Juan Manuel Santos: Saint or sinner?

By Emma Newbery August 7, 2018
Juan Manuel Santos

“Thank you for your trust. Thank you for your support. And huge thanks for your patience,“ said President Juan Manuel Santos in his final speech.
Photo: Presidencica, Efraín Herrera – SIG

After eight years, Juan Manuel Santos leaves behind him a much-changed country and the hope that history will judge him kindly. We look at some of his achievements and try to understand why he is widely praised outside the country yet roundly criticised at home.

For much of the international media, it’s been a month for heaping praise onto outgoing President Juan Manuel Santos after an eight-year stint in office that even his critics would have to describe as transformative.

‘History will judge Colombia’s outgoing president kindly,’ read a headline in the Economist in July. Putting the historic yet controversial peace agreement to one side, it’s easy to see why Santos has attracted so much international recognition.

According to DANE, there are now 4.7 million fewer Colombians living in monetary poverty and over one million have been given free or subsidised housing.

There’s been significantly increased investment in education, sport and culture. The Ser Pilo Paga programme has made it possible for more people from deprived backgrounds to go to university than ever before. Colombia is now a member of the OECD and affiliated to NATO – and its new visa agreements mean that Colombians can travel to three times as many  countries without needing visas.

“The ‘dark campaigns’ and the mutual accusations of corruption and lying contributed to create a damaging atmosphere of mistrust in the public institutions and obviously affected the public image of the main figures of the State, beginning with President Santos.”
     Nicolás Murillo, Universidad del Externado

Not only are more Colombians travelling abroad, there are more foreigners coming to Colombia too. The government’s official recap says the country has received 187% more international visitors in the past eight years.

Laying the foundations

The massive 4G infrastructure investment is widely recognised as being crucial for the country’s future, but it has not been without its challenges. Less visible than the collapse of the Chirajara bridge, but just as damaging is the corruption and connected delays that have left several projects way behind schedule. But 1,400km of new dual carriageways have been completed as well as 40,000km of tertiary roads and work to upgrade various airports and ports.

Infrastructure is one of the things Santos is most proud of. He spoke in June of his admiration for three great leaders: Lincoln, Churchill and Roosevelt. Lincoln for his implementation of good governance which allowed him to abolish slavery, Roosevelt for his vision in investing in the country’s infrastructure and Churchill for his “will of steel as he faced challenging moments.”

As we look back at the past eight years, it is that steel will Santos has used to drive through change that he believed was necessary. “I learned from him [Churchill] to always do the right thing, even if it was unpopular,” he continued. “And he did the right thing throughout his life. Many times he was very unpopular, even after winning the Second World War he was defeated in the elections, but he remained firm and that is very important.”

Even internationally, Santos has not been shy about voicing less than popular opinions. He has been an active critic of the current ‘war on drugs’, repeatedly reminding the world of the war’s cost in lives. “We have lost our best judges, our best politicians, our best journalists, our best policemen in this fight against drugs and the problem’s still there,” he told the Guardian in 2011.

Even so, many people living outside Colombia struggle to understand why Santos’ popularity is so low. In part that is because many non-Colombians also struggle to understand why the peace agreement is so unpopular.

We spoke to Nicolás Murillo, commentator and director of the methodology and situation analysis department of the Faculty of Finances, Government and International Relations at Universidad del Externado who explains that there are a lot of elements at play.

Elephant in the room

First up is the peace agreement. “Let’s begin with the elephant in the room. The negotiations with the guerrilla have obviously been a main factor. But it’s not necessarily because of the contents of the agreement. Indeed it’s funny to note that Santos’ main contradictor, had himself offered much bigger concessions to the FARC in the past in order to achieve peace,” he says.

He points out that the loss of the referendum was a “significant moment” that crystalised discontent from both right and left. “The ‘dark campaigns’ and the mutual accusations of corruption and lying contributed to create a damaging atmosphere of mistrust in the public institutions and obviously affected the public image of the main figures of the State, beginning with President Santos.”

Which three words would you use to describe ex-president Santos?

Perseverant; conciliatory; pacifist
–   Doctor Victoria Elena González Mantilla, lecturer in political communication at the Universidad Externado

Risk-taker; brave; visionary
–   Miguel Iván Ramírez Boscán, member of the Wayuu People’s Communications Network and Coordinator of the Wayuu People’s Communications School

Vain; shrewd; risk-taker
–   Juan Antonio Pizarro – Business consultant

Focused; diplomatic; Internationalist
–   Michael Cullen, Senior Partner at Control Risks

Pragmatic; astute; stubborn
–   Santiago Rivas, TV and Radio Host, Presenter and writer of the Señal Colombia show Los puros criollos and host of Caracol Radio’s 2 y punto

And of course, Uribe’s opposition has hit Santos hard. “The popularity of the paisa leader and his frequent attacks against what he called ‘surrendering the country to terrorists’ explain a great deal of the disenchantment towards the departed president.

Murillo says that Santos has suffered from a double opposition, with his policies criticised by left and right alike. “The almost systematic opposition of the Centro Democratico on every action was quite irrational since in many ways, many policies were a continuation of former government policy. But it was permanent, organised and sufficiently populist to represent a real counterpower.”

We reached out to various people and asked about their views on the outgoing president (see side bar), and they universally agreed that his biggest achievement was the peace agreement.

Stop the killing

Unsurprisingly, the views diverge when it comes to things that could have been improved, although post conflict challenges are front and centre. Miguel Iván Ramírez Boscán, who is a member of the Wayuu People’s Communications Network, says, “When it came to uniting the country, he needed to invest greater wisdom in building an understanding that to achieve peace, the first stop that must be taken is for everybody to stop killing everybody else.”

Related: Iván Duque: Meet the President elect  

At an economic level, Michael Cullen, Senior Partner at global risk consultancy firm, Control Risks says, “Santos openly used much of his political capital for peace, however, in so doing, neglected key industries such as mining and petroleum.”

And Santiago Rivas, TV and Radio host adds, “The FARC have gone but the countryside has been forsaken.” He goes on, “I think that the Havana agreements should have to be implemented more completely. It seems to me that things fell off a little and that those who were trying to reintegrate were treated as second class citizens, because that is how the country has always worked and because he let himself be influenced by the uribista point of view, which is basically is the class who hold power.”

Rivas points out that there are still significant environmental challenges, in spite of the amount of land that has been protected. It is true that his environmental achievements are overshadowed by dramatic deforestation (2017 saw a 46% rise in tree cover loss on the year before) caused by illegal logging, mining and forest clearing.

Several people raise the issue of corruption and the ongoing assassinations of social activists. As  Doctor Victoría Elena González Mantilla, lecturer in political communication at the Universidad del Externado says, “He did not take real measures to protect the lives of hundreds of social leaders who have been killed by the extreme right.” She continues, “He also failed to put a stop to the corruption that, among many other things, claimed the lives of children in La Guajira thanks to contracts with corrupt companies. Nothing was ever done about it.”

In July, Colombia’s ombudsman, the Defensor del Pueblo, Carlos Negret said that 321 social leaders had been killed in the last 12 months. Combined with a considerable rise in the activities of armed groups in rural Colombia, these are all valid concerns. The government’s inability to reach a peace deal with the ELN will also be a disappointment for the outgoing leader who had hoped to leave behind him a complete and lasting peace. But how many leaders in the world reach the end of their terms without some regrets and their fair share of criticism?

For Murillo, outside events have also played their part in the way people perceive Santos, particularly the crash in oil prices. “The energetic war between the US and the OPEC members gave a great deal of problems to the Andean countries. Look how it turned out for Venezuela.”

He points out that a number of Santos’ actions were well intentioned – especially when it came to addressing poverty – but fell short in the implementation.

“In the end, it’s difficult to unravel the truth in Santos’ legacy and about how he will be reminded as a President. The numbers seem to be good but many people argue that it’s a consequence of a change of counting methods. For instance, the definition of poverty, in Colombia, has been established under 100 US$ a month in the past years. The result is the obvious disappearance of millions of poor people from the picture but without a real change in their reality.”