A message to President Santos: If it ain’t broke…

Daniel Crump 

Image © The Christian Science Monitor

Despite high approval ratings, Colombian President Alvaro Uribe was constitutionally barred from running for a third term in office in 2010, leading to his Defence Minister Juan Manuel Santos being voted in off the back of a largely Pro-Uribe mood, nationwide. After an initial period of continuity, time seems to have polarized Colombia’s once popular political double act. A former Aide of Santos has even accused the President of camouflaging himself as an ‘Uribista’ to get himself elected and describes the last few months of the Presidency as a ‘great betrayal.’

It cannot be denied that Alvaro Uribe’s security drive, spread over his eight years in office, helped to transform Colombia from an almost failed state, riddled with civil war, drug cartels and regular kidnappings, into an international player experiencing huge economic prosperity. Uribe’s uncompromisingly tough stance towards the Left-wing FARC rebels paved the way for his pro-market economic policies and investor-friendly reforms, which helped reduce overall poverty in Colombia by 20% and unemployment by 25%. As a result, he has enjoyed approval ratings of between 70-80% making him the most popular Latin American leader of the 2000’s. The effects of Uribe’s tenure are still being felt today. The IMF forecasts Colombia’s GDP growth rate to be 4.5% for 2012, three times that of the US.

There are obvious differences, in both personality and political hue, between President Santos and his predecessor. The former, arguably less media friendly than the folksy former President has reversed a handful of Uribe’s measures, including the cancellation of tax breaks for companies designed to encourage investment and a move to de-criminalise the possession of personal amounts of recreational drugs. Santos is also one of many Latin American leaders leading the debate around de-criminalising the entire drugs trade in the region, a stance never adopted by Uribe.

Yet, it is in security that Santos’ reforms might touch closest to the nerves of many Colombians. The Presidency of the last six months can be described as an attempt to lay the groundwork for further peace talks with FARC. Santos has proposed the decreasing of prison terms for any FARC member who agrees to peace negotiations. He has also directed the Colombian army towards more mid-level attacks on guerrilla field units rather than directly attacking high level FARC commanders, a policy preferred by Uribe. A bill that aims to offer reparations to victims of violence at the hands of the Colombian security forces as well as the FARC has broken an eight year tacit agreement to frame Colombia’s troubles as a ‘terrorist threat’ rather than an ‘internal armed conflict.’ 

While many would view this as an inevitable progression of Colombian politics in the light of the reduction in FARC related crime, the fact still remains that proposed peace talks amount to a compromise with a violent, quasi-political movement that has never shown any attempt to participate in mainstream Colombian society, and at its core, still sees the downfall of Colombia’s political order as its end goal. We do not have to look too far back into history to remind ourselves of the last attempt to engage the FARC into peace talks.

In November 1998, President Andres Pastrana, hoping to negotiate a peace settlement with the rebels, granted FARC a 42,000 sq km safe haven in an attempt to gain the group’s confidence. This policy would prove to have catastrophic and fatal consequences for both Colombian nationals and foreigners alike. Some of the most high-profile atrocities carried out by FARC included the hijacking of an aircraft, orchestrated attacks on several small towns and cities and the killing of three US human rights activists. This last act would eventually force the US government to increase pressure on Pastrana to crack down on FARC and end the peace talks.

Shortly after these talks had broken down, the FARC kidnapped Green Party candidate, and French national, Ingrid Betancourt, possibly the most high profile of all of FARC’s achievements. Her ordeal inspired her to write her memoirs in the book ‘La Rage au Couer,’ which became a number one best seller in France for over four weeks. This event helped to internationalise Colombia’s predicament and would culminate in Uribe, himself the son of a FARC victim, running for the Presidency.

Two worries result from Santos’ recent record. Firstly, given the emphasis of Santos’ campaign as a continuation of Uribe’s presidency, it could be argued that Santos lacks a strong enough mandate to re-open any meaningful peace talks with the rebels. Secondly, a split within Colombia’s ruling party could conceivably lead to a breakdown of the entire coalition. For the past eight years, Colombia’s economic performance has managed to persuade politicians across the spectrum that current security policy is the way to go. The risk that Santos could now be alienating members of his own party have to be seen as direct threat to political harmony in Colombia. It is doubtful if any FARC member would see this as anything but a positive development.


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