It’s no surprise that voters in Colombia chose a tough former defense minister to succeed outgoing President Alvaro Uribe, who is leaving office after two terms. A resounding 69% of those who cast ballots opted for continuity, replacing Uribe, who made serious headway against the leftist guerrillas seeking to overthrow the government, with the man who helped him do it, Juan Manuel Santos.
Santos’ military’s successes against the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia included a daring operation in which rebels were duped into freeing high-profile hostages, and a cross-border raid into Ecuador in which the FARC’s No. 2 was killed. But as he heads to the Casa de Narino, the presidential palace, his challenge will be to transform himself from a military leader devoted solely to combating rebels into a chief executive who will be called upon to address a far broader range of issues with diplomacy and finesse. Awaiting him is a multitude of nonmilitary concerns: desperate poverty, entrenched government corruption, unchecked human rights abuses and rampant drug trafficking. He also has diplomatic fence-mending to do with neighbors Ecuador and Venezuela.
Santos comes with some heavy baggage. On his watch, the military developed an anything-goes swagger, not only when taking on guerrillas but also with noncombatants; troops were found to have killed civilians and claimed that they were guerrillas to boost their kill numbers and make themselves appear more successful. And if many Colombians became more optimistic about defeating the FARC, others are more hopeless about their government. Corruption permeates not just the military but the entire political system. Dozens of lawmakers have been indicted or arrested on charges of colluding with paramilitary death squads, the right-wing answer to the FARC.
The most pressing problem, however, is the economy. Santos, a Harvard-educated economist and former finance minister, is viewed as the capable steward the country needs during the global recession. It’s not as clear that he’ll be the man to deal with some of Colombia’s other woes. Ongoing conflict between rich and poor, such as the frequent assassinations of workers attempting to organize unions, has become an international disgrace. Notably, it has hindered the ratification of a trade pact with the United States.
Santos has said he wants to forge a new relationship with the U.S. And this is an appropriate moment to do so, because financial aid to Colombia is being steadily reduced by the Obama administration. In the months ahead, Santos will have many of the same challenges as Uribe but fewer resources. Uribe, in a sense, was Colombia’s wartime president. The military man who follows him will be charged with leading the country to peace.