Colombia's Ironic Reality: New President More Likely To Redeem Santos, Not Uribe

Aug 2, 2018

COMMENTARY

Some thought it stunning last week when former Colombian President Alvaro Uribe announced he was resigning his Senate seat to defend himself in a criminal investigation.

But actually it was very fitting.

Fitting because Uribe’s political fade-out is happening on the eve of the inauguration of Colombia’s young, conservative president-elect, Iván Duque, who takes office next Tuesday.

The 42-year-old Duque was supposed to be Uribe’s puppet. His mini-mí. The pliable protégé who’d do Uribe’s angry bidding and scrap the peace agreement with leftist guerrillas, finalized two years ago, that ended Colombia’s half-century-long civil war.

That’s right-wing fantasy. Duque is more moderate than Uribe. So the ironic but reassuring reality is that he’s more likely to govern like the man Uribe hates most in the political universe: the guy who forged the peace agreement, current President Juan Manuel Santos.

READ MORE: Miami Colombians Divided Over Peace With a Guerrilla 'Mafia'

If that prospect shocks Uribe, it’s also a surprise to many Colombians. Santos leaves office as one of the most unpopular presidents in the country’s history. His approval ratings lie below 20 percent, thanks to a widespread feeling the peace pact was too soft on the FARC guerrillas. Those rebels admittedly had become criminal Mafiosi instead of crusading Marxists – which is why their new political party won less than 1 percent of the vote in legislative elections this year.

It’s also why many Colombians don’t believe Santos deserved the 2016 Nobel Peace Prize he won for the agreement.

Making Colombia a normal country will be Duque's job now – and to do it he'll have to follow Santos' vision, not Uribe's.

But they’re wrong. And I predict Duque – the same Uribe acolyte they voted into power this summer to show their disdain for Santos – will prove them wrong.

Just as Santos had no choice but to get a peace agreement signed, Duque has no choice but to make it work. That may, and should, mean tweaking it. But trashing it? That would be a folly more epic than the errors that led to Colombia’s prolonged civil war – and to the more than 220,000 people killed in it.

A lot of Colombians believe the solution to that conflict was Uribe’s U.S.-funded (and rightly lauded) campaign to strengthen Colombia’s military, which knocked the wind out of the FARC in the 2000s. Like Uribe – whose rancher father was killed by the FARC – they insist the mano dura, or hard hand, will Make Colombia Great Again.

As Uribe’s defense minister, Santos led that counterattack against the FARC. But he was focused less on personal retribution and more on national reconstruction. So when he became President in 2010, he knew the mano dura was only half the answer.

BENIGHTED INEQUALITY

Because he'd so closely watched Colombia’s military trade fire with the FARC, Santos understood the guerrillas could be beaten back – but not beaten. He resolved the only way to end Colombia’s bloodshed, and unlock its huge economic potential, was to end Colombia’s egregious social injustices. Especially the benighted inequality, infrastructure deprivation and institutional void in its rural regions.

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos talking to WLRN in 2015.
Credit Presidencia de Colombia

As Santos told me during the peace talks, “The problem with Colombia is that we’ve been fighting a war for three generations and we simply got accustomed to it. What I’m trying to tell the Colombian people is, ‘Wake up. We have to be a normal country.’”

Making Colombia a normal country will be Duque’s job now. And to do it he’ll have to follow Santos’ vision, not Uribe’s. Starting with a serious push for land reform. If there’s one tumor Duque has to remove – and the most urgent the peace agreement addresses – it’s a culture that allows less than 1 percent of Colombia’s agricultural landowners to hold two-thirds of its agricultural land.

That, by the way, constitutes the most unequal land distribution anywhere in the world. But it’s only part of what keeps Colombia’s countryside a medieval mess that grows so much illegal coca, the raw material of cocaine. Rural roads are so laughable experts say it costs more to transport a container of crops from the interior to a port than it does to ship it to Asia from that port. Massive infrastructure investment, perhaps equaling a tenth of Colombia's GDP, is a peace prerequisite.

So with any luck, Uribe will remain sidelined – making Duque freer to become one of Colombia’s most popular presidents by governing like one of its most unpopular.