Colombia Defense Minister, Juan Manuel Santos. Photo: Center for American Progress. flickrWith the second highest number of internal refugees in the world after Sudan, commonly being referred to as the heart for narco-trafficking and with an armed conflict containing no less than four separate players, the portrait of Colombia in media tends to be rather grim. The man whose job it is to turn this dire situation around is president Juan Manuel Santos Calderón, a diplomat by nature and part of one of the most influential families in the country. Some say his feet never strayed far from the path to the presidential palace and others say he is the optimal successor to previous president Àlvaro Uribe Velez. One fact that stands indisputable, however, is that expectations of him are high, possibly even higher than the mountains surrounding his high seat in Bogotá. If Santos wants to go down in history as the second liberator of Colombia after Simón Bolívar, unprecedented measures need to be taken.
After eight turbulent years under the iron fist of president Àlvaro Uribe and his heavy assail on narco-traffickers in collaboration with the U.S. through his political program Seguridad Democrática, the more diplomatically oriented Juan Manuel Santos was regarded as a fresh breeze on the political scene. PhD-student Andrés Palacio at the institution for economic history in Lund believes that even though previous president Uribe was very popular and regarded as a man of the people, his country was getting tired of the seemingly never-ending violence. Palacio, priorly to his doctoral studies, used to work for the Colombian government under president Uribe as deputy minister of labour affairs. Despite the harsh eight year of Uribe’s political reforms, Palacio thinks these were necessary for development in Colombia. In his opinion, Uribe came at a time when the kind of hands-on politics he represented was necessary, and Santos replaced him at a time when the stage was almost swept clean, and a new political agenda was longed for. But what does the political agenda of Santos actually contain? Three development projects are initiated for a brighter future.
Map of Colombia. Photo: Carolina. flickr The new administration has already experienced a series of positive developments: the FARC guerilla has given a shred of hope for discussion, in terms of coming to a peaceful agreement with the government, and has already stated that they will release a number of hostages they currently hold, many of whom are police officers or members of the army. This is to happen sometime this month and makes for a good starting for further discussion. However, it is not all positive, as shortly after making the announcement armed strikes were carried out by leftist guerilla in el Chocó, a region situated along the pacific coast and notorious for having strong presence of left-wing guerillas and right-wing paramilitaries.
Another positive aspect is the fact that Santos has been able to restore the good relations with Ecuador and Venezuela, which turned cold during the regime of Uribe due to happenings with the FARC-guerilla: the Colombian government accused Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez of providing shelter for members of FARC, and failed to prevent an aerial attack on a guerilla camp located on the Ecuador-Colombia border. The fact that Santos, through diplomatic efforts, has now managed to save the good relations between Colombia and its neighboring countries is crucial for shutting down networks between criminal gangs. If escape routes can be cut off for criminals wanted by the Colombian government, needless to say it will send a strong message that justice will be served. Another positive factor is that Venezuela has finally started to pay back its debt with Colombia, which would have a great influence on the Colombian economy.
But perhaps most importantly, the one task that gives hope for the future on Santos desk is most likely the implementation of La Ley de Víctimas. It is a law that aims to reimburse displaced people whose land was taken from them. Himself being from the poor region of El Chocó, Andrés Palacio expresses great joy about the fact that Santos sanctioned the law, as it serves as a symbol of justice much needed in a country where the conception of the word has become emaciated beyond recognition. In fact, Santos has said that “If we only do this, it will have been worthwhile becoming president”. However, Palacio points out that the ratification of the law does not make a success story by itself; there is still the question of how to implement it, how to fund it and who should be entitled to benefit from it. The problem of internally displaced people dates back several decades and the issue of who deserves what degree of compensation for their loss is, sadly, all but crystal clear. If Santos can figure that one out, the spot next to Bolívar just might be his.