POLITICS | 6/25/2010 12:00:00 AM
Who is he?
A lot has been said about Juan Manuel Santos. Who is the new President of Colombia.
There are many elements to think so. Now that the campaign is over and Santos was elected, it’s necessary to make a balance to understand who is this man. Before the first round he was very criticized. He, who had a close relation with the media throughout his career, endured the critics with stoicism: columnists showed him as an opportunist, with no ethics, and responsible of the extra judicial killings by the army (the scandal called “false positives”).
This interpretation is simplistic and obeys to the heat that some people feel for the continuity of President Álvaro Uribe’s policies. Now that Colombians chose Juan Manuel for a four years term, and even probably eight, it’s necessary to know what is true and not of all that has been said, and place the next president of Colombia in its actual dimension.
That he is opportunistic and unethical is not quite true. Yes, he has been opportunistic, but not as much as other politicians of his generation, including almost all of his rivals in the last election. In politics people must learn how to survive.
And that he is an unethical politician is not true. That stigma comes because Santos knows how to handle the Congress. The proof is that he got the highest voting percentage in Colombian history (69 percent), and formed the largest parliamentary majority that a president has had at the beginning of his government (80 percent).
That, for a president, is more a virtue than a fault. During the campaign, Antanas Mockus represented honesty, and that made Santos to be associated with misconduct and corruption. No one denies that politics depends on transactions and compromises, but to know how to manage that doesn’t imply deceit. Public funds are no less sacred for Santos than for Mockus.
In any democratic regime the leader has to pass reforms trough Congress, and the perfect world that Mockus imagined, to reach the presidency without the support of the political class, despite being a very attractive proposition, is not viable in real life.
Santos, for example, as Minister of Finance carried out important economic reforms. It was very difficult, but necessary. To achieve it he had to do things against Mockus’ principles, but if he hadn’t they may have never been approved.
But one thing is that Santos knows how to bargain and another that he accepts a blackmail. Many of those that supported him are disappointed for not getting a favor. First, because none of the sectors that individually adhered are essential to ensure governability.
If patronage means to appoint mediocre people in the government, it is very unlikely that Santos will do that. He respects technocracy, delegates and demands results. Everyone who has worked with Santos expresses both their respect and affection for him. That’s why his government will be different to Uribe’s, who although is a great leader and has a high popularity, exercises power in a more personalistic way.
Few presidents of Colombia have come to the ‘Casa de Nariño’ (the presidential palace) with a resume like the one Juan Manuel Santos has. In the past there have been humanists, great speakers, parliamentary leaders, economists, soldiers, peacekeepers and even poets. But usually their strengths come with defects. Technocrats don’t know that much about politics and politicians don’t know that much about technical matters. And often none of them handle military issues. Santos, for the variety of positions he has been appointed, knows the three fronts.
This means that in the beginning of his government, Santos will be able to move as any of his predecessors. He has the power on his favor: the Congress, entrepreneurs, trade unions, the army, the media (though not necessarily the columnists) and the United States government. It will be the first President in the history of Colombia that comes with the prospect of eight years in office, because although Uribe had it, in that time the reelection figure didn’t exist.
It is possible to anticipate that this support, coupled with the electoral strategy of national unity, will allow him to neutralize the polarization that came up at the end of Uribe’s administration. With the majority he holds, Santos will be able to approve any reform he wants to undertake.
And in relation to the battle that Santos and Uribe hold with Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez and Ecuador’s Rafael Correa, his pragmatism will force him to make great efforts to find how to live together, leaving aside personal considerations. Despite their bad relation, none of the three countries will stand eight years with a frontier crisis.
But these are not the only international challenges he will face. Santos will receive an isolated country in Latin America. Besides, the U.S. shifted Colombia to the background since Democrats won the presidency and the control of the Congress. His concerns now are nuclear proliferation, Islamic terrorism and how to overcome recession. Under these conditions the decrease in financial aid is unavoidable. And in Europe, where it is a priority to establish a new relationship, things are not going to be easy because after the Free Trade Agreement was approved, human rights came at the center of the debate.
His Achilles heel are the extra judicial killings. Although it is a phenomenon that comes way back which came into the spotlight when he was ministry of Defense and that in great measure he resolved, the crime is so scandalous that it is still affecting his image within Colombia and other countries.
To deal with these challenges, Santo´s profile is going to be useful. He has relations and connections beyond borders: he studied in Kansas, Harvard and in the London School of Economics. He got a great experience as ministry of Foreign Trade and has been an active member in organizations such as Interamerican Dialogue and The Council Of The Americas.
With all these machinery, it’s naive to think that Santos is just a prolongation of Uribe’s government. The future president has a tenacity and an ambition similar to Uribe’s but has a superior ego. These characteristics are innate within the people who have dedicated their whole life toward the pursuit of power. Besides, one crucial feature is his strong self-confidence. His knowledge in several topics resembles authority. This was evident during the TV debates in which his popularity increased during the final days of the campaign.
The one thing that has marked Juan Manuel´s life is his family legacy. He grew surrounded by power, at the time when El Tiempo newspaper defined the country’s destiny; was appointed Colombia’s representative to the International Coffee Organization; was in charge of important ministries in three governments and won the first time he run for the presidency.
The past events prove that luck has been on his side: the success of ‘Operación Jaque’ (the military rescue of Ingrid Betancourt, three American contractors, 7 soldiers and 4 policemen kidnapped by the Farc guerrilla) , the failure of the reelection referendum and the success of ‘Operación Camaleón’, where another 4 hostages were rescued just eight days before the run-off election. Perhaps the only stumble that got in his way was the unexpected phenomenon of the “green wave”, when Mockus grew rapidly in the opinion polls under his innovative speech against corruption. From that day on Santos started to work harder on behalf of a possible defeat. But at the end, the “green wave” was just that, a wave that crashed into a rock.