá. Many doubt that the bomb was the work of the Farc. “There is another hypothesis under consideration that is getting stronger and points, ironically, at dark forces of the extreme right having planted the bomb”, writes Semana, the country’s main news-weekly. “President Santos’s recent announcements haven’t pleased these fanatics.”

This is still speculation. It’s entirely possible that Santos, a wily
politician always thinking several moves ahead, will manage to exclude the rotten sectors of Colombia’s elite from power without bloody consequences. It’s equally possible that Santos is all talk and that under pressure he will accommodate them in order to keep them in the coalition.

At the same time, if Santos continues in the direction of his first weeks in power and challenges the more sinister figures in the Colombian spectrum, he will need explicit support from two actors whose political will is far from guaranteed.

The first is Álvaro Uribe, a popular ex-president who is still very influential in Colombia. He will be spending the fall as a visiting scholar at Georgetown University in Washington and as vice-chair of a United Nations committee investigating the attack on the Turkish aid-flotilla heading for Gaza, but just a few strong words in the Colombian media would enable Uribe to derail Santos.

The second is the United States. The Barack Obama administration strongly supports Juan Manuel Santos, who has assiduously courted US backing for years. Yet Washington is not known for understanding or quickly responding to local political dynamics in Latin America, a region that in any case it gives little attention to.

A ruling by Colombia's constitutional court on 17 August 2010, that an agreement made in October 2009 giving US forces access to seven Colombian military bases in the fight against narco-traffickers requires ratification by the legislature to become constitutional, may further complicate the relationship. But if Juan Manuel Santos surprises everyone - including his supporters - by continuing to do the right thing, Washington must be prepared to support him.

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