23 June 2010

A New Colombian President Hatches From Uribe’s ‘Little Eggs’

In the upside down world of Colombia, the more things remain the same, the more they change. Juan Manuel Santos has been elected President, approvingly described by the BBC and other western news media as a “safe pair of hands” to continue with the policies of the current regime of the notorious President Alvaro Uribe. Santos won almost 70% of the votes cast but it turns out that almost 60% of the Colombians did not vote and that many of them did not turn out, or cast almost half a million blank votes, as a form of protest. Coming in the week that Jose Saramago, the Portuguese novelist died, it was somewhat ironic since his novel ‘Seeing’ charts out how a well-set regime begins to tumble after citizens spontaneously put in blank votes.

The winning candidate is of impressive Colombian pedigree. Santos is part of a very wealthy and influential Bogotan family which owns, together with its Spanish partners, a lot of the national media. It also supplies top-range political figures from time to time. Uribe’s Vice-President is a Santos, a cousin to the incoming President, who also had a great-uncle as a President from 1938-1942. Juan Manuel took some unorthodox steps in the past to get this particular office. A former Colombian President, Ernesto Samper, accused him of trying to set up deals with drug lords and even reaching out to the Left-wing FARC guerrillas in order to organise a coup against him.

That he thought of doing simultaneous deals with drug lords and Left-wing rebels should mark him out as a pragmatist. There were more signs of pragmatism like being linked to the company that oversaw the elections. And somebody must have felt charitable about him winning to organise the widespread voting fraud, ranging from having the paramilitaries threaten voters to making voters understand they would lose welfare benefits if they did not attend Santos rallies or voted improperly. Then a citizens’ group found out from a random sampling that fraudulent ballot papers somehow mostly seemed to have gravitated towards Santos in the first round of polling.

But there are times when even Juan Manuel discards opportunism to stand up for beliefs – like letting the world know how proud he feels when his country is described as the Israel of Latin America. Or may be it is still pragmatism, for Colombia buys a lot of Israeli weapons, its paramilitaries received (it would still be ongoing, wouldn’t it) a lot of training from Israeli officers and Colombia, like Tel-Aviv, has developed security expertise field testing its military tactics and weaponry on a hapless population.

Juan Manuel would not have been President if his predecessor, Don Uribe, had had his way. Having tweaked the country’s Constitution once to allow for a second term, he was all set for another tweak when Colombia’s Supreme Court decided that the constitutional amendment campaign had taken money from dubious backers and overruled the President. However, Juan Manuel publicly remains loyal to his former boss and promises to carry forward his policies. This is what some of Uribe’s achievements, the little eggs, as Uribe put it, that Santos would like to guard well:

Almost half of Colombians are poor and seven million live in extreme poverty. Colombia has the largest number of internally displaced persons after Sudan, something approaching 10% of its population. Farmers are driven off their land by the paramilitaries, their land is then handed over to large agro-businesses and government funds meant for small farmers are diverted to these large corporations. Neat. Unemployment is something like 13% and in some cities it approaches 20%. Four out of five Colombians lucky to work are not lucky enough to earn the minimum wage. So some take to smuggling drugs. Something like eleven million Colombians or 58% of the workforce is in informal employment. The services sector accounts for a disproportionately large number of jobs. School dropout is endemic. The public health system recently came close to collapse and is still infirm. Of the 102-odd aboriginal groups, something like 32 of them are in the danger of disappearing. Forty trade unionists were killed last year; this year the figure has already reached 31. Nevertheless military spending will approach 5.6% of the GDP this year. Colombia is the second largest military spender in Latin America after Brazil. In the past four years, some 5,000 were killed in cold blood, the so-called false positives where unsuspecting civilians were lured with jobs, shot, dressed in guerrilla fatigues and passed off as enemy combatants to take advantage of the financial incentives for killing guerrillas. The country has Latin America’s biggest common grave and many more are still being found. Thousands have been “disappeared” during Uribe’s presidency. Meanwhile, paramilitary bosses say they enjoyed a cosy relationship with Uribe and the military all through and that they supported Uribe’s 2002 presidency. Juan Manuel was also Uribe’s Defence Minister and in 2009 was linked to a scandal in which he is said to have favoured a friend of his in defence purchases.

During the presidential campaign, one candidate went on fast saying the media were ignoring him. Another, Gustavo Petro of the Leftist alliance, said the Bogota establishment had manipulated opinion polls to show the Green candidate was running a close second to Juan to inject some legitimacy into an election many Colombians see as essentially fixed. Piedad Cordoba, Colombia’s doughty peacemaker first expressed that view and unsurprisingly in the actual elections Juan won by an enormous margin.

President Santos is a sinister shadow over Latin America. Nevertheless, he will find that Colombians are emerging from a long period of dissociation from political protest. Students, environmentalists, indigenous people, the victims of the civil war and state violence are all beginning to hit the streets again and the forced retirement of the nimble and utterly ruthless Uribe will be a loss for the Bogota establishment. The Colombian elite will have to sweat again.

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