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Colombia: Uribe’s right hand man wins elections


Uribe’s right hand man wins elections
by Gearòid Loingsigh

As expected Juan Manuel Santos (pictured) was elected President of Colombia, obtaining nine million votes in the second round of the elections. The opposition candidate Antanas Mockus received just over 3.5 million votes, compared to the 3.1 million cast in his favour in the first round. The difference in percentage terms was enormous, with Santos receiving 69.1% and Mockus 27.5%. 

The election results mean there will be continuity with the policies of Álvaro Uribe Vélez. Though, on the economic front, this was never in doubt. There was very little difference between Mockus and Santos on economic questions; both were enthusiastic supporters of the opening up of the economy and the signing of free trade agreements with the European Union and, of course, with the United States. The differences were not of a fundamental nature, but in the detail.

Likewise, on the security front, all candidates, in both the first and second rounds, supported Uribe’s Democratic Security policy or even went further. In the televised debates for the second round Mockus came out fighting, attacking Santos on issues such as extrajudicial executions, but also claiming that he was a safer bet when it came to opposing the guerrillas. He emphasised that he, unlike Santos, had never sat down to negotiate with the FARC, and that he never would.

Indeed, Mockus is likely to support most security initiatives taken by the new president. In his speech accepting defeat he never once used the word ‘opposition’. He said that the Greens would be independent of the President, supporting his good proposals and opposing those that were bad. As the columnist Esteban Carlos Mejía described him the day before the elections in El Espectador, Mockus is Uribismo-light. In other words, the opposition will continue to come from the Polo, particularly on economic questions. 

Uribe’s Disastrous Legacy

Though the new President has the support of 80% of the incoming congress and the partial support of the Greens, the road ahead is not a smooth one. It is perhaps fitting that Uribe’s heir won the elections, as it will be an Uribista who will now have to deal with the disastrous legacy of the last eight years. Poverty has not being reduced, unemployment is on the rise and the health system is facing an unparalleled crisis to which neither Uribe nor Santos have offered a real solution. 

Also the security situation has begun to deteriorate. The murder rate is once again on the rise having fallen significantly in the first years of Uribe’s reign. The guerrillas, who were forced into a corner, have shown signs of reactivation in areas where they were thought to have been definitively defeated. According to a recent study by the NGO, Arco Iris, both the FARC and the ELN have grown stronger in the last year.  As if Colombia needed a reminder, on the day of the elections the ELN killed seven police officers in the north of the country and the FARC killed a further two soldiers.

Moreover, the war on the guerrillas is increasingly unsustainable, consuming over US$9.5 billion in 2009 or 3.7% of GDP, the second highest in the region after Brazil. Some analysts have placed the figure closer to 4.6%. Whatever the truth of the matter, it is clear that Colombia has received huge amounts of money from the USA for its war on the guerrillas and these funds have now begun to dry up. Moreover, the general economic situation in the country is not promising. Santos in his acceptance speech ruled out any possibility of a dialogue with the guerrillas, thus guaranteeing further pressure on Colombia’s exchequer. 

A New Human Rights Image 

However, Santos is likely to improve Colombia’s human rights image, even if that image ends up at odds with reality.  His Vice-President is Angelino Garzón (pictured), a former trade unionist, human rights activist and former member of the left wing Unión Patriotica and the Communist Party, and his office is responsible for all the human rights programmes. Garzón is a soft spoken man and an ideal diplomat.  His background is likely to prove useful to Santos in countering the arguments of international human rights’ NGOs.  

Indeed, in his stint as an international ambassador for Uribe, Garzon has already had remarkable successes. He intervened on the government’s behalf before the International Labour Organisation, which recently removed Colombia from the list of countries that violate trade union rights, despite all the evidence to the contrary.  Just weeks after the announcement, paramilitaries murdered Nelson Camacho, a leader of the oil workers’ union, USO.  

Garzon will prove invaluable to Santos in undoing some of the damage done by his predecessor.  In a recent electoral debate held with human rights groups, Garzón was able to assert without fear of contradiction that he has always shown respect towards unions and the social organisations. When questioned on Uribe’s comments accusing them of being fronts for the guerrillas, he stated “that was the past, what is important now is to look to the future”.   

Santos’s message to his supporters was conciliatory in tone. He stretched out his hand to the Greens saying that he hoped that they would accompany him in the following years describing himself as the president of all Colombians. He stated that he was a president of National Unity and would work with the opposition to strengthen the State’s institutions, whilst at the same time praising Uribe whom he described as the best president the country had had in 200 years.

Colombia may now face another four years of the same, with Uribe, Putin-like, hanging around in the shadows. Uribe has already laid out a number of points for the new government, which include a reform of the judicial system that would make it more difficult to prosecute military officers for human rights violations. Though Santos has promised to respect the courts, something Uribe was never able to do, even once, during the last eight years. Santos has also marked a difference, promising that diplomacy would be the hallmark of his government. He said neighbouring countries had a choice, either to look to the past or to build a common path for the future.


Some leaders, such as the left wing senator Alexander López, have hinted at the idea of bringing Uribe before an international court. Should this happen, Santos may be well be forced to ditch him in favour of maintaining the positive image that Garzón will undoubtedly create. Santos has throughout his political career shown himself to be loyal to no-one but himself and, though he is a committed Uribista, should it prove necessary, the leopard may change his spots.  He is, after all, a representative of the oligarchy, unlike Uribe who comes from a class of social climbers that came to the fore in the 1980s.  

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