Politics | 3/3/2009 12:00:00 AM
Cold war between Uribe and Santos
The relationship between Colombian President Álvaro Uribe and Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos seems strained just before the latter leaves the government to launch his presidential candidacy.
Upon hearing of Santos’ statement, Uribe ordered the press secretary from the Palacio de Nariño presidential palace, César Mauricio Velásquez, to go before the media in order to rebut the minister. “Without any doubt,” he said, “the government’s concern is finding solutions and strengthening that institution for the good of democracy.”
This episode is just the latest that has distanced the president from his star minister of the policy of “democratic security,” who in July 2008 following the operation against “Raúl Reyes” and Operación Jaque (Operation Checkmate) seemed destined to be crowned Uribe’s successor.
Since then, however, a series of misunderstandings and run-ins have strained the relationship between the two. Many of those misunderstandings come about from two factors that are appearing simultaneously: Uribe’s ambiguity about his second re-election and the excess of Santos’ exposure in the public eye.
A few weeks ago, Santos told the director of the Medellín-based El Colombiano newspaper, other leaders from the department of Antioquia and even those on the street that the president will retire on August 7, 2010 and that the very Uribe suggested to Santos to run. He was the first to be surprised by a rebuttal by the same newspaper days later when that paper accused him of making up stories in an editorial.
Such was Uribe’s displeasure that he told a group of congresspeople, “Juan Manuel should not talk anymore about me. He should dedicate himself to proposing policies and not to interpreting me.”
At the presidential palace they are questioning Santos’ loyalty. They consider him to be too independent. They prefer the way Andrés Felipe Arias, “little Uribe,” does things- willing to swear obedience and to give the boss his place back at some point if he needs it.
Although the president prefers unconditional officials whose political careers depend on him, he made an exception with Santos because of his competence and because of his level of favorability among the ruling class. On those two fronts Uribe is correct. Santos has been perhaps the most effective minister of defense in the recent history of Colombia in a government whose credibility and backing depends precisely on successes on the field of battle. The false positives scandal has been the great black mark on his work and one of the most serious scandals in the history of the armed forces. But facing that barbarity, Santos took responsibility and dismissed more than 25 Army officers, something that was highly criticized in certain military sectors.
During the first two and a half years of the second Uribe term, the president conceded all military glory to Santos. Press conferences in which Santos appeared behind an almost presidential lectern with the Army’s top brass behind him in which he gave reports of victory to the Colombian people became routine. Silently Uribe accepted that the minister be the one to announce the news of the death of “Tirofijo,” which was one of the most important events in a half century of armed conflict. The president assumed the political cost for the use of the Red Cross emblem in Operación Jaque, making statements that were later shown to be untrue.
Recent events indicated that his patience is coming to an end. The tipping point seems to have been Santos’ visit to Washington last week. His displeasure was not only because of the statements regarding the shutting down of the DAS but because the minister tried to initially organize a trip to the United States almost as if he were the head of state, bypassing the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The visit to Washington was eventually reorganized to include Minister of Foreign Relations Jaime Bermúdez. But the whole episode, with a lot of back and forth, left a sour taste with the government and in particular at the presidential palace.
For observers it is evident that all of the political moves that the president is making do not favor Santos. Uribe does not hide his fondness of “Uribito,” Minister of Agriculture Arias, a fondness which borders on adoration.
As far as the U Party is concerned, the political party closest to the president, Santos was aspiring to retire from the defense ministry in May and at the same time be named president and presidential candidate of the U Party. During the last meeting of the U supporters, it was established that nobody could have those two things at the same time. Taking into account that Uribe is the head of the U, it is clear that such a decision had Uribe’s support. As if that were not enough, Uribe seems to be showing interest that the presidency of his party falls in the hands of his supporters who are not necessarily supporters of Santos. In that category are Rodrigo Rivera and Peace Commissioner Luis Carlos Restrepo. It’s known that Rivera was contemplated as an option for party leader by the president. Restrepo, who is going to resign soon, is thinking of seeking support in order to reorganize Uribe’s supporters.
Statements by Sen. Armando Benedetti didn’t go unnoticed in which he criticized Santos for mixing politics with the country’s security and suggested that the minister resign in order to run for president without undue advantages. These words would not be considered very important if it weren’t for that fact that Benedetti is considered to be Uribe’s spokesman. That same position has been shared by Sen. Martha Lucía Ramírez, Santos’ only declared rival for the candidacy of the U Party.
Individually, the mentioned movements are not that significant. But taken together, they show how, with the president’s support, political landscape is being altered in a way that does not favor a Santos candidacy.
The backdrop of all these episodes is Uribe’s second re-election. Although his re-election faces many obstacles, the president hasn’t discarded it. In that context for him it is better that many weak candidates jump into the ring so that the “catastrophe” that he says that he would need to occur in order for him to run again would happen. That strategy is very uncomfortable for any serious presidential candidate within Uribe’s movement because Uribe’s backers will not support anyone until the president makes a final decision about whether he will run. That is precisely the situation in which Santos finds himself, who has until May to resign from the Ministry of Defense in order to not be disqualified as a presidential candidate.