Colombian Defense Minister, Juan Manuel Santos, arrived in Washington D.C this week to promote the pending Free Trade Agreement between the U.S. and Colombia, one of Bogota’s most sought after, and least likely to obtain, aspirations under President Uribe. The defense minister will try to win over House and Senate Democrats on the FTA issue, and then wrap up his campaign to get a reluctant congress to pass the foundering legislation. Santos hopes to smooth over a wide crack in his relations with Washington by amazing his audience with the details of Operation Jaque, which led to the rescue of 15 hostages being held by the FARC, the left wing guerrillas who have been battling the government for decades.
Santos might try to add to the goodwill in Washington by talking about the future of U.S. relations with Colombia. This might include the strong possibility of an offering to the Pentagon for the establishment of a new U.S military base in Colombia now that President Correa has determined that the lease wouldn’t be extended for the U.S. military base at Manta, Ecuador. Therefore, talks may occur with the Pentagon and the State Department about the possible relocation of the U.S. military facility at Manta, Ecuador to Palanquero, Colombia (a base which already holds U.S. technology), and a debriefing on the July 12 meeting between Chávez and Uribe, are also likely to be on the agenda.
Although Santos emphatically denied on June 16 the possibility of a U.S. base in Colombia; in the course of an interview over Colombian radio station RCN, President Uribe left open the possibility of a future military base in the country. He stated that there haven’t been talks between the U.S. and Colombia, but that they will continue doing “Whatever [they] can do to strengthen the help from the United States in the goal of defeating narco-trafficking.”
Juan Manuel Santos; The Heir to Uribe’s Throne?
Juan Manuel Santos, one of the few political figures in the Uribe administration who has been practically left untouched by the para-politics scandal, is now extremely popular as a result of the enormous success of Operation Jaque. According to a Gallup poll Colombia survey taken after the rescue mission, Juan Manuel Santos enjoys a 70 percent favorability rate. Unquestionably, he is an Uribista hardliner and very close to President Uribe. At the same time, his close associates acknowledge that Santos is predisposed to do whatever is necessary to advance his presidential ambitions, even if it means challenging Uribe in 2010 in a pitched battle for the seat. Moreover, if Uribe decides to step down after 2010, a Santos candidacy could result.
As Peruvian writer and politician Vargas Llosa stated in his article “Operation Jaque,” for the newspaper El Pais, “The Minister of Defense Santos can replace Uribe when the latter’s mandate ends.” Santos’ obdurate and hard line stance on the guerrilla problem in Colombia, is one of the reasons why the FARC has been wary of entering into negotiations with Colombian authorities. At the Center for American Progress meeting on July 23, Santos blamed the guerrillas for not negotiating with the “generous hand of the government.” In spite of invading Ecuador on March 1, killing their leaders and offering to pay a high reward for the murder or turning in of top leaders, Santos naively seems to believe that the FARC should be grateful to the one figure who has shown the greatest malevolence to it. Surely the Uribe government’s policy does not reflect the attitude of a government committed to achieving a peace agreement with the guerrilla armies.
Although the FARC may now be facing its worst institutional year in its 44 years of existence, as Juan Manuel Santos maintains, “the FARC is weakened, not defeated.” Nevertheless, continued military attacks will not solve the problem, and instead will undoubtedly instigate more violence in the future. Although the Uribe’s administration has provided the Colombian population with short term fixes for some of the country’s profoundly complex problems, the deep underlying social and economic problems are likely to remain, corroding Colombia’s social and political fabric.
Santos has recently claimed that Plan Colombia was a “big success;” but for whom? It has not been a success for the 42.6 percent of the population who live under the poverty line in Colombia. It also has not been a success for the poor farmers who grow corn, bananas, and plantains, and mistakenly are often sprayed with a special mixture of glyphosate toxic herbicide under Plan Colombia, destroying their land, driving them into further poverty and forcing them into cultivating coca out of sheer survival.
Fundamentally, Santos represents a continuation of Uribe’s harsh militarized policies in a country that desperately seeks reconciliation and healing. The FARC has already stated in their latest communiqué to Nicaragua’s President Daniel Ortega that “only a new government, a truly democratic one, created from a Great National Agreement” can offer a solution to the armed and social conflict that faces Colombia. This makes it highly unlikely that the FARC will even consider entering into negotiations with Santos. This can be seen in the July 24th release of FARC hostages to the Red Cross. On July 17, the FARC kidnapped 11 tourists on boat traveling along the Atráto River and later felt either pressured or willingly decided to release these hostages. The fact that the hostages were handed over to the ICRC instead of to Colombian authorities demonstrates the reluctance of the FARC to deal in any way with Uribe’s government. Without a different political culture taking over in Colombia, the nation will not be able to easily see an early end to its debilitating armed conflict or be able to find a viable solution to the country’s many grievous social, economic, and agrarian problems, which are likely to plague Colombia for years—maybe even decades—to come.