Colombian Defense Minister Santos Considers 2010 Run for President
Tuesday, May 19, 2009
BOGOTA, Colombia, May 18 -- Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos, celebrated for driving back Marxist guerrillas with U.S. backing in Latin America's longest-running civil conflict, announced his resignation Monday, saying he will run for president in 2010 if the current leader, Álvaro Uribe, declines to seek a third term.
Uribe, a former rancher popular with Colombians for his security policies, has not said whether he favors a constitutional change permitting him to run again. "If the president decides to run, he can count on my support," said Santos, 57. "If he does not do it, I will be a candidate."
Should Santos run and win, the Obama administration would have as a partner a U.S.-educated politician well versed in Washington ways, in contrast to Uribe, a provincial politician with little knowledge of the inner workings of U.S. politics. In frequent trips to the American capital, Santos has cultivated ties with Republicans and Democrats, particularly among those supportive of Uribe's tough military strategies against guerrilla groups and drug traffickers.
As defense minister for nearly three years, Santos spearheaded implementation of Uribe's security policies. Uribe is considered one of the closest U.S. allies in Latin America, receiving more than $5 billion in American assistance, most of it to improve Colombia's military capacity and to fund an ambitious drug-crop eradication program.
Santos has also served as trade minister and finance minister in two previous administrations. An economist and journalist, Santos is a scion of the politically powerful Santos family, which runs Colombia's most influential newspaper, El Tiempo, and produced one president, Eduardo Santos, in 1938.
In a telephone interview Monday afternoon, Santos said he had more experience than other potential candidates, who include a former agriculture minister close to Uribe and the former mayor of Medellin, Sergio Fajardo. But Santos said he could not discuss what he would do as president until he officially declares himself a candidate.
In the past, though, Santos has not hidden his desire to lead this country of more than 45 million people. In an interview with The Washington Post in January, he said that as president, he would continue Uribe's policies, which include an aggressive military campaign against the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, a rebel group at war with the state since 1964.
"Because the change for our country in the last eight years has been so dramatic -- for the better -- it would be really a sacrilege to allow this to be undone," he said.
In January, Santos also said Uribe should step aside after his term ends in July 2010. "History will judge him much better if he leaves now than if he risks staying for four more years," Santos said.
Uribe, however, has shown little inclination to move on.
His ministers and allies in Colombia's Congress have lobbied for the necessary constitutional changes to allow him to run again. On Tuesday, the Senate is expected to back conducting a referendum that, if approved, would be an important step in the effort to authorize another Uribe candidacy. Uribe was elected to his first four-year term in 2002.
Political analysts who track U.S. policy toward Colombia say some members of the American Congress and Obama administration officials are concerned about Uribe running again, noting Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez's successful efforts to amend his country's constitution and potentially run for office indefinitely.
Uribe's administration is also in the midst of a political controversy triggered by disclosures that the intelligence service he oversees had been wiretapping and surveilling political opponents, high court judges, journalists and activists during most of his presidency.
Three of Uribe's closest aides are now under investigation by the country's inspector general.
"There is certainly American support for a consolidation of the security gains that have been made over these past years," said Cynthia Arnson, director of the Latin America program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington. "That's not the same as support for a third Uribe term."
Under Santos, Colombia has dramatically expanded the size of its military, improved intelligence gathering and implemented strategies that have prompted the desertions of thousands of rebels.
Santos also oversaw last year's daring operation that rescued 15 high-profile hostages, including three Americans, being held by a FARC unit.
"At this moment in time, I've been the person who interprets better what President Uribe wants for this country in the future," Santos said in January.
But the army has also had its share of controversy.
Prosecutors are investigating the slayings of more than 1,600 civilians by soldiers who then presented the bodies as rebels killed in combat, a tactic designed to inflate combat kills.
Santos said Monday that under his control, the Defense Ministry has been transparent about the problem, dismissing soldiers and officers believed responsible and turning over evidence to civilian prosecutors.
He said 70 officers, including three generals, have lost their jobs over the killings of civilians.
"I think we have acted with total transparency and total decisiveness," he said.