Conflict Intensifies between Colombia's President Juan Manuel Santos and Ex-President Alvaro Uribe

Article excerpt

The relationship between Colombia's former President Alvaro Uribe (2002-2010) and his successor and political heir President Juan Manuel Santos is now in crisis, and both political figures, who for years have dominated the political scene, seem to have set out on a path of no return.

Since Santos took office in August 2010, leading analysts have agreed that "cohabitation" was practically impossible. "Santos is no Francois Mitterrand and Uribe is no Jacques Chirac, who each knew his proper limits," said a commentator on Cadena Radial Colombiana (Caracol), reviving the phrase "cohabitation" coined by the French in 1986, when the Socialist Mitterrand suffered a defeat in legislative elections and had to share power with a prime minister (Chirac) from the opposition.

The rupture between Santos and Uribe came just one day after the Oct. 30 departmental and municipal elections, in which Uribe was the big loser and Santos, without having risked anything, emerged strengthened. On Oct. 31, when the final election results indicated that five of the six candidates backed by Uribe in the principal cities of the country had been trounced, the former president unexpectedly burst into the media spotlight to vilify his successor--even calling him a "shallow person...filled with rancor," provoke quarrels in the Cabinet, and order his followers in Congress to withdraw their essential legislative support from the government.

The magazine Semana wrote that Uribe's anger--"the loss of his bearings"--has a unique cause: the electoral defeat could mark the beginning of his political decline, the end of his ambition to return to the presidency in 2014.

Many local governments infiltrated by illegal groups

If Uribe had not assumed such a prominent role, these elections would have been simply another event on the electoral calendar. The departmental capitals, with the exception of Bogota, the national capital, and Medellin, have no political clout. Furthermore, any importance they have is decidedly not political. In recent decades, it has become evident that many departmental and municipal governments, which manage significant resources, have been deeply infiltrated by the drug-trafficking mafias and paramilitary groups.

It was to avoid being implicated in some future scandal that Santos opted to not participate directly in the Oct. 30 elections. Uribe, however, was heavily involved throughout the country and campaigned town by town. His candidates won in a large percentage of the 1,102 municipalities but lost in five of the seven departments in which he backed a candidate. Among the losses were the mayoralties in Bogota and Medellin, his hometown.

In an interview with the BBC, political analyst Mauricio Romero recalled that historically one of the major challenges to Colombian democracy has been to prevent illegal groups from infiltrating the country's institutions. Romero explained that Colombia is a highly decentralized country, meaning that local authorities have real power and control significant resources.

Official figures show that transfers of oil and mining royalties amount to US$5 billion, and central government funds to subsidize public health account for another US$17 billion. "That's US$22 billion. I'm not saying that it is all at the disposal of criminals, but it provides an impressive haul of resources, so much so that it equals almost half of all Colombian exports in a year," said Romero.

Uribe's anger seems to have a solid foundation; he suffered a stinging defeat. But, why were his attacks aimed at Santos? The public was becoming aware of the friction between the two leaders of the Partido Social de Unidad Nacional, known as the Partido de la U--with the "U" standing for Uribe--in the weeks before the election. Semana reported that the ex-president was working quietly to take over the party structure, by hemming in and putting conditions on Santos. …