Source: Washington Post
PAIPA, Colombia – Juan Manuel Santos is burdened by thorny challenges aplenty as he marks a year in office: sophisticated drug traffickers, criminal gangs marauding in the provinces, hit-and-run attacks by Latin America’s last rebel army.
What Colombia’s president is relieved not to be facing is what his U.S. counterpart grapples with daily: a powerful opposition.
All but token opposition has melted away as Santos forged an agenda that aims to ease the very inequalities that Colombia’s leftist rebels cite as ideological justification for their half-century-old insurgency.
“Fortunately, I’m not in President Obama’s position. I’m fortunate to have 95 percent of the Congress with me,” Santos, his smile widening, said in an interview with The Associated Press.
Even the party of the candidate defeated by Santos last year, the Greens, has joined the governing coalition. The media is solidly behind him, his approval ratings consistently top 70 percent and he has been a pragmatic, moderating influence on a continent where doctrinaire leftists have recently gained clout.
Former Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva even suggested while in Bogota last week that Santos was assuming the mantle of a continental leader.
Asked about the compliment, Santos said he appreciated it, but added, “I don’t consider myself a regional leader.”
Nonetheless, Santos said during the weekend interview at this hot springs resort a few hours north of Bogota that this long-suffering nation of 46 million people is at a special moment.
“They say the stars are aligning over Colombia,” said Santos, whose 60th birthday is Wednesday. “It’s necessary to take advantage of the situation.”
Santos has faced plenty of tough calls over three decades in Colombia’s political trenches.
Hailing from a prominent Bogota political clan, he is the grandnephew of a Depression-era president who was also a social liberal.
After stints at the newspaper El Tiempo, which was until recently run by his family, and the national coffee federation, Santos was Colombia’ first foreign trade minister. He later was defense minister for his hardline predecessor Alvaro Uribe.
On Santos’ defense watch, record desertions plagued the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, and in a spectacular rescue 15 FARC-held hostages including Ingrid Betancourt and three U.S. military contractors won freedom.
His tenure was marred, however, by a scandal that broke in late 2008 over extrajudicial killings of hundreds of civilians by security force members. It prompted the immediate dismissal of 20 officers, including three generals. More than 360 soldiers have since been convicted in killings in which slain civilians were sometimes dressed up as rebels to boost enemy body counts.
Santos has said he acted to discipline those responsible as soon as he found out, but critics say he shares the blame.
As president, Santos has vigorously kept up the pressure on Colombia’s main rebel band that was a hallmark of Uribe. But unlike Uribe, Santos has opted for amicable relations with the prickly leftist leaders of neighboring Venezuela and Ecuador.