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Published On: Sat, Oct 13th, 2012

President Juan Manuel Santos, a political biography

President Santos, photo, AP


Juan Manuel Santos was destined to become President of the Republic.

In August 1951, Juan Manuel was born into one of Colombia´s most powerful families; his father, Enrique the owner (at that time) of the most important newspaper El Tiempo, and his uncle Eduardo, a former president.

From an early age, Santos moved in political circles, allowing him to master his famous ability to strategize and outsmart the acutest of opponents.

As extra-ordinary as it sounds, Santos´ first test at the ballot box was that of the presidential elections in 2010.

Until then he had not actively had to win a public vote, instead beating his opponents behind the scenes, in the corridors of power; these were victories among colleagues and eventual bosses, not on the election battleground.

Santos´ is a chess player who keeps his cards close to his chest.

Aged 16, Santos embarked on two years of military service as a Navy cadet, helping to forge his famous and steely discipline. On completing his time in the armed forced, Santos, like most youngsters from the Bogotá elite, left Colombia for the United States, where he entered the University of Kansas to read economics and business administration.

The next stop was England and the London School of Economics for a master´s, before landing a job with the National Federation of Coffee Growers where he worked for nine years and began his diplomatic career.

Santos eventually returned to Colombia to take up a role in the family newspaper, El Tiempo, a position he held until 1991 when President Cesar Gaviria gave him his first job in government, as minister for the newly created department of Foreign Trade.

Gaviria´s government set about the liberalization – and the internationalization – of the Colombian economy; with Santos´ ministry at the forefront of this agenda.  Santos is responsible for signing Colombia´s first free trade agreements – with Mexico and Venezuela – a trade philosophy he has placed at the heart of his own government´s foreign policy.

Santos´ career then went stratospheric when anointed the ´Designado de la República´, a position (now defunct) without portfolio (similar to the vice-presidency), but with power and political influence, allowing him to establish, among colleagues, a profile as a potential future president.

Santos left the government 1994, when Ernesto Samper came to power and formed the Good Government Foundation think tank, a platform from which he would plot his entrance to the Casa de Nariño.

The think tank was aligned to the thinking of the ´Third Way´ the philosophy on which Britain’s Tony Blair came to power in 1997, and many of the key members of this group entered the cabinet when Santos became president in 2010.

Santos then experienced first-hand the ill-fated Pastrana / FARC peace talks in Caguán, when sent by the international community to oversee the implementation of the Demilitarized Zone the talks had created.

Santos lost faith in the mission and became a harsh critic of the Pastrana government until he was appointed Minister of Finance in 2000.

When his future boss, Álvaro Uribe came to power Santos was still a member of the Liberals. But by 2005, he had formed the U Party to support the reelection of Uribe.

Then came Santos´ finest chess move. Having built a coalition of support for Uribe and having delivered the president a congress at his whim, Santos was in a position to demand of his boss any role in government. He opted for the Ministry of Defence, which he took up in July 2006. This was the most important job in an administration that placed Democratic Security at the heart of it mission.

Santos became Uribe´s right hand man.

As Defence Minister, Santos delivered major blows against the FARC, dismantled numerous rebel fronts, took out one the group´s top leaders, Raul Reyes, and successfully executed Operation Jaque, which led to the rescue of Ingrid Betancourt and three American hostages without a bullet being fired.

Santos´ public profile was assured, and his fight for the presidency gathered pace.

The ´false positives´ scandal – in which civilians were killed at the hands of the military and presented as guerrillas fallen in combat threatened to derail his plans, but no responsibility for these acts was laid at the door of the ministry.

Santos is credited in fact with uncovering and ending the practice.

At 2010 approached, Uribe sought a further re-election but was prevented from doing so by the courts, clearing the way for a successor to be anointed.

Santos eventually emerged as Uribe´s chosen candidate and ran for the presidency on the U Party platform.

In the second-round runoff, Santos beat Green Party candidate, Antanas Mockus, securing ten million votes, the highest vote in the country’s history.

In his acceptance speech, Santos dedicated his victory to Uribe, having promised throughout the campaign to continue the president´s legacy.

As soon as Santos entered power, he changed the mantra from Democratic Security to Democratic Prosperity, continuing the military attacks on the guerrillas, but also placing economic growth at the heart of his government.

A national unity government was formed, and over 90% of the Congress was placed at the new president´s disposition.  Santos was, in parliamentary terms, even more powerful than Uribe had been.

The first two years of Santos´ rule were characterized by legislative hyperactivity, with major reforms pushed through Congress.

Santos has presided over continued economic growth, reduced poverty and unemployment and dramatically changed diplomatic relations with neighbouring countries.

All the while, the war against the FARC has not relented.  Within months of taking office, the FARC´s military chief ´Mono Jojoy´ was killed and last year the overall leader of the guerrilla group, ´Alfonso Cano´ was also taken down.

During his time in office Santos has enjoyed record levels of support from Colombians, for certain periods, even eclipsing Uribe in the public´s approval. Towards the end of his first two years the polls turned and the president began to see support hemorrhaging amid a series of parliamentary crises and an upsurge in FARC activity.

In August Santos announced that secret talks with the FARC had led to agreement on an agenda for official peace negotiations. The talks seek to put an end to nearly fifty years of civil conflict.

The polls have returned in Santos´favour and should he sign an agreement with the FARC for a permanent cessation of violence, the president will have virtually guaranteed his re-election in 2014 (should he chose to stand).

For those who know Santos, however, it is a place in history as the president who secured peace that is, for the president, the real prize.

Santos has always had power, he was born into it. An historic legacy, however, is something he will have had to earn.

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