High stakes in Colombia


Colombian presidential candidate and President Juan Manuel Santos celebrates with his daughter Maria Antonia (L) and his sons Martin and Esteban (R) after winning a second term in the country's presidential elections in Bogota June 15, 2014.

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos secured a second term yesterday, winning just over 50 percent of the votes cast to defeat his rightist opponent Oscar Ivan Zuluaga. In a victory speech last night, Santos appeared contrite after a bitter campaign that many saw as a bruising referendum on his first term. "We're going to correct what has to be corrected, we will adjust what must be adjusted and we will reform what has to be reformed," he pledged.

What happens in Colombia matters to the United States. U.S. exports to and overall trade with Colombia have quadrupled in the last decade; it is Latin America's fourth largest economy and a promising economic partner. Eight billion dollars in U.S. aid since the year 2000 helped the South American country tame a narcoterrorist threat and recover healthy economic growth. Although the Colombian government has reduced coca cultivation by over 50 percent since 2007, the guerrilla group Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) still fuels the cocaine smuggling that sows mayhem throughout Central America and Mexico.

Indeed, the opposition to Santos was driven by skepticism over his overtures to the FARC. Former President Álvaro Uribe Vélez, for whom the center-right Santos once worked as Minister of Defense, used Zuluaga's campaign to hammer the government's concessions in Havana-based peace talks.

After Santos lost the first round to Zuluaga on May 25 -- in which 75 percent voted for other candidates -- he enthusiastically cast the run-off as "a choice between war and peace." That message was decisive in garnering the support of left-of-center candidates and their voters. Zuluaga did himself no favors in a debate last Monday, in which he turned in an aggressive -- some said disrespectful -- performance against the courtly Santos.

It is important to note that Santos received one million fewer votes yesterday than he did in 2010, when he beat his opponent by a margin of 69-27 percent. Obviously, he is beginning his second term against a head wind of popular doubts about the peace process and dissatisfaction with his management of the country's economic challenges.

Nevertheless, of the two candidates, Santos is in a better position to overcome the political polarization that has marked this campaign season, because he has moved to the center since taking office. In his victory speech, he pledged to set aside political rancor to build a more just Colombia. He will have to make good on his pledge yesterday to create jobs, combat crime, improve education and expand economic growth in order to satisfy the many Colombians who believe that he ignored those issues while pursuing peace with the FARC.

Certainly Santos emerges from the election with a much stronger hand in dealing with the guerrillas. He demonstrated his willingness to put his future on the line to end the 50-year conflict, and he secured a popular mandate in favor of the talks. However, it also is clear that a substantial portion of the country is in no mood for concessions. So, Santos will likely have to assume a much tougher line with the FARC.

He struck that tone on election night, declaring bluntly, "Today's message is also for the FARC and the ELN (National Liberation Army), and it is a clear message: this is the end, and you must come along with seriousness and determination."

Uribe was elected to the Colombian senate in March, and he can be counted on to scrutinize any peace deal or other Santos initiatives. Colombians weary of a nasty, personal campaign may expect Uribe to adopt a more constructive posture and to work with Santos to realize the economic reforms and social investments needed to make the country more competitive and prosperous.

The United States has an interest in seeing that any deal with the FARC is sound and verifiable. Indeed, we should question any accord that would grant impunity to narco kingpins who are involved in a drug trade that funds criminals and terrorists and destabilizes the region. We should also offer technical support to the Colombian negotiating team to help ensure a more credible process. One imminent challenge may come with the possible collapse of the regime in Venezuela, which is supposed to be a guarantor of any peace accord.

Santos' prowess as a poker player is renowned in Colombia, and it is cited as an explanation for his inscrutable style. But, unlike poker, politics is a team sport. Santos won an important hand yesterday, and now the stakes are higher than ever.

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