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Colombia's President Juan Manuel Santos

Colombia´s President, Juan Manuel Santos celebrates his third anniversary in the Casa de Nariño amid increasing scepticism of his government´s flagship peace talks with the FARC guerrillas, plummeting popularity, and growing pessimism on the economy.

Just a third of Colombians support the idea of Santos´possible re-election next year, while 60 per cent oppose it outright. Support for the talks in Havana is also trending downwards; nearly 70% were behind the negotiations as recently as March, while polls this week show the figure dropping to 59%.  Worse still, the influential IPSOS “Colombia Opina” (quarterly national navel-gazer) shows 62% of Colombians believe the country is on the “wrong path”.

All this is a far cry from the halcyon days of Santos´ first twelve months in power when he basked in the glory of approval ratings in the 80s, the economy was booming, and the president was the darling of the international community; Time Magazine even devoted its front cover to “The Colombian Comeback” under Santos´ stewardship.

So what has gone wrong? Is this to be expected three years into a government?

Things are not as bad as Santos´opponents would seek to paint. Although the majority don´t back his re-election, 49% of Colombians still have a positive view of the president. Sure, he´s far less popular than Uribe who left office with support in the 70s, but in a country where the executive has such bureaucratic clout (and capacity to mobilize troops), 50% broad acceptance from voters is a strong base from which to win elections.

So if there is reason to take solace in the current figures, there should be no reason for complacency. There is much to applaud in Santos´time in office, but there is much to improve on, and much left undone.

The good

Despite rough economic winds internationally, growth has remained strong (plus 4%) and inflation has kept low. Foreign investment has been down in recent months, but Colombia is recording year on year record-breaking levels of FDI. How this translates into the pockets of ordinary Colombians is another thing, of course.

Colombia´s place on the world stage continues to improve. Free-trade agreements with the US and the EU have been signed sealed and delivered, and new economic blocs like the Pacific Alliance (with Chile, Peru, and Mexico) have begun. Colombia remains the US´top ally in the region but without alienating itself from his radically left-wing neighbours. Even the OECD has come knocking at Colombia´s door.

The armed forces have delivered a series of historic strikes against the FARC guerrillas during the past three years, taking out the military chief Mono Jojoy and the supreme leader Alfonso Cano under Santos´watch.

Santos´social policy (at least on paper) looks to be moving the gap between rich and poor in the right direction. Colombia is one of the most unequal nations on earth, but official figures at least show positive news in this area. Unemployment has fallen and hovers around 10%, two million jobs have been created, and 1,700,000 Colombians have been lifted out of poverty. The government is also handing over 100,000 new houses for the poorest. We are far from Santos`slogan “Prosperity for all” becoming a reality, but steps are being made.

Yet Santos´crowning achievement – even if it all ends in tears – must be his bold move to enter into peace talks with the FARC. Effectively he is betting his presidency, his place in history on securing an end to the 50 years of conflict that has ravished Colombia. He faces interests on both sides, but has brought together an international coalition and established a rigorous process and agenda for reaching an accord with the nation´s largest terrorist organization to demobilize. He must be applauded for this.

The bad

Where to start? It is the nature of government that there is more to criticize than to applaud. There will always be promises unmet, or broken, crises unanticipated and moments of total incompetence. But there are certain features of Santos`administration that do require castigation.

Security – perception or otherwise, Colombians complain that their cities are less safe than three years ago. Despite being in peace talks, the FARC’s attacks haven´t relented, and the neo-paramilitary BACRIM groups and others have made this year the worst for murders of human rights workers.  In the cities, the paseo millionario is on the up, with Bogota alone seeing 200 victims in the last two and a half years.

Infrastructure – 40 billion has been promised for major infrastructure works. A new vetting office has been set up with a bureaucratic budget and the order to start handing out contracts has been received. But despite Santos’ fine words about building a modern and connected Colombia, despite throwing heaps of cash at the problem, all we have to show for the hard work so far is an extra layer of bureaucracy. NOT A SINGLE project has started.

Corruption – Santos has created new government positions, corruption czars have come and gone, and he has talked big on cleaning the country up. What has changed? Has Colombia started to kick out corruption? No. Transparancy International´s 2013 Corruption Index was damning:

“The new institutional reforms promoted by the government of President Santos—the new Anti-corruption Act of 2011, and the creation of a new Anti-corruption office in the Presidency—have not contributed to curbing corruption. To the contrary, in Transparency International´s 2012 Corruption Perception Index, the country received the worse score in ten years, going from 57 in 2002 to 94 in 2012.”

Bureaucracy, centralization and elitism

Colombians accuse their president of promising the world and delivering precious little.

Santos heralded the first two years of his government as the most reforming on record. Perhaps they were, and God knows, Colombia needs real institutional change so we should welcome this, yes?

Absolutely, but there is a difference between making a law and making that law work. Colombia is a country of “mucha norma poco contenido”. There´s a law for everything but there is a real disconnect between the law makers in the capitolio and those in the regions and localities that have to implement these paper reforms.

Roy Barreras, outgoing Senate President spoke glowingly in July of 2012-2013 as the Congress`most succesful year ever. What was his justification? That it had passed a record number of new laws. Frankly Roy, that is not something to be proud of. More laws means more centralization less flexibility and greater bureaucracy. Exactly the reverse of what Colombia needs.

President Juan Manuel Santos was born into one of the richest families in Colombia, a silver spoon in his mouth and media empire to inherit. The presidency was his before he was out of short trousers. The first ever election Santos faced was that to become president. It was handed to him on a plate.

This elitism shows and in a strongly regionalized nation, this just doesn´t work.

The Santos administration feels too Bogotano, too posh, too out of touch and too restricted to the traditional political class.

Santos has floundered when he has ventured outside the confines of the capital (unless he is on a diplomatic mission to another country where he feels instantly at home). The coffee protests earlier this year were handled so poorly that the whole agriculture industry is threatening to go on strike next week. And peasant farmer protests in Catatumbo lasted nearly two months before Santos could put out the flames.

We also saw this lack of comprehension from those at the top in the reaction to the decision by the international court of justice to hand over to Nicaragua, Colombia`s San Andres maritime territory. We are waiting a year and the foreign ministry is yet to make a decision on what to do. All the while the livelihoods of the fishermen on the archipelago are being compromised. Bogota appears to have forgotten about the islands its politicians visit only on holiday.

So, what of Santos` overall performance? 

Colombia Politics finds the Santos regime frustrating. The past three years have, contrary to detractors, not been an unmitigated failure. There is much to cheer in the way Colombia is emerging on the world stage, and Santos himself has proven a shrewd diplomat when dealing with his noisy neighbours. If the peace talks end well, Santos`place in history is secured, and rightly so.

But away from the headlines, away from the eye-catching announcements, there is a  real sense that more could and should be done. How much is this Santos` fault and how much is it the result of less than stellar ministers and bureaucrats?

What´s clear is the Colombian state remains inefficient, corrupted and often incompetent. Santos cannot take all the blame for this.

Our view is that with a good team surrounding him, with competent and public facing ministers, the Santos administration would score highly for its first three years in power. Without that team Santos will continue to flatter to deceive over the next year and into a possible second term.

Photo, EFE.

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Kevin Howlett

Kevin is a political consultant and lobbyist who cut his teeth working in the UK Parliament. He is a regular panelist on Colombian television, a political communication strategist and a university lecturer. Kevin is the founder and editor of Colombia Politics.