Colombia president moves to restore approval rating

President Juan Manuel Santos visits Toribio, in southern Colombia, on July 11, 2012, after an attack by FARC rebels.
(Juan Bautista Diaz, Associated Press)

BOGOTA, Colombia — Like their U.S. counterparts, Colombian presidents customarily give accountings of their performances in addresses that resemble the State of the Union speech.

But the speeches President Juan Manuel Santos has been giving in several cities to mark his two years in office are also an exercise in damage control, analysts say, to restore his plummeting popularity and counter sniping by his still-popular predecessor, ex-President Alvaro Uribe.

A poll commissioned by Semana magazine showed Santos’ approval rating has fallen to 47%, with 48% of those polled disapproving his performance. A year ago, 71% thought he was doing a good job.

The slippage is a harsh comedown for someone elected to office in a June 2010 landslide and whose ambitious reform package seemed to have the wind at its back by virtue of a solid pro-Santos majority in Congress.


Analysts say Santos can partly blame his image problems on Uribe, who in recent months has loosed a barrage of critical comments in public and on Twitter. Uribe, who was president from 2002 to 2010, has denounced Santos for trying to smooth relations with Venezuela’sHugo Chavez, as well as for allegedly alienating the armed forces, among other purported sins.

“It’s undeniable that Uribe’s meddling has made governing more difficult for Santos,” said Arlene Tickner, political science professor at Universidad de los Andes. “Uribe has gone out of his way to make Santos’ job harder, and that has affected the president’s image for the worse in some sectors.”

Immediately after taking office, Santos unveiled a package of social and economic reform proposals aimed at getting to the causes of Colombia’s decades of civil conflict and the scourge of drug trafficking. Critics say the lofty goals only raised expectations unrealistically.

“The main problem Santos faces now is one of implementation,” Tickner said. “He has a number of wonderful policies, but execution has been slow to emerge.”

Perhaps the most damaging among Santos’ miscues was his administration’s handling last month of a constitutional amendment to reform the justice system. The president first championed the law and then was forced to repudiate it after the final version contained elements that surprised even his staff.

“Santos delegated too much, trusted too much, and he wasn’t paying close enough attention to the process,” said Marcela Prieto, executive director of the Political Science Institute think tank in Bogota, the capital.

Although Santos claims security overall has improved since he was sworn in, civil society groups and his Defense Ministry say kidnappings, extortion and terrorism incidents are up. Leftist guerrillas have increased attacks on oil industry pipelines and other infrastructure, cutting output.

“There have been advances in some indicators, such as homicides in big cities like Bogota and Medellin, but often these improvements are the result of changes in local policy by municipal government, not the national government,” said Jaime Zuluaga, a sociology professor at Universidad Externado de Colombia.

Prieto said catastrophic floods were big setbacks, diverting resources Santos had hoped to use to improve Colombia’s infrastructure and fortify the economy.

So was the emergence of criminal bands that took the place of demobilized paramilitary groups in running drug trafficking, illegal mining and extortion rackets. In a show of strength this year, one such gang forced hundreds of businesses along Colombia’s Caribbean coast to shut down for a week after the armed forces killed its leader.

Meanwhile, ripple effects from the global slowdown are finally lapping at Colombia’s shores, at the worst possible time for Santos.

“Uribe benefited from the global economic cycle, which is now in a more regressive phase, and whose consequences Colombia is starting to experience,” Zuluaga said.

Kraul and Gonzalez are special correspondents.