For Juan Manuel Santos to call for a government of national unity and reconciliation seems strange. After all, Santos is the heir apparent to Alvaro Uribe, one of the most polarizing (and most popular) presidents in recent Colombian history. Consequently, he has already inherited Uribe’s disputes with the domestic opposition, Colombia’s judiciary, the international human rights movement and several neighboring countries. Worse yet, in his role as defense minister, he was often on the frontline of some of these nasty rhetorical and political battles.
Some observers have therefore argued that Santos’ proposal is little more than a campaign trick to help him secure victory. Indeed, the plan for national unity may make it easier for Partido de la U to form alliances with smaller parties. The proposal has also shielded Santos from criticism by his main adversary, Green candidate Antanas Mockus. Four of the ten bullet points of Santos’s National Unity program – “Good Government”, “Transparency”, “Democratic Institutions” and “Zero Impunity” – seem to be direct answers to Mockus’s successful anti-corruption campaign platform.
On the other hand, Santos does not really need allies in order to win the presidency. Polls show him leading by about 30 percentage points. Moreover, his “Uribista” allies already control Congress, making it easy for Santos to pursue his agenda as president without having to make concessions to any rival group. In short, the domestic political context does not tell us much about the intentions behind Santos’s proposal of national unity. For clearer answers, it is more useful to look at Santos’ behavior both as defense minister and as a candidate.
As defense minister, Santos seemed to care very little about reducing political polarization. In fact, both Santos and his former boss President Uribe played central roles in creating the ugly, fractious political climate that characterizes contemporary Colombia. For example, Santos did not hesitate to support President Uribe when he accused opposition, labor and human rights groups, and even foreign newspapers, of links to terrorists. Why would Santos suddenly be so interested in healing wounds that he himself helped to create?
Judging from Santos’ recent approach to the Uribistas’ ongoing row with the judicial branch, the answer is that he is not very interested in reconciliation at all. The Uribistas’ disagreements with the judiciary have deep roots. During Uribe’s first term, many of the president’s key allies ran into problems with the law because of links to paramilitary groups. During this period, the justice system often found the executive branch to be an obstacle to fair, thorough investigations. Near the end of Uribe’s first term, many judges questioned the constitutionality of his re-election and the legality of the methods used to make the re-election possible. During his second term, Uribe and the judiciary have been at odds on other key issues, including the security forces’ illegal wiretapping of judges and opposition politicians.
As defense minister, Santos was not always directly involved in these disputes. But as an Uribista candidate and likely future president, he will have to take some responsibility for Uribe’s actions. Already, he is doing a terrible job at that. In a recent debate, he appeared to overlook the deeply political, ideological and personal nature of the row between Uribe and the judges, describing the quarrel as a mere technical dispute over the separation of powers. When asked to take a clearer stand on the issue, Santos avoided the question and said that he would not criticize Uribe’s actions because he had been a good president. But unless he acknowledges the outgoing president’s missteps, he is unlikely to mend relations with the judiciary. Even if he wanted to repair the damage of the past eight years, Santos does not seem to have the independence and political astuteness to do it.
Why, then, is Santos speaking of unity and reconciliation? One overlooked motivation is that Santos will need to secure international support for his government after his inevitable victory in the upcoming elections. In recent months, relations between the Uribe government and the international community have deteriorated. The rapidly growing list of unsavory Uribista scandals – illegal wiretapping, the large influence of paramilitary groups in Uribe’s governing coalition, and especially the murder of scores of innocent civilians by members of the military – has led many countries to rethink their relations with Colombia.
Nowhere is this trend more visible and more worrying (from Santos’s point of view) than in the United States. The transition from George W. Bush to Barack Obama put an end to the nearly unconditional alliance Colombia had enjoyed with the U.S. On the surface, the Obama government continues to support Uribe, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reaffirmed the U.S.’s admiration for the outgoing president during a recent visit to Colombia. In other ways, however, relations have changed profoundly.
When Bush came to Cartagena to meet with Uribe, they held a press conference in matching beach shirts and referred to each other as “amigo.” Clinton, by contrast, met not just with Uribe and Santos but also with Mockus. Her stay in Bogota was part of a broader tour that included a stop in Ecuador, whose left-leaning government has clashed with Colombia over a 2008 air raid on a guerrilla camp in Ecuadorean territory. Santos was defense minister at the time of that raid and Ecuador has expressed concern about his likely election. Moreover, although Clinton’s tone in Colombia was certainly friendly, Obama’s Democratic allies in Congress are increasingly concerned about human rights abuses and corruption in Colombia and calling for changes in policy.
In other words, Santos will inherit Colombia at a critical moment for the country’s diplomatic relations. The U.S. has already reduced military aid to Colombia and the fate of the U.S.-Colombia free trade agreement is increasingly in jeopardy. Some observers are already predicting that foreign judges will press war crimes charges against Uribe under international law. If relations with the international community are to remain friendly and fruitful, Santos will have to clean up the Colombian government’s damaged image. His proposal for national unity – which focuses more on honest, democratic governance than on traditionally important issues like security or the economy – is an attempt to restore international trust in Uribismo.
Whether Santos’s efforts to improve diplomatic relations will work is impossible to predict. What is certain, however, is that despite his calls for national unity, we will probably not be seeing President Santos shaking hands with Uribe’s enemies anytime soon.