Juan Manuel Santos

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos has served since August of 2010, and will be in office until 2014. He won election by sizeable margins, and has enjoyed high approval levels, although his presidency has not been free of controversy, most notably the scandal over guerrilla false positives, and the recent legal bickering with Nicaragua over maritime boundaries.santos-1

Santos was born in Bogota in 1951, and comes from a family heavily involved in politics and journalism. His great uncle and cousin served as President and Vice-President, respectively, while his father served as editor of El Tiempo, the country's largest newspaper, for nearly sixty years.

Santos decided early on a naval career, and graduated from the Naval School of Cartagena in 1971, but soon found himself pulled in the direction of law and economics. To that end he went to the United States to study economics at the University of Kansas and subsequently recieved a degree in Law and Diplomacy from the Fletcher School at Tufts University.

Following stints working at El Tiempo, and the International Coffee Organization, Santos served in the administrations of both Liberal President Cesar Gaviria, and Conservative President Andres Pastrana. Like his mentor, Alvaro Uribe, Santos came from a Liberal background, but migrated towards the right and soon became instrumental in founding the Partido de la U (Social National Unity Party).

Santos first rose to national prominence when he was appointed Minister of Defense by Uribe, in 2006, at the height of Uribe's "mano dura" (strong hand) policies against the FARC and ELN guerrilla movements, which at one time controlled an estimated 30% of Colombian territory. Under Santos's tenure, the Colombian military killed many of the FARC's top leadership, and aggressively pushed the guerrillas out of urban areas and towards the southern jungles and eastern plains.


Santos was involved in one of the most tense moments in recent Colombian memory during the so-called Andean Diplomatic Crisis of 2008, in which the Colombian military pursued guerrillas from the southern Putumayo department, across the Putumayo River and into Ecuadorean territory. The incursion killed 24 people, including top commander Raul Reyes, who stepped on a landmine as he was fleeing a FARC encampment two miles inside Ecuadorean territory.

Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa responded promptly, deeming the unadvised incursion a "massacre" and "aggression" against the territorial sovereignty of Ecuador, also noting that many of the victims had been found in their underwear. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez deemed the incursion an act of war, and both leaders expelled their Colombian ambassadors and recalled their ambassadors to Quito and Caracas. Chavez massed ten batallions of troops on the Colombian-Venezuelan border, while Correa sent troops to Ecuador's northern border.

The event, which fortunately blew over, served as a catalyst in a longstanding dispute between Colombia and its neighbors over allegations of harboring FARC members and tacitly condoning their activities. Juanes, a famous rock artist from Medellin, responded to the event by organizing a concert in Colombia near the Venezuelan border, calling for peace and understading on all sides. The concert was attended by such luminaries as Shakira, Carlos Vives, Alejandro Sanz, and Miguel Bose.

Interestingly, Santos would ultimately forge a crucial friendship with former enemy Chavez during his presidency. In 2009 the Colombian Supreme Court announced that it would be unconstitutional for Uribe to seek a third term, paving the way for Santos to throw his hat into the ring. Already, widely popular and respected, Santos began and ended the campaign as a favorite, beating Green Party candidate Antanas Mockus (and former Bogota mayor) in convincing fashion in the June 20, 2010 runoff election.


Santos has largely continued the legacy of eight years of Uribe; but strangely, in the past year the two have become embroiled in a bitter and very public war of words over Santos's alleged moderation in the pursuit of the Uribeno tradition. Uribe, still a widely popular figure, maintains an active presence in Colombia's political life, and sends regular tweets to his legions of followers.

Three years of Santos have also seen a marked improvement in relations between the two erstwhile antagonists, with Santos and Chavez signing significant agreements in areas of trade, agriculture, and security, while a fuming Uribe, Chavez's arch-enemy, sits on the sidelines.

Though Santos has not been personally implicated, the "false positive" scandal has taken a heavy toll on the nation. Essentially, the government enacted a system of reward payments for the killing of guerrillas. Unfortunately, the system was rampant with abuses, with cases of innocent people being killed, and subsequently dressed in guerrilla uniforms, all so that unscrupulous soldiers and police could receive the bonuses. The issue became a human rights and public relations nightmare, but Santos has pledged to aggressively pursue those responsible, and change the faulty policies.

Santos has also seen his prestige dinged by the longstanding drama between Nicaragua and Colombia over the area surrounding the San Andres and Providencia islands. Nicaragua took its case to the International Court of Justice, which affirmed Colombia's control over the tropical islands, but ceded control of some 100,000 square kilometers to Nicaragua. The Colombian public is, understandably, unhappy over the decision.santos-4

Santos, despite some turbulence and falling approval rates, is still most likely to run for reelection in 2014, and probably stil the odds-on-favorite to win. A recent poll in Semana magazine (an influential weekly magazine in Colombia), shows Santos's approval at 45%. He may be down, but it would be foolish to count out the Uribe/Santos/Partido de la U tradition just yet. Santos, barely half way into his first term, has plenty of time to right his political ship, and with Colombia's recent resurgence on the global stage, odds are Santos will find a way to do just that.

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