Born into one of the most influential families of Colombia’s social and political elite, President Juan Manuel Santos is a true political insider who has rarely strayed far from the path to the presidential palace.
The Santos family have long been considered heavyweights in Liberal politics and the media. Santos’ great uncle Eduardo Santos was president from 1938 to 1942, while his cousin Francisco was Vice President in the Uribe administration.
The family are also associated with Colombia’s leading national daily, El Tiempo. The family were majority shareholders in the paper from 1913-2007, while Santos’ father edited the paper for over 50 years.
Santos was schooled in economics in prestigious schools in Colombia, the U.S and England. He began his political career in his early twenties when a friend appointed him a delegate for the National Federation of Coffee Growers in London. After nine years in the role, he returned to Colombia to work as Sub-Director for the family newspaper.
After a decade in journalism, Santos was tempted back into politics in 1991 when then President Cesar Gaviria offered him the post of Foreign Trade Minister. Two years later Gaviria appointed him ‘Designated Official to the Presidency’ – a post that was replaced by the role of Vice President after Santos’ term.
In 1994, Santos laid the groundwork for his future presidency when he formed the Good Governance Foundation. Key personnel from the foundation are currently part of Santos’ cabinet while the ‘Third Way’ politics he expounded through the institute has formed the basis for his centrist governing coalition.
Santos fell out of favor during the controversial presidency of Ernesto Samper (94-98), failing in his bid for the post of ambassador to the United States. Extradited paramilitary commander Salvatore Mancuso has testified that during this period Santos proposed a “sort of coup” to infamous AUC paramilitary chief Carlos Castaño in which paramilitaries and political leaders would force Samper to resign and call a new Constituent Assembly headed by Santos. The president has denied the allegations, claiming they were made out of “spite.”
Under Samper’s successor, Andres Pastrana, Santos participated in the ill-fated peace process with leftist guerrillas the FARC as a member of the International Accompaniment Commission. However, he soon resigned, complaining about a lack of coordination. Afterwards he became a strident critic of the government – at least until 2000 when he was appointed Minister of the Treasury and Public Credit.
With the election of Alvaro Uribe in 2002, Santos career was to reach a turning point that would see him break ties with his party and prepare the way to the presidency. At the start of Uribe’s term, Santos was still a leading Liberal with hopes of heading the party. However he fell out with the Liberal hierarchy when the party expelled 15 congressmen for voting in favor of changing the constitution to allow Uribe’s re-election. With the Liberal party divided, Santos was a central figure in the formation of the breakaway Social Unity Party – better known as the U Party – which united cross party supporters of Uribe under one banner.
After Uribe’s re-election in 2006, the president rewarded Santos’ loyalty by appointing him to the key position of Defense Minister, where he was responsible for the military assault on leftist guerrillas under Uribe’s “Democratic Security” policy. The role was to prove the most controversial stage of Santos’ career but one that would ultimately help realize his presidential aspirations.
In March 2008, Santos authorized an airstrike on a FARC camp in Ecuadorian territory, which killed leader “Raul Reyes” and 25 others, including an Ecuadorean citizen. Governments in Latin America and around the world condemned the attack as a violation of Ecuadorean sovereignty, while the Ecuadorean authorities severed diplomatic ties with Colombia and Ecuadorean judges brought charges against Santos and other high-ranking Colombian military officials.
This was followed in July by the rescue of the kidnapped former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt along with three U.S. contractors, seven Colombian soldiers and four Colombia policemen. The intelligence-led “Operation Checkmate” was widely praised for being carried out without a shot fired.
Santos’ tenure as Defense Minister was also tainted by the breaking of the “false positives” scandal – the extra judicial murder of civilians who soldiers then presented as guerrillas killed in battle in order to increase their kill count and claim benefits. Although he never accepted his own political responsibility for the practice, in November 2008, Santos admitted it was happening and created a commission to investigate.
After it became clear that Uribe would fail in his attempt to again revise the constitution to allow him to stand for a third time, Santos resigned his position in order to stand as the U Party candidate. After seeing off a surprise challenge from ex-Bogota mayor Antanus Mockus, Santos was elected President in 2010 with 69% of the vote in a second round run-off.
Santos was elected as a continuity candidate; riding high on the continuing popularity of Uribe he pledged to continue with the incumbent’s key policies, especially Democratic Security and the military offensive against the FARC. However, Santos soon began to distance himself from Uribe. He replaced his predecessor’s hardline rhetoric with a more inclusive approach, improving the government’s relationship with previously ostracized groups such as human rights workers and even reaching out to neighbours Venezuela, who had enjoyed a fiery relationship with Uribe. He also began to replace Uribe’s political allies in key government positions, surrounding himself with his own people.
The relationship between Santos and Uribe began to publically sour as the two fell out over Santo’s handling of security and the conflict and over Santos’ increasingly centrist policies, including his flagship land restitution policy, the Victims Law.
The 2011 local elections marked what so far appears to be a terminal split between the two. Defeat for Uribe’s handpicked candidates in crucial elections followed by Santos’ appointment of a fierce critic of Uribe, Rafael Pardo, as Labor Minister provoked a blistering attack on the president by Uribe, who called the Santos government “hypocritical” and “hostile.”
As well as the increasingly acrimonious relationship with his still influential predecessor, Santos is also facing a declining security situation with an increase in guerrilla attacks and growing problems with drug gangs and neo-paramilitaries. However, Santos’ poll ratings remain high and for the moment his project to move Colombian politics towards the center has widespread political and popular support.