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COLOMBIA: Future Holds More of the Same

BOGOTA, Jun 15 2010 (IPS) - Few doubt that former defence minister Juan Manuel Santos will be the next president of Colombia, and that he will continue the policies of President Álvaro Uribe. Santos, as Uribe’s heir, will basically be more of the same.

The legacy of the right-wing Uribe, who has governed since 2002, is described in starkly black and white terms, and is seen as a blueprint for the next four years, after the Jun. 20 presidential runoff election.

Although she is a staunch critic of Uribe, political analyst Claudia López admitted that “He is leaving behind a better country than the one he found in 2002, when the guerrillas seemed invincible and violence was at a record high level in Colombia.”

But, she added, “This was at the cost of weakening virtually all of the country’s institutions.”

Colombia has been in the grip of a civil war since 1964, when the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the smaller National Liberation Army (ELN) guerrillas rose up in arms. The far-right paramilitary groups emerged in their present form in the 1980s, to combat the leftist insurgents alongside the government forces.

This South American country is the top supplier of drugs to the United States — the world’s single biggest market for drugs — and the third largest recipient of U.S. military aid, after Israel and Egypt.

Columnist Juan Carlos Botero offered a summary of what Uribe has achieved: he demobilised the paramilitary militias, backed the FARC into a corner, revived the economy, and curbed kidnappings, massacres and attacks by armed groups on towns and cities.

In fact, Uribe is reaching the end of his second term with popularity ratings of over 70 percent.

But on the other side of the equation, Botero listed a number of scandals: over the so-called “false positives” — young civilians killed by the army and passed off as guerrilla casualties in the military’s counterinsurgency campaign — and over the government’s Agro Ingreso Seguro (stable farm income) programme, under which some of the country’s largest landholders received millions of dollars in subsidies.

Other scandals have involved bribes to legislators, ties between pro-Uribe lawmakers and the paramilitaries, and years of spying on human rights defenders, opposition politicians, journalists and even Supreme Court judges by the domestic intelligence agency that operates directly under the authority of the president’s office.

The writer also pointed to the country’s international isolation as a result of human rights abuses and the various scandals, and to the constant rifts between the government and the judiciary.

When Santos argues why voters should cast their ballots for him next Sunday, he talks about safeguarding Uribe’s legacy and the “indisputable progress made in terms of boosting security, social coverage and investor confidence.”

But those who know him say Santos did not spend his whole life preparing himself to become president just to play the part of a docile heir apparent.

The direction that Colombia will take over the next few years should be examined in juxtaposition to the personality of the man expected to become the next president, after taking 46 percent of the vote in the first round on May 30, compared to 21 percent for his nearest rival, Antanas Mockus of the Green Party.

At the age of 14, Santos stated that he wanted to become president; at 16, bucking the trend among his generation, he enrolled in the naval academy. He studied economics and business administration at the University of Kansas and went on to earn master’s degrees at the London School of Economics and Harvard.

Disciplined and single-minded, and with a reputation as an experienced and no-nonsense decision-maker, he served as foreign trade minister (1992-1994), finance minister (2000-2002) and defence minister (2006-2009).

With his tough exterior, he sacked 27 army officers — including three generals — over the “false positives” scandal, and was a constant presence in photos and television coverage of military successes against the guerrillas.

Santos has promised to generate more formal sector jobs, in a country with an unemployment rate of over 12 percent — higher than the South American average of eight percent.

He also says he will create no new taxes. But economists point out that he would be taking over a country with a budget gap. “The government has a hole equivalent to five percent of GDP,” said the dean of economy at the University of the Andes, Alejandro Gaviria, a former government director of planning.

Another of his campaign pledges is emergency programmes to assist and foment employment among young people.

Listening to Santos’s list of campaign promises during a recent debate, his main rival Mockus, a two-time former mayor of Bogotá, merely responded “And where’s the money?”

The opposition’s wariness has been further fueled by observations that six of Santos’s 10 specific campaign pledges are slightly modified versions of the Green Party’s initiatives.

Columnist William Ospina wrote that the elections represent merely a replacement of one caste — wealthy rural landowners, like Uribe’s family — by another — prominent urban families, like Santos’s.

What will undoubtedly be kept alive by Santos, according to Ospina, is Uribe’s “democratic security policy,” under which “the theft of land, forced displacement, espionage, killings with state weapons, subsidies to the privileged, and scandalous levels of poverty have prevailed.”

Colombia is one of the 13 countries in the world with the largest gaps between rich and poor, according to the Gini index, which measures income inequality.

Forty-six percent of the country’s 42 million people live below the poverty line, according to official figures.

Those who back Santos believe in the “governability” that having a majority in Congress will give him, and that his economic policy will reflect his personal generosity.

That generosity was described by his long-time domestic employee, Mónica Martínez. After Santos and his brother Enrique won the King of Spain International Journalism Prize in 1985 while writing for the El Tiempo newspaper, owned by their family, they played cards to see who would get the money.

When Santos beat his brother, he stood up and handed the entire amount to the family’s maid, so she could buy a house of her own.

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