of Defense, Juan Manuel Santos, has been at the center of two recent
scandals that have pushed the government into apologizing and denying
statements made by the minister. Santos’ blatant disregard for
disciplined communication, and the unfortunate effects of his public
statements, suggest that he is unprepared for the challenges of the
top office in the nation.
of Santos’ gaffes came two weeks ago when, while in Washington to
meet with American Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Santos told
journalists that the Colombian intelligence agency DAS was “terminally
ill and should be buried”.
serious implications of Santos’ comments resonated in Colombia with President Uribe having to
release a statement the following day claiming he had no intention of
closing DAS, and referring to the agency as “important and
necessary for democracy”.
second, and most serious of Santos’ gaffes came this past week
when he publicly claimed that Colombia would pursue Colombian
terrorists even if they were hiding outside national borders. The
comments, that suggest Colombia would invade the sovereign territory
of neighboring nations if it found it to be necessary, caused
international outrage in both Ecuador and Venezuela, where many top
members of illegal groups are widely believed to remain in hiding.
Soon after, President Uribe publicly asked Santos to be prudent
when discussing international affairs and assured, once more, that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is the
only one charged with issuing public communications in that area.
comments were particularly ill-timed as they came nearly a year to
the date of the Colombian invasion into Ecuadorian territory which
resulted in the death of Raúl Reyes and sent the
diplomatic relations between the two countries into a crisis that
Venezuela, where President Chávez has expressed his dislike
for Minister Santos on multiple occasions, the Venezuelan leader
warned Colombia of a military response if there was an invasion of
their sovereign national territory, even under the argument of
also handled the internal effects of his comments in an unfortunate
way. Standing by his belief that Colombia ought to be able to pursue
those who attack it, regardless of whether they are stationed within
national territory, Santos, and the top military officials under his
command, wrote a letter to President Uribe supporting Santos’
statements and requesting a high-priority meeting to discuss the
administration’s official position on dealing with members of
illegal groups in border zones. The action, which appeared to question
Uribe, the Commander-in-Chief, seemed inappropriate, particularly
because the disagreement was discussed publicly.
denied the request for a meeting, and reaffirmed his position
regarding his administration’s willingness to respect and
collaborate with neighboring nations. Alternatively, Santos and top
military officials met with Foreign Affairs Minister Bermúdez
in order to coordinate efforts between the two ministries.
Bermúdez, who is a measured and disciplined communicator and has worked determinedly to improve relations with neighboring
countries, must have been understandably displeased with the effects of Santos’ gaffe.
willingness to become the spokesperson of governmental policy that
has not been approved or discussed with the President should be
reason enough to dismiss him from his cabinet post. Yet, the fact
that in his tenure at the Defense post, Santos has led the most
aggressive and effective effort against the FARC, seems to have saved
him from the effects of his ill-fated statements.
success as Minister of Defense has made Santos a rising political star. While
he is widely perceived as being responsible for many of the recent
military successes, his apparent lack of charisma, and his perceived
public persona as a real politik hard-liner make him somewhat of an
these two recent episodes clearly show that Santos is unfit to become
Colombia’s next president. He is perceived in a
terribly negative way by the leaders of neighboring countries, which
will prevent him from being able to conduct effective foreign policy.
Additionally, the country is going though a period in which leadership must be
defined by carefully crafted communication and by strategic
planning. Santos too easily dismisses both disciplined
communication and comprehensive institutional collaboration. Maybe he
just didn’t mean it at all.
Author Felipe Estefan is Colombian and studies media and international relations in New York