On 15 June, Juan Manuel Santos was re-elected President of Colombia in the second round . It has been one of the most peaceful elections in Colombian history, and one of the closest presidential races the world has seen in recent years, with polls putting Santos representing the Unidad Nacional (National Unity) coalition and his rival, Óscar Iván Zuluaga, who represents the Centro Democrático (Domestic Centre) neck and neck right up until the results were announced.
Santos has ambitious plans for the future of Colombia, and one of the key aspects of his policy during his first term and his re-election campaign has been his quest to improve the relationship between the government and las Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, FARC). The FARC are a Marxist guerrilla group who, along with other leftist revolutionary groups such as the Ejército de Liberación Nacional (National Liberation Army, ELN) have been operating in Colombia for almost 50 years.
In December of 2012 President Santos made an historic step towards a peaceful resolution with the FARC, sitting down with leaders in Havana to negotiate an end to their violent activity. The approach FARC and ELN became the key point of conflict between Santos and Zuluaga, and the President’s campaign slogan was ‘Paz’ (‘Peace’). But not all of the Colombian voters were convinced that a vote for Santos was a vote for peace, or that peace was the most important agenda. Santos won by a tiny margin of 50.95% to Zuluaga’s 45%, and there is much contention as to whether the Colombian government ought to be negotiating with violent guerrilla groups; Zuluaga proposed a much harsher approach. The situation with the FARC is extremely complex, and tied up in illegal activity, including the drug trade, but I think that Santos’ ongoing negotiations hold a better chance of finding a long-term resolution.
Political leaders around Latin America and across the world have come out in force (or maybe relief) to congratulate Santos on his re-election. US Secretary of State John Kerry congratulated him on his win, and promised support from the US in Santos continued mission for peace with the guerillas. Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro said that Santos and Colombia could count on the “the Bolivarian government of Venezuela, on the country of Venezuela to continue working for peace”.
Collaboration in the region is essential, and Venezuela and Columbia share problems that may be solved in part through diplomatic collaborations, including revolutionary guerrilla activity and drug trafficking. Evo Morales has expressed his pleasure at the election result, and the Spanish President Mariano Rahoy issued a statement congratulating Santos and and expressing hope for continued friendship between Spain and Colombia. The international community are happy because Santos is a centre-right ally to the US and Europe in a leftist region. He has worked hard to make peace with everyone, and I do not think that we can condemn him for this, although it would be wise to question whether peace takes precedence over other pressing issues in Colombia.
President Santos has done wonders for Colombia’s diplomatic relations, but he must be careful not to make too many compromises. The US Vice-President Joe Biden arrived on Tuesday to demonstrate the US government’s commitment to peace in Colombia. This could be the start of a mutually-beneficial collaboration between the US and Colombia, but the US government has lost a lot of power in Latin America recently, and Santos needs to take care that Colombia does not become a stronghold for US imperialism.
Closer to home, not everyone was so pleased. Although thousands lined the streets of Bogotá with ‘Paz’ written on their hands, others have raised serious concerns about Santos’ domestic policy. Colombia’s infrastructure is in dire need of investment, and it is hindering economic growth in important sectors like agriculture and tourism. Voters are not only concerned with peace; many worry more about education, employment, and inflation. Colombia also has a terrible legacy of human rights violations that extend much further than the activities of the FARC and ELN. Poverty is widespread, and Colombia has one of the highest Gini Coefficients for income inequality in the world. Trade partners in the US and Europe may be able to ignore some of the problems if it is convenient, but Colombia will never be able to build a stable economy without social stability and a just legal system.
In his first term, President Santos delegated a lot of work to his ministers and focussed on national and international issues, and I think that this is a worrying trend. His microeconomic policy saw a GDP growth of 4.3% in 2013, unemployment has fallen by almost 1%, and inflation sits at a relatively healthy 2.93%. Santos says that he has created a stronger economy, and signs of improvement have begun to show, including a consistent decrease in poverty rates, but this will only be sustainable if fiscal policy and social projects bare fruition. His transnational mining project has not benefited poor communities, and Santos needs to recognise the imperative for government-spending in projects that will elevate poor rural areas, rather than those that benefit wealthy urban citizens. Santos needs a panoramic view of the country, and should not be too attached to the idea of peace as the sole objective, because it will be a hard quest that needs to be supplemented by strong social infrastructure.
Santos is from a very wealthy family, and served as minister of defence to President Uribe (2002-2010), who was a political mentor to Santos, so he is a far cry from a revolutionary liberator. But I think that Colombia needs stability if it is to ever find peace, and a moderate government may be its best chance. There have been reports of election fraud, and Santos does not represent a clean slate, but between he is the best of a bad bunch. Colombian citizens voted for Santos and his promise for an end to the FARC terror that has torn through the country, and I hope that he can fulfil this. But more vitally, I hope this is not his only legacy. Santos faces a country diametrically opposed in key objectives and ideologies, as demonstrated by the results of the first round of elections. It is a relief to see that Santos has acknowledged this, and left the door open for collaboration with leftwing parties (who supported him over Zuluaga), as well as rightwing parties. The peace talks have not persuaded all Colombians, not by a long shot.
Peace and improved diplomatic relations could be a legacy for him, but failure could be too, and Santos needs to be careful that he doesn’t neglect Colombia in this quest.