As President Juan Manuel Santos is sworn in for his second term today, analysts are practically falling over themselves to tell us how Colombia stands at a crucial moment — maybe even a crossroads, depending on how hyperbolic they feel.
More than anything, this is because of the ongoing dialogues between the Colombian government and the country’s largest rebel group, the FARC. Ask most Colombians, though, and they’ll tell you that the dialogues aren’t the biggest issue here — or even the third-biggest issue. Ask most Colombians, and they’ll tell you they want the president to fix everything else that’s wrong in the country.
During the election period, polls and interviews all over the country proved time and time again that Colombians were most concerned with the issues that worry most of the world’s voters — under- and unemployment, a broken education system, flawed health care, government corruption. The peace talks with the FARC were far down the list of priorities for most voters — if they were even on the list at all.
Of course, it’s important not to undervalue the significance of the dialogues in Havana, which have been going on since November 2012. The talks mark one of the few real opportunities the country has had to find a political solution to at least part of the decades-long armed conflict that has taken such a toll on its citizens, and there is considerable optimism within many parts of society that the two sides will ultimately come to an agreement. What happens afterward, however, is much less clear.
But instead of focusing on the possibilities in a post-accord Colombia, Santos has recently been occupied with what seems to be the most pressing issue of the day: gaining support for a proposal to change presidential term limits to one six-year term, rather than the current four years with a chance for reelection. Already entering his second term, he himself wouldn’t be able to benefit from this change — it’s for the sake of the country’s future, of course.
“President of peace”
The Santos inauguration will be a high-level diplomatic event, with heads of state including the presidents of Mexico, Panama, Paraguay, Guatemala, Ecuador, Honduras, Peru and the European Union,as well as former Spanish king Juan Carlos. However, everyone is really just waiting to see if Santos’ self-appointed political nemesis, former president and newly-elected senator Álvaro Uribe Vélez, will make an appearance.
There’s plenty to be said about the history between these two men: how Santos was defense minister in Uribe’s administration; how he was in some ways Uribe’s hand-picked successor; how the schism began when Santos opened peace negotiations with the FARC guerrilla group much to the ultra-right-wing Uribe’s dismay — and how in reality there’s very little political difference between the two, with the notable exception of the peace dialogues.
It makes sense, then, that Santos ran most of his campaign leaning heavily on the platform of the dialogues, even painting himself as the “candidate of peace.” What else was there to distinguish him from his opponent, Uribe minion Oscár Iván Zuluaga, other than the talks? With both candidates fairly right of center, particularly in terms of economic policy, and especially in a region that tends to lean toward the left, the negotiations were, in some ways, the only means of telling them apart.
But that difference, or maybe the specter of Uribe making a return to the executive branch through Zuluaga, was enough for some people.
Colombia struggles with a dismally low rate of voter turnout — just 13.2 million out of an eligible 33 million people voted in the first round of the presidential election, which Zuluaga won by a solid margin. That was enough to spur leftist groups that desperately feared a return to Uribe-era policy into action. Deciding to hold their noses and go with the lesser of two evils, many on the left threw their support behind Santos, enough so that he was able to win reelection in the second round of voting on June 15.
Four more years — of what?
But what happens now, after the ceremony is over? Santos has shown a strong tendency toward troubling economic reforms, signing a wide-ranging free trade agreement with the United States that has devastated farmers, endangered labor rights defenders and incited protests across the country — and he shows no sign of stopping, accelerating talks with Japan, pursuing other treaties through the Pacific Alliance trade bloc and even continuing negotiations with Israel at a time when almost every other country in the region is trying to distance itself as much as possible. He has opened up wide sections of the country to extractive industries and other multinational interests, parceling off Colombia’s oil, gas, minerals and other resources to international players while providing few, if any, benefits for residents, who are instead left to deal with the environmental aftermath.
Santos has promised to bring peace to Colombia, and his willingness to negotiate with the FARC and perhaps even the secondary ELN group is a positive sign, especially when his predecessor’s approach was a scorched-earth (and occasionally murdered-civilians) strategy. Still, the negotiations are just one small step toward bringing actual peace to a country that has been ravaged by decades of conflict, the misguided War on Drugs, exploitative economic policy and the big players of the extractive industries that so desperately want to get their claws into Colombia’s natural resources.
Santos may be painting himself on the international stage as a moderate “president of peace” — and the PR campaign may even be working — but he has a long way to go to prove to the Colombian people that he has their best interests in mind.