Constructing a New Colombia


Overcoming divisions and being inclusive in the construction of a new Colombia is the main challenge facing President Juan Manuel Santos in his second term. This implies the need to address political, social and economic fault lines that continue to divide Colombians, insists Darynell Rodríguez Torres

On August 7, Colombia’s President Juan Manuel Santos was sworn in for a second term in office. This could be considered as a significant vote of confidence for his administration. However, his re-election can better be explained by a combination of two factors: first, as a mandate by the majority of Colombians to continue with the peace process with the Leftist guerrillas, and second, as an attempt to prevent a comeback to power of ex-President Alvaro Uribe, a leader loved by many, but also rejected by many others who consider him too authoritarian.

Among the different challenges that Santos will have to overcome are three that will particularly determine the success or failure of his presidency. First, there is the seemingly omnipresent shadow of his predecessor and former political chief Uribe who has become his main political opponent. Second, is the need to successfully conclude peace talks with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN) guerrillas and have those agreements endorsed by the majority of Colombians. Third, to consolidate the economic foundations of a country that is experiencing significant economic growth but with increasing gap between the rich and the poor.

Overcoming the Shadow of Uribe

Santos’ second term appears to be received with certain scepticism and little enthusiasm by many Colombians. This feeling is shared even among some of those who voted for him.

The long shadow of ex-President Alvaro Uribe, one of the most popular and influential political figures of the last decades, is in part to blame for this. Although for different reasons, Uribe has been a decisive factor in both of the elections won by the current president.

President Santos was first elected in 2010 after the Constitutional Court rejected Uribe’s bid to change the constitution to enable him to run for a third consecutive term. Faced with the impossibility to stand for election, Uribe was forced to appoint a successor who would give continuation to his policies. The chosen one was his Defence Minister, Juan Manuel Santos. Santos inherited the political capital and the votes of Uribe as they were seen as two faces of the same coin.

However, once Santos was in office the situation changed. He distanced himself from the former president and ignored his recommendations. The once close relationship quickly deteriorated as Uribe felt betrayed by his former protégé. When in August 2012 Santos announced that he was starting peace talks with the FARC guerrillas, Uribe became his strongest opponent. He set up a new political party (the Democratic Centre) and announced the selection of a candidate to run against Santos and put an end to the peace process with the FARC.

Oscar Iván Zuluaga, a former Economy Minister during the Uribe administration, was selected as the Democratic Centre’s candidate to run against President Santos. The 2014 presidential election was then transformed by the incumbent president and by his main opponent into a vote on the peace process. Santos campaigned as the President of Peace, while Zuluaga portrayed himself as the man who could give continuation to Uribe’s hard-line ‘democratic security’ policies and defeat the FARC.

Uribe’s tremendous influence in Colombian politics was confirmed when Zuluaga, against all odds, won the first round of the presidential election with a difference of more than four percentage points over Santos. As the two most voted candidates, Zuluaga and Santos moved into a second round which, more than ever, had the peace process as the main issue of discussion.

Zuluaga’s first round victory made the threat of an indirect comeback of Uribe to power and the suspension of peace talks a real possibility. The victory of Juan Manuel Santos in the final round of the presidential election can better be explained as a vote of rejection towards Uribe and his authoritarian style rather than as an endorsement of Santos’ first administration.

Despite the setback in the presidential election, Uribe remains one of the most popular leaders in the country and his political influence is still very strong. The elections showed a society divided between those who support Uribe and those who reject him. The new party founded by Uribe became a strong force in Colombia’s parliament. Uribe himself was elected Senator and he leads a cohesive and disciplined parliamentary group, which will become one of the main political obstacles Santos will have to deal with over the next four years.

Finalising Peace Talks

The biggest gamble of Santos’ first term was the decision to engage in a peace process with the FARC guerrillas to end Colombia’s 50-year-old conflict. The success or failure of these talks will be the most significant element to judge his presidency.

During his second term, Santos will not only have to reach a peace agreement, something which would be a remarkable achievement in itself, but will also have to ‘sell’ this deal to a country almost equally split between those who believe in making some concessions to end the conflict and those who think the rebels should be militarily defeated. Moreover, he will have to face either the challenges of a complex post-conflict scenario or a renewed military effort to combat the guerrillas in case negotiations fail.

Never before peace talks with the FARC guerrillas (the country’s largest rebel group) had progressed as much as they have now. From the six point agenda of the negotiations, there are already agreements on three of them (land reform, political participation and illicit drug trafficking). However, the three remaining points on the agenda will likely be more difficult as they refer to the process of disarmament and demobilisation, compensation of victims and transitional justice mechanisms.

These are all complex issues that also require the political ‘buy in’ of most Colombians. As the main premise of the talks is that ‘nothing is agreed until everything is agreed’, there is a risk to undo the path that has already been covered. Moreover, once a total agreement is reached, the intention of the government is to call for a referendum to either approve it or reject it. The government will have to work hard to sell the final agreement and face the opposition of those sceptical about it.

Besides the negotiation with the FARC, the government has also announced the beginning of talks with the second largest rebel group, the ELN (about 5,000 combatants). These talks are expected to be difficult as this group has the aspiration to discuss a much broader agenda than the one that was agreed with the FARC. The fact that the negotiation has been announced before the agenda has been agreed puts even greater pressure on the participants at the negotiation table.

Spreading the Benefits of Economic Growth

During the past decade, Colombia has become one of the most successful economies in the region. The economy has been growing close to five percent a year and per capita income has risen from $5,800 in the year 2000 to about $10,000 today. But these positive indicators have still not been felt by many Colombians.

The country remains one of the most unequal in the world. Unemployment has decreased, but many still work in the informal sector in very precarious conditions. The growth of the last years, due to a large extent to the mining sector and the export of other commodities, has not contributed to the development of a more sustainable economic model. The industrial sector is experiencing a recession. Small farmers continue to live in poverty. The country has a serious infrastructure deficit that drags its competitiveness.

Early this year, Santos was reminded of this reality when farmers across the country declared a nationwide strike, (a similar strike also happened in 2013). The protest was supported by a large portion of the population and almost paralysed the production of agricultural goods in the country. Farmers complained about the government’s agricultural policy and the alleged damages that the Free Trade Agreement reached with the US would do to the sector. Social unrest is also growing along different mining regions where local communities demand a more sensible exploitation of resources and a better distribution of profits.

While the economic outlook is still positive, the incumbent president will have to work to make sure the benefits of growth reach those who have been historically marginalised.

Reconciliation: The Main Challenge of All

Perhaps the challenges mentioned above, plus many others that President Santos will have to face, can be put under one big category: the challenge of reconciliation. This implies the need to address political, social and economic fault lines that continue to divide Colombians. This includes addressing the harm that has been done by different actors during 50 years of armed conflict; the need to forgive but not forget; the need to find the right balance between justice and peace; the need to create economic opportunities to move towards greater social and economic justice.

Reconciliation is about re-building relationships. It is about re-establishing trust among people and between people and the state. It is not only a process to deal with the past. Above all, reconciliation is about constructing the future. Overcoming divisions and being inclusive in the construction of a new Colombia is the main challenge President Santos will have to face.

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