Blair’s Man in Bogota: Colombian Politics in the Era of Juan Manuel Santos


Political stability and Colombia have always been uneasy bedfellows.  Plagued for decades by endemic government corruption and brutality, a fierce civil war, and incessant inter-community strife; Colombia used to be the model for how broken a Latin American society could become.
Yet on many accounts, it seems the past 10 years has witnessed an epic reversal of fortunes for the previous ‘narco-state’. For many in both Colombia, and in the ever-watchful United States, Colombia’s president Juan Manuel Santos is emblematic of this transformation.
One, however, should not be too quick to draw any firm conclusions about the future of Colombia. It is a country characterised by complexities. Its volatile social and political history makes generalised predictions extremely difficult. There are, however, some clear trends emerging.
The Marxist-Leninist ‘FARC’ guerrillas, active for the last half-century, seem to be suffering a terminal decline in fortunes. With numbers estimated at only 9,000 active fighters and a depleted cadre of leaders; the FARC have resorted to isolated terrorist attacks, where they used to launch powerful offensives. The government and US backed far-right paramilitary groups responsible for between 70-80% of deaths in the conflict have become somewhat marginalised by a well-funded and professional Colombian army.  Colombia’s homicide rate halved between 2002 and 2006. Cocaine production, used by both guerrillas and drug-cartels to fund their exploits, has seen serious quantitative reductions. Growth rates and foreign investment are relatively high compared to many parts of South America.
Yet what is most interesting about Colombia must be its President. Juan Manuel Santos is in many senses unique by both Colombian and South American standards. Co-author of ‘The Third Way’ with Tony Blair; Santos is an enigma in a continent characterised for the past 15 years by charismatic Leftist leaders like Chavez, Morales and Correa. Santos, it seems, would look more at home at a New Labour drinks function than side by side with his contemporary South American leaders.
His advocacy of a ‘Third Way’ between socialism and capitalism; ‘using markets where possible and state where necessary’; sits uneasily beside both Chavez’s ‘21st Century Socialism’ and the Peronist tendencies of Argentinian president Cristina Fernandez.
In the delicate balance of forces that characterises South American geopolitics, Santos remains a shroud pragmatist. He realises that good relations with neighbouring Venezuela is critical for both Colombia’s security against the still present FARC, and its wider economic development.  What Santos fears most is instability. Publicly announcing that he hopes Hugo Chavez ‘doesn’t die’ from his on-going chemotherapy is an attempt at maintaining this uneasy alliance.
Yet the mainstay of Colombian government foreign policy over the last half-century has been its close relationship to the US. By often acting as a launch-pad for US imperialist incursions into ‘America’s backyard’; it has won praise from Washington, yet distrust and hatred of some of its South American neighbours.
The future of South America seems to reflect that of other rapidly developing regions around the world. Although poverty, entrenched inequality, and a resilient narcotics industry still characterise Colombian social life, there seems to be a confidence in the future which does not characterise the discourse in Europe and the US.
Yet it does seem that disquiet waters may lie ahead. Much like its neighbours in Ecuador, Peru and Venezuela; Colombia’s economy relies heavily on a commodity boom. It mainly exports coffee, flowers, emeralds, coal, and oil, primarily to the US, Europe, and increasingly China.  Yet this reliance on commodities, rather than industrial production and services, leaves Colombia vulnerable to both sudden economic shocks, and wider world trends in demand.
Economic stagnation in the US and Europe, coupled with signs that the Indian and Chinese economies are slowing, could cause Colombia to be forced to look to markets closer to home. As the US begins its terminal decline as a world superpower, Colombia will have to look elsewhere for friends. With Colombia’s divisive history, Santos may find this difficult.

PHOTO/Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development


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