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Fundamental Change in Colombia Unlikely with President-elect Santos

by Moira Birss

Fulfilling expectations after a solid showing in May’s first round, former Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos handily won Colombia’s June 20th presidential run-off election. Though Santos and his contender, Antanas Mockus, the former mayor of the capital city Bogota, had been neck-in-neck in opinion polls leading up to the first round of elections, the May 30th results gave Santos a substantial lead that he never lost. On June 20th Santos won 69% of the vote.

Mockus’ defeat may be seen as a combination of several factors. For one, opinion polls are unreliable in Colombia. Pollsters tend to reach only middle and upper class urban residents. Poor and rural Colombians, who tend to not have access to landlines or other standard survey methods, are rarely surveyed.

Presumably, much of Santos’ hidden support came from the countryside. As former Defense Minister for outgoing President Alvaro Uribe, Santos represents Uribe’s hard line on security in Colombia’s decades-old internal armed conflict. Those security policies are often credited with a reduction in violence in recent years (though strong evidence indicates violence may again be on the upswing.) Santos’ direction of high-profile events like the 2008 rescue of former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt and three U.S. military contractors created an image of competence against the principal guerrilla group, The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC.)

After his strong showing in the first round of elections, Santos drove home a proposal for “national unity” to which nearly all the remaining political parties signed on. Mockus and his party, on the other hand, refused offers to build coalitions and instead vowed to maintain their party’s purity – to “keep each parrot on its stake.”

Since winning the election, Santos has managed to bring nearly all the country’s political parties into his “national unity” platform, including such surprises as the Liberal Party – an opposition party throughout Álvaro Uribe’s presidency. It seems no one wants to be left out. Even Gustavo Petro, former candidate of the left-wing Alternative Democratic Pole and typically one of the most outspoken critic of Uribe’s policies, sent a letter to Santos (creating a firestorm in his own party) offering cooperation on certain issues. With this coalition building, Santos can now claim support of nearly 80 % of Congress.

Santos’ win and the support that is rallying behind him raise concerns, however, about the lack of attention to the multiple scandals marring former President Uribe’s tenure. Though during his campaign Santos promised greater attention to human rights, his political history and dirty tricks during the campaign do not inspire much confidence. While serving as Uribe’s Defense Minister, Santos presided over a macabre practice in which poor young men were kidnapped from cities, taken to the countryside, shot, dressed up in guerrilla uniforms, and later claimed as combat kills. Euphemistically known as the “false positives” scandal, in late 2008 it became public that the Colombian army was employing this practice deemed “systematic” by the UN. During the election, the Election Observation Mission denounced vote buying in favor of Santos, and a delegation of U.S.-based NGOs found evidence of the use of government subsidies to poor families who favored Santos’ candidacy.

Santos represents the establishment that seeks to enrich the country’s elite without a real interest in ending the war or respecting human rights. That is not to say that a Mockus victory would have fixed Colombia. Much of Mockus’ proposed platform did not differ all that much from Santos’. From a human rights perspective, the election ended up being a “vote for the lesser of two evils.” Having recently returned from Colombia after working for two years as a human rights observer, I can’t help but agree with 25-year-old Miguel*, an artist from Medellin who believes Santos’ election “will mean more war as a business, more narcotrafficking as a business.” As Miguel says, “It seems to me that Santos only wants power without caring about what happens in Colombia. If Uribe supposedly had gotten rid of the guerrillas then what can we expect of his successor?”

Miguel was referring to Uribe’s periodic claim that he all but finished off the guerrillas. Most Colombians and human rights observers know this to be a gross exaggeration, as evidenced in May by the kidnapping of seven people in southwestern Nariño province and attacks on the police in the rural areas of Cauca province. In Santos’ acceptance speech he tried to create the sense of near victory over the FARC. “Their time has run out,” he said. “Colombians know well that I know how to combat them.”

What Santos did not mention in his acceptance speech was that many fighters that participated in his predecessors’ demobilization of paramilitary groups in 2006 either never demobilized or have rearmed. Research by Human Rights Watch demonstrates that “successor groups” operate throughout the country and commit grave human rights abuses. In May thirty human rights defenders and peasant farmer community leaders were killed, four of whom had demanded restitution of land captured by paramilitary groups. Also, eighty human rights groups, including the U.S.-based organization Washington Office on Latin America, received a second round of death threats for “highlighting policies against the government.” In a country like Colombia, with nearly fifty years of dirty war in which those who speak out are often massacred, such threats are not to be taken lightly. This is a reality Santos will have to face if he truly intends to address human rights in Colombia.

Significantly, Santos did promise autonomy for the country’s courts. In recent years Uribe has publicly battled the judicial system about everything from his ability to be re-elected for a third consecutive term, to the investigation of family members and political allies for ties with paramilitaries. His administration has also been directly linked to illegal spying of Supreme Court justices.

Neither Uribe nor Santos expressed concern for a judge that received death threats when she sentenced a colonel to thirty years in prison for the disappearance of eleven people. Although this was the first sentencing of a high-ranking officer for human rights crimes, Uribe called the sentencing “sad” and that the colonel was simply “doing his job.” The response from the government and the president-elect does not engender much hope for ending impunity. Nor does it lend much credibility to Santos’ promises during the election to respect human rights.

While Santos has mentioned Colombia’s high level of poverty and has promised to create jobs, his predecessor’s record raises questions about Santos’ commitment to combating this phenomenon that fuels Colombia’s violence. As political analyst León Valencia observed, “It is clear that the economic growth of the [Colombian] economy throughout President Uribe’s mandate did not result in a reduction in inequality or poverty. We couldn’t even get down to a single digit of unemployment… We have a country with one of the largest social gaps in the region and the world.”

And that is the rub. Although during his eight years in office Uribe made some gains against the FARC and did increase the country’s GDP, he made few fundamental changes that address the root causes of the country’s conflict and poverty – nearly 50% of Colombians continue to live below the poverty line. Poverty and other social ills continue to add fuel to the fire of the war. And unfortunately, with Uribe’s protégée now taking office, positive fundamental changes in the next four years do not seem likely.

* Name changed for safety.

Visit Moira Birss’ WIP Contributor page to read all the articles she has written the past two years in Colombia. -Ed.

About the Author
Moira Birss recently returned to the U.S. after two years in Colombia as a Human Rights Accompanier with the Fellowship of Reconciliation. Since graduating from the University of Michigan, she has worked on researching community-based models of alternative economies, advocating for affordable housing, and promoting environmental protection. Moira’s articles have appeared on Alternet, In These Times, and CommonDreams. She blogs at You can follow Moira on Twitter @moira_kb.

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