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Colombia after the Waterfall: Can Santos Turn the Tide?

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Markus Schultze-Kraft*

santos__uribeSantos and Uribe: bitter divorceThis year marks an important anniversary for Colombia. One decade ago a majority of the country´s electorate decided to put an end to the rule of the Conservative and Liberal parties, which had dominated the country´s politics since independence from Spain in the early 19th century. The last exponent of the ´traditional´, alternating two-party rule, which was politically codified during the years of the National Front (1958-1974) in the form of a power-sharing agreement, was the Conservative President Andrés Pastrana (1998-2002).

Enter Álvaro Uribe. A dissident of the Liberal party and a member of the landed Antioquia elite, Uribe won a surprising and unprecedented first-round victory in the May 2002 presidential polls. Under his watch – and allegedly a little more – Colombia’s Congress passed a constitutional amendment in 2004 allowing for one presidential reelection. Although it transpired that the legislative process had been marred by serious irregularities, Uribe ran for a second term in 2006 obtaining another landslide victory.

Since 2002, Colombia has changed in many respects – for good and bad. Historians will tell the story in detail and with nuance. But looking back at the last ten years it is hard to avoid the conclusion that the rise of Uribe represents a watershed in the political history of the Andean region´s largest nation. Some would call it ´a moment of national resurrection´, others would contend that it has been a ´moment of democratic demise´. Uribe´s government – which for the most part focused on rolling back the country´s left-wing insurgencies, increasing internal security and defending the (legitimate-illegitimate and licit-illicit) interests of powerful groups of entrepreneurs, land owners and senior military officers and the United States – has left a deep mark on the country and the wider Latin American region.

Can Santos turn the tide?

Juan Manuel Santos, an accomplished member of Bogotá´s sophisticated and self-confident elite, has a long record of public service, including as representative of the Colombian Coffee Federation at the International Coffee Organization in London and minister of foreign trade under Pastrana. It was during his tenure as defense minister in the second Uribe administration that Santos gained significant political capital due to the Colombian armed forces´ ever more successful strikes against the leadership of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).

On 1 March 2008, Colombian government forces bombed a FARC base camp inside Ecuador. In the event the insurgents´ second-in-command, ´Raul Reyes´, was killed and Colombian soldiers seized a wealth of electronically stored information on Latin America´s longest-standing guerrilla. What constituted a key achievement of Santos and his staff, both civilian and military, also dragged Colombia into a serious and protracted diplomatic row with its neighbors.

Under Santos´ watch the hits against the insurgents continued until he decided to step down, in May 2009, to prepare the ground for his presidential campaign. This represented a well calculated political risk as Santos resigned from the ministry of defense in the midst of uncertainty as to whether the Uribista camp´s efforts to enable the incumbent´s second reelection would bear fruit. For the benefit of Colombia´s democracy they did not. In June 2010, Santos won the run-off poll against Antanas Mockus, a former Bogotá mayor and Green Party candidate.

Santos is no saint, in spite of his surname, but a hard-nosed and seasoned political operator with much class and clout. Since taking office in August 2010, he has commanded loyalty among key sectors of Colombia´s traditional as well as modernizing ruling families, a large majority of Congresspersons from almost the entire political spectrum, the military High Command, powerful business associations and significant parts of the middle and lower classes.

The founder of the broad, catch-all Uribista movement, the so-called U party which was instrumental for Uribe´s reelection in 2006 and brought Santos to power four years later, the president appears to have a firm grip on all levers of power. His popularity is the envy of many of his counterparts in Latin America and beyond; and he has managed to smooth over the severely strained relations between the executive and the judicial branches of government as well as with Venezuela and Ecuador that he inherited from his predecessor.

But despite this apparent position of strength, Santos’s room to maneuver is more limited and the challenges he faces are more daunting than might appear at first glance. For sure, his administration has made significant progress in areas that signal a departure from the belligerent and often parochial politics of Uribe. The passing and enactment of the 2011 Law on Victims and Land Restitution is a case in point, as is the Santos administration´s stronger commitment to upholding human rights and fighting corruption. Santos was also rewarded the political benefits of the Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with the US, which was finally passed by the Congress in Washington. This is something Uribe had dearly hoped to achieve, but it was denied to him on the grounds of his government´s abysmal human rights record, among other things.

Uribe’s legacy

However, the legacy of the two Uribe governments looms large. It will take some doing by Santos to break his predecessor´s spell and the (illicit) political and socio-economic alliances and counter-insurgency political settlement it engendered. Ironically, it is not the person of Álvaro Uribe and his obsession to continue meddling in politics using twitter and other means of communication that makes life difficult for Santos. While the former president still represents a figurehead for many Colombians of all walks of life, the very nature of his erstwhile rule is now working against him and his influence is losing traction.

In a nutshell, Uribe is in no position anymore to make the sumptuous pay-backs to political allies as he used to, such as sending them abroad to head Colombian embassies and multilateral missions, or letting them use public funds to purchase real estate and make large investments in agro-industrial businesses. Or, indeed, seeking to negotiate a large dose of impunity for paramilitary leaders – only to extradite most of them at a later stage, in May 2008, to the US where they were wanted for drug-trafficking offenses, not the heinous atrocities against Colombian civilians they had committed.

The problem goes deeper and reaches far beyond Álvaro Uribe. The fundamental point is that Colombia´s state and democratic governance suffered considerable damage during the Uribe years. Although the country´s internal security environment has seen significant improvements, especially regarding the rates of homicides and kidnappings, they were bought at a very high price. The war against the insurgents entailed systematic and grave human rights violations by the state security forces and the demobilization of the paramilitary United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) came at the expense of protecting victims´ rights to truth, justice and reparation.

Further, pervasive criminality and violence fuelled by drug-trafficking and other illegal activities have not been controlled as the rule of law in Colombia remains a constitutional postulate with limited impact in practice. As ever, elections are held regularly in Colombia but there are serious doubts as to their democratic nature, especially at the level of municipalities and departments. And not least, more than two decades after the end of military and bureaucratic-authoritarian rule in many Latin American countries, a historic process in which Colombia did not play a role because of the civilian nature of its polity, the country is today facing the challenge of having to deal with an over-powerful military and security establishment.

US responsibility

As Colombia´s main external ally and donor the US is co-responsible for this damage. Squeezed by an insurgency that was threatening to get out of control under Presidents Ernesto Samper (1994-1998), when Colombia was ´decertified´ by the Clinton administration due to allegations that Samper´s electoral campaign had received funding from the Cali drug-trafficking cartel, and Pastrana, who ceded sovereignty over a large chunk of Colombian territory to the FARC in the vain hope that peace could be negotiated, Colombia accepted the US-driven Plan Colombia. Originally conceived as a programme for socio-economic development cum anti-narcotics assistance it eventually ended up as an anti-drug cum counter-insurgency initiative.

Since 2000, the US has poured more than USD 7 billion into Colombia. Most of the monies have been spent on ´hard´ anti-drug and counter-insurgency interventions, including the massive aerial spraying of coca crops and building up the Colombian security forces´ operational and intelligence capabilities. Under President Barack Obama Plan Colombia is being wound down. Although the original goal of significantly reducing the flow of narcotic drugs from Colombia to the US has not been achieved, Washington officials are now defending the line that Plan Colombia has served to roll back the FARC and prevent the failing of the Colombian state. What they are more reluctant to acknowledge is that Plan Colombia has had a number of knock-on effects on Colombia´s institutional, political and socio-economic landscape that will take a long time to remedy.

The challenges ahead

President Santos is approaching mid-term of his first mandate and it is to be expected that he will seek reelection in 2014. The challenges ahead are formidable. They can be summed up as democratic state plus peace-building in a national context characterized by a mix of pervasive criminal, social and political violence, significant institutional weaknesses, a weak rule of law, and the existence of an over-powerful military establishment and of a society struggling to come to terms with what happened to it during the Uribe reign.

Santos has done well to seek some distance from the policies and politics of his predecessor. But his government now needs to advance more forcefully in the direction of strengthening democratic institutions and governance, reforming counter-productive drug policies, providing more economic opportunities to the country´s young and rural populations, protecting human rights and finally resolving the armed confrontation with the FARC through a truly integrated political, security and socio-economic strategy. Progress will necessarily be slow and difficult and the job will mostly have to be done by Colombians themselves. But there seems to be no other way forward.


* Markus Schultze-Kraft is a Research Fellow and Leader of the Governance Research Team at the Institute of Development Studies, University of Sussex