#Pacho Santos

Santos and the re-election no one wants


Colombia`s Presidential election race is wide open say nationwide polls.

President Santos`chances of holding on to power next May appear to be dwindling as confidence in his administration falls to a record low and fewer than 1 in 5 Colombians promise to vote for his re-election. Read more…

My afternoon with Santos


The surprisingly svelte (ish) Santos – it´s true that television adds a stone – no, not that Santos, but Francisco “Pacho” Santos, the president´s cousin and would be opponent in next year´s polls, burst into the restaurant in Bogota´s Candelaria 25 minutes late (almost on time in Colombia).

The thin and translucent rimmed John Lennon glasses bounced on his anything but Roman nose. Shorter too than expected, I mused.

Unimposing, and jocular, he apologised for his tardiness. “Transport”, he moaned; the fault of “12 years of appalling government in Bogota”.

Within minutes, he was again on his feet, warning us his subsequent words would “cause controversy”; that he was proposing “real change” for Colombia. We were not about to suffer the tedium of a politician who guards and minces his words, “The Candidate” boasted. Gesticulating wildly, intermittently squashing his glasses back up his rotund face, Santos launched into his vision for a new Republic – a federal, decentralized, and competitive Colombia.

Under his premiership, Bogota would no longer be the ringmaster, but instead set the localities free. The Santos – no, not the JuanMa – presidency would cascade money to the regions, freeing them to compete against each other to provide their citizens with the highest quality public services.

Colombia has the second most difficult and complex geography in the world, according to Santos; what does Bogota know of Anserma, Apartado, or Algeciras, and what has it done to improve the lot of those who live in these “pueblos por allá, lejos”? Good point, I thought.

Santos´ brave new world would see local government able to set its own tax codes and rates, and strip the capitolio of the majority of its functions in education, policing, and health. I found myself nodding. Santos´argument was convincing enough.

The tirade continued. Colombia was a success – to the extent to which Santos thought it wasn´t a failure – “despite, not because of Bogota”. They say the capital is responsible for 30 per cent of the nation´s GDP, but for Pacho the metropolis is synonymous with corrupt and bureaucratically sclerotic officials hellbent on centralizing power. Ouch!

Santos might be a Bogotano himself, but he says he feels more at home travelling to the far flung, the lost and local. A conscious attempt to appear at odds with his cousin, Juan Manuel, the “cocktail and country club” elitist president? Why, of course.

Building us up to a crescendo of criticism, a list of failings of the current system was fired out; each blow at the heart of the current commander in chief delivered with increasing ferocity. Pacho´s hands and arms were now flapping with such abandon that, if energetic extremities alone could sort the nation´s profund and endemic problems, Santos would be ya´ man.

To applause he sat down and began to eat the pumpkin soup slowly cooling. The floor was open to questions.

Come March, Santos hopes to be chosen as ex-president Alvaro Uribe´s candidate for the May presidential elections. He currently leads a pack of four candidates, all more or less unknown by the 15 million voters (well, that`s how many – sticking my thumb in the air – I suspect will vote)  who will decide who walks into the Casa de Nariño on inauguration day next August.

Santos is unquestionably media friendly – he hosted a breakfast radio programme for years – and is a communicator able to whip up support among true believers. He is combative too, unafraid brutally to attack his opponents; a no nonsense, blood and thunder sort of politician.

Will that be enough to win him the candidature first and the presidency second?

As he tucked into his steak (a Colombian restaurant so, with rice, potatoes, yuca and patacones), I told Pacho the Democratic Centre movement – Uribe`s “political party” – had much work to do to convince the nation it offered more than just opposition to the peace process with the FARC.

A protest vote is not enough.

The affable Pacho smiled wryly. He agreed. Wait, he said, in the coming months we will see a real manifesto for government.  I`ll hold you to that, I promised.

3 of 5 Uribista presidential hopefuls with links to paramilitaries?


Outstanding questions over possible links to Colombian right-wing paramilitary groups threaten to derail the campaigns of three of the five 2014 presidential hopefuls loyal to ex-president Alvaro Uribe.

Oscar Ivan Zuluaga, Francisco “Pacho” Santos, and Luis Alfredo Ramos all stand accused of ties to the death-squads that have financed the careers of hundreds of Colombia´s top politicians since the 1980s.

The charges

Salvatore Mancuso, former commander of the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC) commander (now demobilized and extradited to the US), has testified he met Pacho Santos and that the two discussed the formation of a criminal organization to operate in Bogota, called the Bloque Capital. Colombia´s public prosecutor has revealed the case is still in the preliminary stages, and Santos himself strongly refutes the allegations, claiming the testimony of a convicted criminal is scant evidence.

The case against Zuluaga lies in a series of compromising photos with Mancuso financed politicians in his home state of Caldas, and a report by the left-wing think tank Arco Iris showing the 2002 senator was elected alongside Rocio Arias (who was later found guilty of being a Mancuso placeman).

Finally, Ramos is alleged to have worked with paramilitaries in Antioquia – where he was governor – on a programme of “mutual support”. The evidence for this charge is based on a testimonies from a series of now demobilized paramilitary combatants.

Colombia Politics view

Although the (current) evidence against the three would-be presidential candidates would appear to be far from conclusive, it is politically extremely damaging for the Democratic Centre (DC) movement.

The race for the presidency begins in earnest in November when current president, Juan Manuel Santos announces whether he will run for a second term. Nevertheless, candidates are already jockeying for position and Pacho Santos has emerged as the current favourite to lead the opposition to his cousin´s re-election.

Whether or not there is any substance in the claims is largely irrelevant. From a campaigning perspective, they have the potential to deliver a mortal blow to the Uribistas.

Elections are won and lost on perceptions, not on facts. The critical problem for Uribe´s men is that the accusations form part of a growing narrative that sees Uribismo hand in glove with the paramilitaries.

Opponents of Alvaro Uribe´s government have long tried to link the ex-president to the paramilitary movement, some even labelling him responsible for massacres committed by the AUC.

For many, the smoke that surrounds Zuluaga, Ramos, and Santos is real evidence of fire.

From a political communications view, there is another problem for the aspirants. Colombia´s national media is often accused of being in bed with the government of the time – particularly so with the Santos regime where family connections to the largest publications mean objectivity is questioned. Colombia Politics expects to see – between now and the election – a drip drip of stories linking Uribistas to paramilitaries. The news about Pacho, Zuluaga and Ramos is not new, but the media chose this very week – days after the DC announced its election strategy – to re-run the article. Suspicious? Par for the course, I believe.

One of the first rules in politicial campaigning is that you must define the narrative before it defines you. Zuluaga, Santos and Ramos perhaps stand guilty of allowing themselves to be put on the back foot.

Whether or not they have links to paramilitaries, who knows. What really matters is how many Colombians will be able to give them the benefit of the doubt come election time. Uribistas must work fast to build good will or risk being washed away on a wave of negative headlines.

Photo, Colombia Confidencial

Colombia´s FARC peace talks on rocks? Don´t panic yet


Talk that peace negotiations between the Colombian government and FARC guerrillas are doomed is premature.

Sure, Colombia’s largest guerrilla group are doing their best to convince us they are not serious about the peace process. This week, the terrorist organization murdered 15 soldiers in an ambush close to the Venezuelan border, and yesterday they promised to send reinforcements, troops and arms to the front line of the protests in troubled Catatumbo, Norte de Santander.

Yes, the FARC are making it easy for former president Alvaro Uribe´s Democratic Centre to argue the talks are a farce, all smoke and mirrors. Would-be presidential candidate Francisco “Pacho” Santos, has used the FARC´s promise to fight in Catatumbo as a pretext to call for a suspension of the discussions. He argues the guerrillas have no intention of signing a peace accord, that they are having us on, and the plug should be pulled.

And ok, I accept it is hardly a source of good cheer that nine months from the start of the talks, we’re limping along with agreement reached on just one of the five points on the agenda.

But despite all this, I don’t accept the premise that we might as well pack up and go home. The course of lasting peace never did run smooth, and in a conflict as bloody and interminable as Colombia’s, finding a way out is a devil’s job.

Last night I took to the television studios to argue against the grain, to put the case that perversely, quite apart from being evidence that the peace talks were a dead duck, the FARC´s recent actions, the attacks and the full frontal with the government, could in fact be real evidence of their committment to the talks.

I’m quite aware it sounds bold, but if we look at the dynamics of any negotiation we can start to see where I’m coming from.

Negotiations are a power struggle where each actor must seek to strengthen his hand at the table.

Remember, we were told the FARC arrived in Havana totally demoralised, exhausted, defeated…on its last legs. Meanwhile, the government bright‐eyed and bushy‐tailed talked victoriously of signing an agreement within months.

Well, that was sadly not true – the FARC had not been defeated. They still have thousands in their ranks, and have an almost endless supply of youngsters to ‘forcibly recruit’ – or kidnap, if the euphemism isn’t to your taste. Not to mention the oodles of dosh that comes their way through narco trading.

Many Colombians, quite rightly given what the government had told them, did not really want a negotiated peace process, what they wanted was a rendition. Tired of close on 50 years of pointless conflict, Colombians wanted the FARC to lay down their arms and give up the fight. This was never going to happen.

So if the FARC are not about to capitulate, it shouldn´t surprise us if they use all the tricks available to secure an agreement that works best for them. That folks, is the nature of negotiation.

I see the events of recent days in this context, as evidence not that the FARC are throwing in the towel on the talks, but that they are exploiting external forces to improve their position in Havana.  The FARC want us to believe that, as they are very much alive and kicking, we are going to have to pay a higher price for peace than once we bargained for.

So, however distasteful it might be, it is logical – not illogical as many suggest – that the FARC should pursue their peace goals in Havana by warring at home.

Unfortunately, the FARC are also able to take advantage of a struggling government. Santos ‘ team has failed to end the protests in Catatumbo and the president must now face a month of unrest as miners, coffee farmers, milk farmers, rice farmers, and truck drivers join forces to bring the country to a standstill.

By November, the president must announce whether he will run for re-election next year. By September he might have already lost the race to a nationwide rural uprising.

The FARC scent blood.

I also believe the FARC are not just preparing their hand at the table, they are also planning for what happens after the agreement is signed – another clue that they are serious about these talks.

It looks to me as though the FARC are massing their political troops, projecting forward to a time when they´ll fight at the ballot box, not on the battle field.

Look for a minute at the groups the FARC are proposing to help in Catatumbo. They are peasant farmers, those virtually abandoned by the state over decades. The FARC have always claimed to stand up for and represent “el pueblo”, the people – the lowly, but most of all, the rural. It does not take a genius to see they will seek to mobilise these groups when elections swing into view. And yes, the terrain is being prepared with Piedad Cordoba´s Patriotic March.

What luck for the FARC.

The election message has been handed to them on a plate – “Colombia’s rural poor is in open rebellion against the urban elite of Santos’ oligarchical government “. It´s “us” against “them”.

Maybe I am over optimistic but I hope I sense a hint of a sign the FARC could make a transition from the “people ‘s army” to the “people’s party”. Yes, I know they are nothing of the sort, but this is their world view, not mine.

The FARC top team are no fools, they know how to play the game, and they know how to squeeze as much out of their position as possible.

I might be wrong, these peace talks may yet end in acrimomy. But there is no reason yet to panic.

Negotiating peace while war rages is far from ideal, but what is the alternative?

Pack up? Go home? No chance. Keep going President Santos, we all want to live that dream of a Colombia in peace.

This article was written by the editor for Colombia Reports.

Colombian presidential candidate accused of illegal campaigning


Colombian presidential candidate Oscar Ivan Zuluaga faces possible sanction by the National Electoral Council (CNE) who today began an investigation into supposed illegal campaign activity ahead of next year´s election.

Zuluaga stands accused of paying for a series of nation-wide publicity stunts well before the election period begins 9 December. Colombian law prohibits candidates from spending even a penny on electioneering before the official campaign starts. Zuluaga will fall foul of the rules if the CNE chief Nora Tapia considers his promotional material to be a direct pitch for the Colombians´ vote.

Zuluaga argues that the offending material, a collection of billboard adverts attacking the Santos government and the peace process currently underway with the FARC in Havana, was commissioned to encourage Colombians to “reflect on the peace talks”. The former minister defended the campaign claiming:

“My interest has been just to voice a question that millions of we Colombians ask about these negotiations. The objective was to spark a debate which is healthy in a democracy, and necessary for the country´s future”.

Zuluaga is hoping to be chosen by the Democratic Centre movement, loyal to former president Alvaro Uribe, as its official candidate for the presidential elections next May.

Although not yet called up by the atorney´s office, his fellow would-be Democratic Centre top dog, Pacho Santos has also commissioned a series of adverts strikingly similar in tone and content to those of Zuluaga and is possible the CNE could turn its gaze towards the former vice president.

The specific problem the CNE claim to have highlighted is that Zuluaga appears alongside President Uribe…The implication being that Zuluaga is “running” with the “support” of Uribe.

Democratic Centre spiritual leader and former president Alvaro Uribe jumped to the defence of his men, claiming the billboards part of a legitimate national discussion in a country that would no accept “a loss of freedoms”.

Colombia Politics view 

Whether or not you agree either with the Democratic Centre, its politics, or its hard-hitting billboards, it is difficult to see how the CNE´s move is favourable for Colombia´s democracy.

Currently Colombians have more of an elective than a participative democracy. A decision by the state to make politics less political and less argumentative should not be welcomed.

Colombia´s archaic and arcane laws prohibit the natural evolution of politics. Take for example the bizarre notion that quote “ministers are not allowed to campaign or “do politics” – yes, the constitution prohibits active ministers from taking part in a political battle. Why? What for? Aren´t politicians supposed to stand for election on a platform, to fight for your vote?

Colombia needs a more open, direct democracy that involves the citizens rather than excluding them. Zuluaga and Santos´billboards might not be the most sophisticated of political communication strategies, but they nevertheless encourage debate.

Why shouldn´t politicians be able to express their opinion – or even actively campaign? Surely, as they say in the US, the campaign is permanent.

And what of the billboards themselves?

Our view on the Democratic Centre´s campaign is that it plays too much to what in the Anglo-Saxon world we call “dog-whistle” politics. Comparing Pablo Escobar to the FARC chief negotiator Ivan Marquez by asking who killed more policemen, for example, leaves an unpleasant taste in the mouth.

And the tactic of attacking the peace talks almost per se not only lacks nuance but is a flawed election strategy – put bluntly, politicians do not win elections by being the “no candidate”. An alternative vision must be presented if the Democratic Centre is to poll well next year.

For now, we hope the case is dropped and politicians can get on with the job of trying to convince us to vote for them.

Picture, La Tierra

Uribe supporters in Bogotá to define election strategy


Colombian ex-president Alvaro Uribe´s Democratic Centre (DC) movement meet today in Bogotá to define a strategy for the 2014 general election campaign.

Regional leaders and the four hopefuls fighting to become the official presidential candidate are gathered in a hotel in the north of the capital in what has been billed as the DC´s first national get-together.

Uribistas hope to emerge tomorrow having agreed a policy platform and a battle plan to whip up support across Colombia´s 32 departments ahead of the congressional elections in March, and the presidential run-off in May.

Although the DC has yet to decide its list of candidates for the senate and the house of representatives, rumours have emerged that José Obdulio Gaviria, Alvaro Uribe´s long-term chief of staff will head up the senate list.

José Obdulio is a controversial right-winger, often questioned for his familial ties to drug lord Pablo Escobar, but he is considered one of the architects and principal ambassadors of the Uribista ideology and the “democratic security” doctrine that defined the eight years of Uribe´s government.

Uribe´s followers are desperate for the former president to return to front-line politics by heading up the list himself, so the news of José Obdulio´s candidature is likely to disappoint some. The Democratic Centre´s support is in large part directly attributed to the charismatic ex commander-in-chief, and questions remain about the expected level of voter interest should Uribe decline to put his name forward.

At the same time, the campaign is underway to choose the Democratic Centre´s candidate to run against President Santos´ likely re-election tilt. Former finance minister Oscar Iván Zuluaga, Senator Juan Carlos Velez,  former vice-president Francisco (Pacho) Santos, and ex-minister and peace commissioner, Carlos Holmes Trujillo are all in the running.

Although the winner will not be defined at this week´s meeting, each candidate will make his case in a series of key-note speeches setting out the vision for a return of Uribismo to the Casa de Nariño presidential palace.

This morning´s presentations included talks from Pacho Santos, Zuluaga and Uribe himself. Santos, who currently leads the way,  revealed that the movement will undertake a series of polls across five regions to define the candidate.

As the discussion resumes this afternoon, the Democratic Centre´s leaders will focus on the political agenda in an effort to define a series of eye-catching promises to take to voters.

Colombia Politics will report on the detail of this policy platform as it emerges.

Picture, ColPrensa.