Juan Manuel Santos is, in many ways, Alvaro Uribe’s chosen successor. After a drawn-out and somewhat secretive internal struggle, Uribe favored Santos over Andres Felipe Arias to become the “Uribista” candidate for the presidency. This, in effect, guaranteed Santos the job, as there was virtually no formidable opposition to the conservative establishment except a grossly over-hyped Green Party surge. Therefore, a few months ago, as Santos prepared to take office, most observers expected him to maintain Uribe’s conservative philosophy and combative governing style.
However, just days before Santos’ inauguration in August, there emerged some intriguing signs of discord within the Uribista movement. Santos, it seemed, was laying the foundation for rapprochement with leftist Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. Uribe, who had spent years feuding with Chavez, appeared to sabotage Santos’ efforts by reigniting a longstanding debate about the relationship between Venezuela and the FARC, a Colombian guerrilla group.
Both Uribe and Santos denied that there was any disagreement over relations with Chavez, but in only the first few weeks of his presidency, the new president has dramatically changed Colombia-Venezuela relations. The two countries are arranging meetings to discuss important issues long overshadowed by the rhetorical battle between Uribe and Chavez, including trade, security, and drug trafficking. The supposed links between Venezuela and the FARC seem to have been forgotten, at least for now.
Santos’ efforts to improve Colombia’s foreign relations extend far beyond Venezuela. Whereas Uribe was known for focusing (perhaps excessively) on deepening Bogota’s ties to Washington, Santos’s first official visit was to Brazil, the U.S.’s main counterweight in the Western Hemisphere. Notably, Brazilian President Lula da Silva is a leftist.
Santos has been similarly pragmatic on domestic policy issues, making active efforts to deal with challenges that Uribe neglected, partly due to political and ideological concerns. Santos seems serious, for example, about returning lands stolen by right-wing paramilitaries to the peasants who originally owned them, something that the Colombian left has been seeking for years. The president has also announced a major campaign against corruption that, if it fulfills its promise, will lead to a massive purge of dirty officials (including many Uribistas).
Santos’ biggest challenge, of course, is the accelerating deterioration in security conditions. In some ways, he became president at an inopportune time. Although Alvaro Uribe’s “democratic security” policy is credited with significant reductions in violence, by this year it had already begun to show signs of weakness. Santos, in other words, inherited democratic security during the policy’s most significant crisis. Petty crime is rising in major cities, drug gangs are ravaging Medellin and paramilitaries and guerrillas alike are making a frightening comeback in the Colombian countryside.
Despite these mounting challenges, Colombians are generally embracing Santos’s new style. Polls consistently put his approval ratings above 60%, with some reaching as high as 84%. Not all of this popularity stems from Santos’s close association with Uribe, whom the vast majority of Colombians still view favorably. Indeed, at least part of Santos’s popularity stems from his differences from his predecessor. Polls show that 86% of Colombians approve of his fresh approach to relations with Venezuela.
For the foreseeable future, Alvaro Uribe will remain one of the most admired and popular figures in Colombian politics. Nevertheless, the country no longer considers him flawless. Thankful as Colombians are for the transformative Uribe years, they were ready for change and Santos, Uribe’s most prominent disciple, is unexpectedly delivering it.