On August 7, Juan Manuel Santos will inherit the presidency of Colombia from Alvaro Uribe, the most popular president in the country’s recent history. But along with the Casa de Nariño, and all of the extraordinary successes handed down by Uribe, Santos will also be left with much baggage.
Colombian newspaper Semana takes a look at just what is waiting for the 58 year-old Santos as he tries to fill some pretty large shoes, following a president who many see as responsible for the vast security improvements in the country, which just eight years ago would have been unthinkable.
Unemployment and poverty
In the latest Gallup poll, 42% of respondents said they believe that the main issue the government must deal with is increasing the purchasing power of Colombians.
Colombia’s government statistics department DANE reports an official unemployment rate of 12.2%, the highest reported rate since 2004. With 2,668,000 jobless, Colombia has the highest unemployment rate in all of South America.
Currently 45.5% of Colombians live below the poverty line, 16.4% of whom are considered to be in extreme poverty.
Santos has promised to create 2.5 million jobs and to formalize the millions more that are in Colombia’s vast informal sector. The president-elect plans to do this by continuing with the policy of providing subsidies and incentive systems to encourage companies to hire.
Security has been a challenge to Colombia for decades. Despite coming to the presidency of a country that is much more secure than eight years ago when Uribe took office, Santos still faces tough challenges.
According to Rafael Nieto, Colombia’s former justice minister, the three key security issues for Santos are: ending the armed conflict, reducing narco-trafficking, and reducing urban crime.
“The armed conflict consumes a large part of the state’s resources and has a huge cost of human life. The production of narcotics harms the economy tremendously, it is the principle element that corrupts police departments and is the engine behind violence,” Nieto said, adding that “Crime and homicide statistics in cities were dropping up until 2008, but since then, they have reverted to previous levels; the next government will have to design effective urban security measures.”
Meanwhile NGO director Mauricio Romero from The Armed Conflict Observatory added border security to Santos’ laundry list of priorities. “The guerrillas have been pushed out to the border areas, as well as the resulting groups from the now-demobilized AUC paramilitary group, in order for them to continue controlling drug production.”
Romero also explained that in the border areas there “will not only be required a security policy, but also one to generate [economic] development. Also, cooperation with neighboring governments, not confrontation, because without normalizing relations, it is impossible to resolve the issues at the borders.”
One of the main challenge for Santos in regards to the Colombian economy is tax reform. Santos has insisted throughout his campaign that he will not raise taxes, but some analysts argue that more money will be needed if he is to carry out his plans for government.
Santos has two options. He can break his campaign promises and raise taxes, or strengthen the country’s existing tax system through enabling for clearer and more efficient collection procedures.
Colombian international relations have suffered in recent years under Uribe, with cuts in diplomatic and economic ties with neighboring countries such as Venezuela and Ecuador, Santos has a lot of work ahead of him if he hopes to re-establish good relations with the country’s neighbors.
According to Horacio Godoy, International Relations program director at the Universidad del Norte, repairing broken ties with Venezuela and Ecuador will be very difficult, but is necessary in order to accomplish Colombia’s other security and economic goals.
“To outgoing government did not pay particular care to foreign politics. Its foreign ministers were weak, the ambassadors were political appointments, and in general, there was no diplomacy,” Godoy argued.
Godoy, however, belives that Santos, a graduate of one of the United States’ top international relations programs, will surround himself with capable specialists to create a better diplomatic team.
Former justice minister Nieto is however pessimistic about Santos’ ability to reestablish ties with Venezuela, on the grounds that Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is unwilling to create good relations with Colombia regardless of who the president is. “Chavez needs to have an opponent. Colombia should work its diplomatic tools hard to moderate the relationship with Venezuela, but must be prepared for negative results.”
Colombia’s human rights problems are infamous worldwide. With the second highest number of internally displaced people in the world, at 3.3 million, and the biggest number of trade unionists murders per year, Colombia’s image continues to suffer as it tries to move forward and establish itself as a respected country in the international system.
The United Nations has blasted the Colombian government over the “false positives” scandal, in which members of the military murdered innocent civilians and passed them off as rebels killed in action in order to inflate kill numbers. This phenomenon came to light while Santos was defense minister.
While mechanisms have been put in place to put an end to these extrajudicial killings, not enough has been done to punish those responsible, according to the U.N.
According to Philip Alston, a U.N. investigator, about 98.5% of the “false positives” killings have gone unpunished.
Santos can expect a difficult time trying to work with Colombia’s judicial branch, following the public feud between his predecessor Uribe and the country’s Supreme Court.
On the courts’ side, “there is much uncertainty about how [Santos] will treat the country’s judicial independence,” according to a legal adviser from the Corporacion Viva la Ciudadania, Gabriel Bustamante.
In his opinion, “it is uncertain whether Santos will respect the decisions of judges or will attack the courts as Uribe has done.”
For his part, Santos has said that he will try and meet with the courts to assuage tensions as part of a clear commitment to respect the separation of powers.
The more than 3 million votes cast for Santos’ main opponent, Antanas Mockus, are a clear indication that many Colombians are fed up with the numerous corruption scandals tarring traditional politics.
Colombia’s health care system is crumbling and bankrupt, and Santos, as mandated by the country’s constitution, must ensure that there is an effective health care system nationwide.
In addition, on May 19, Colombia’s high courts enacted the General Law of Education, which guarantees free and obligatory education for all Colombians.