Colombia: President Santos’s Challenges

By Maribel Vasquez

President Santos Calderón / Photo credit: Agência Brasil, Creative Commons

President Santos Calderón / Photo credit: Agência Brasil, Creative Commons License

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos has yet to announce whether he will seek a second four-year term in May, but with the November deadline fast approaching for him to declare his candidacy, many Colombians are expressing dissatisfaction with his performance. Three years after taking office, and after a protracted honeymoon period, Santos’s approval ratings dropped to a dismal 21 percent several weeks ago. (A more recent poll surged to 41 percent but the rollercoaster ride appears likely to continue.) Colombia has experienced a wave of strikes and protests – perhaps reflecting a phenomenon evident from Brazil to Chile to Peru by which popular sentiment nosedives despite steady economic growth because much of the population is left out and institutions fail to respond to needs. The Santos administration has governed more democratically than his predecessor and shown greater commitment to the rule of law and accountability. Unlike the Clintonian dictum that “It’s the economy, stupid,” Colombia’s long-standing adage has been that “La economía va bien, el país va mal.”

The stalled peace talks between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) are also to blame for Santos’s dwindling public support. On October 13th, the 15th round of negotiations concluded in Havana without visible progress towards an agreement. (Talks are set to resume next week.) The agenda has six major points agreed to by both sides: land reform, political participation, disarmament, illicit drugs, rights of the victims, and implementation of an eventual peace accord. To date, agreement has been reached on only land reform and rural development. A number of thorny issues persist, including the FARC’s demand that a constituent assembly be convened to incorporate the peace deals into the country’s constitution – which the government has rejected.  In the latest development, the government also turned down the FARC’s call to have civil rights activist Reverend Jesse Jackson act as mediator in the release of Kevin Scott Sutay, a former U.S. marine abducted by the FARC earlier this year. Criticism of Santos’s handling of the talks is due in part to perennial public concern that the FARC is stalling the peace talks to regroup and rebuild its capabilities.

President Santos has staked his political legacy on ending Latin America’s longest-running armed conflict. Success or failure of the peace talks will define his presidency for many Colombians, and failure to reach an accord would cast a cloud over his political future. While he has talked tough – saying FARC stalling is wearing out the government and the Colombian people’s patience – President Santos appears in every bit of a hurry to see these negotiations come to a conclusion before the end of the year. Former President Alvaro Uribe and his loyalists in the Centro Democrático (CD) have already blasted what they claim is excessive leniency on the President’s part.  Santos is in a bind: if he rushes the peace talks, he risks making too many concessions and playing into the Uribistas’ hand, while canceling the talks would strip him of the desired distinction of being Colombia’s peace president. The easy road to reelection – effective conclusion of the peace process and greater responsiveness to the country’s widespread malaise – seems remote.  A strong opposition candidate has yet to emerge, however, giving Santos time to rebuild public support. CD frontrunner Francisco Santos’s recent threat to leave the party hints at a split within Uribismo.  The failure of an organized opposition may be the only advantage Santos has at the moment.

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