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Forrest Hylton: Defense minister linked to ‘False Positives’ murders becomes president

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome back to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Washington. And now joining us from Brooklyn, although just back from Bogotá, Colombia, is Forrest Hylton. And he teaches at the University of los Andes in Colombia. Thanks for joining us, Forrest.


JAY: So what what happened in the Colombian elections on Sunday?

HYLTON: Well, it was no surprise that Juan Manuel Santos, who represents the continuity of the Álvaro Uribe regime—Uribe’s been president for the last eight years—it’s no surprise that Juan Manuel Santos won a crushing victory in the second round. And I think what we’ll see in the future is continuity of Uribe’s policies and a slight hardening and tightening of those same policies.

JAY: Now, for people who don’t know, this is a victory for the right wing in Colombia. But before the runoff election, the last time you and I talked, which is, I guess, just over a month ago, the other candidate, [Antanas] Mockus, looked like—in fact, I think the headline of our story, “Upset in Colombian election coming?” with a question mark. And it sure was no upset. Mockus got clobbered.

HYLTON: He got clobbered, and that was certainly predictable after the first round of voting, in which Mockus did not perform to standard or according to what the opinion polls had predicted. And that has a great deal to do with certain inherent weaknesses of opinion polls, but it also has to do with the fact that Mockus never had a presence outside of the nation’s capital in the country’s regions, which is where the last presidential elections in 2002 and 2006 had been decided. Juan Manuel Santos took 31 of 32 of Columbia’s departments, which is to say that he had alliances in all of Colombia’s regions, and he also took Colombia’s major cities. So what was really surprising was his—kind of the margin of victory that we saw on May 30 in the first round of voting. By the second round of voting, Juan Manuel Santos had effectively lined up a series of alliances with different right-wing groups in Colombia, such as the Conservative Party, as well as Cambio Radical, Radical Change Party, which represents the exact opposite of what radical change would lead you to believe that it stands for, which took 12.5 percent in the first round of voting. And Santos was able to bring that 12.5 percent from the far right into his campaign, his camp, in the second round. He also took the 6 percent that the Conservatives had gotten in the first round; he brought that into his camp; whereas Mockus was completely isolated and was unable to consolidate alliances with any group or faction that matters, and in fact spurned alliances with the Colombian left, which had picked up roughly 10 percent in the first round of elections, such that, had Mockus been willing to make alliances, he would have had at least 30 percent kind of going into it. As it was, he picked up 27 percent of the vote, whereas Santos picked up 60.9 percent with nine million votes, as opposed to only, you know, roughly three million for Mockus, which is about what Mockus got in the first round, which is to say three million. Santos managed to increase his vote from six million to nine million between the first round in the second round, so that really shows how powerful a coalition he was able to put together. And it’s worth stating that in Congress it’s expected that he has about 86 percent of the legislature in his favor. So he will obviously be able to move things through there very quickly.

JAY: Now, in terms of the support that he got in the countryside, how much does that have to do with how militarized the countryside is and how much support he had from the armed forces?

HYLTON: Well, there can be little doubt that there was some element of coercion and fraud involved, because in fact what many of the news stories in Colombia emphasize today was the high levels of abstentionism in the second round. Many people simply did not turn out to vote. And Mockus had based his second-round strategy on getting those people out to vote, and he failed dramatically in that respect. His campaign—.

JAY: It’s hard to compete with with a Brazilian World Cup game. How much do you think that actually was a factor?

HYLTON: It was a factor. So were heavy rains. But, you know, there was a very widespread sense that these elections were a done deal as soon as the first round was over. So there was very little incentive for people to kind of turn out, sensing that the result was already a given.

JAY: Because Santos was so far ahead.

HYLTON: Exactly.

JAY: So now Santos has been elected. He has, at least on the face of it, what looks like a very strong mandate for a very right-wing agenda. And one of the things he campaigned on with a lot of vigor was essentially against Hugo Chávez’s Venezuela. To what extent is that likely to be more than just campaign rhetoric? Are we going to see a heating up of the tension between the two countries?

HYLTON: There can be little doubt that we’ll see an escalation of tensions. It’s impossible to say, of course, whether there will be actual conflict are not. It’s important to remember that Juan Manuel Santos was a minister of defense during Uribe’s second turn beginning in July 2006, very soon after Uribe won a kind of reengineered elections of 2006. Technically, Uribe should not have been allowed to be reelected. He rewrote the Constitution from 1991 such that he could get reelected. And Juan Manuel Santos was his minister of defense during the second term. As minister of defense, Juan Manuel Santos presided over the bombardment of Ecuadorian territory in pursuit of an FARC guerrilla leader who was also the FARC’s top negotiator, kind of following the line of global war on terrorism: wherever terrorists are, we pursue them and we go after them. And Juan Manuel Santos was the chief architect of that operation, as well as the operation that freed Íngrid Betancourt and three North American hostages—”contractors” they call them, but in fact they’re mercenaries. And so Juan Manuel Santos is very closely allied with the Colombian military, and he campaigned, to a large degree, on the national security threat that Venezuela supposedly represents to Colombia. His campaign strategist, Jota Jota Rendón—who is fresh from Honduras, where he campaigned for Porfirio Lobo—Jota Jota Rendón has certainly kind of worked the Venezuela angle and emphasized the degree to which Juan Manuel Santos will, you know, defend Colombian sovereignty in the face of the threat supposedly represented by Hugo Chávez.

JAY: Now, Chávez, of course, says the threat is coming from Colombia because the Americans are planning to expand their bases in Colombia, and Colombia’s one of the larger recipients of US military aid under the rubric of the war on drugs. But we’re not likely to see any change in Colombian policy on any of this.

HYLTON: Certainly not. Juan Manuel Santos was one of the people who applauded the base agreements and has defended them publicly on a number of occasions. And one important columnist from Columbia, Alfredo Molano, has said that Colombia now becomes, under Santos, sort of a gigantic terrestrial aircraft carrier, insofar as the US bases are really designed in Colombia to allow the United States to carry out long-range reconnaissance flights and so forth. So Colombia in many ways really does become the kind of launching pad for any type of US surveillance and communications initiatives in South America in general, and Santos will be a very vocal defender of those sorts of policies.

JAY: How will he be greeted by some of the other leaders in Latin America, Lula and some of the more left leaders? And also the fact that he was so identified with these false [inaudible] you know, the killing of ordinary peasants and dressing them up as if they were FARC to collect bounty. His name has been very connected to that. Is it going to affect Colombia’s relations with the rest of Latin America?

HYLTON: I think it’s possible that Lula and the Brazilians will spearhead a diplomatic initiative designed to kind of corral Colombia and prevent Juan Manuel Santos from leading any type of escalation of military conflict between Colombia and Venezuela. There’s sure to be a kind of escalating rhetorical war between Colombia and Venezuela now that Juan Manuel Santos is going to be president. But it’s quite possible that other South American countries, particularly Brazil in the leadership position, but also Ecuador and Venezuela, will feel the need to push for some kind of UNASUR resolution regarding Colombian-Venezuelan relations, and it’s quite possible that they’ll foresee the danger ahead of time and take some steps to head it off at the pass. In fact, it’s Columbia that has devoted the largest percentage of its gross domestic product to military spending, not Venezuela. In fact, Venezuela is far below Colombia in terms of its military spending. And Venezuela, of course, doesn’t have foreign military bases on its soil.

JAY: Forrest, just quickly, will Santos’s election affect US-Colombian relations at all?

HYLTON: Santos is somebody who has intimate knowledge of Washington and very numerous high-level contacts in Pentagon and State. So, insofar as it will affect US-Colombian relations, it’s likely to make them only stronger. On the other hand, the false positives scandal for which Santos is in part responsible—.

JAY: False positives is when they dressed up ordinary people to look like FARC so they could collect the bounty. And they didn’t just dress them up: they killed them and then dressed them up.

HYLTON: They killed them and dressed them up. And there were considerable incentives within the armed forces to do this in order to inflate the body count to make the Colombian army look good. Santos was in charge when much of this took place. And it’s possible that the International Criminal Court will have its eye on some of these cases—and certainly the relatives of the victims are fighting to make sure that the International Criminal Court does have its eye on these cases. If this becomes too much of a scandal or a problem for the Santos administration, it’s possible that the United States would want to take some distance, although that could be difficult given that the United States was the number-one backer of the Colombian army when Santos was minister of defense.

JAY: Thanks very much for joining us, Forrest.

HYLTON: Good to be here, Paul.

JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

End of Transcript

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Forrest Hylton teaches history at the Universidad Nacional de Colombia-Medellín. He is the author of Evil Hour in Colombia (Verso, 2006), and with Sinclair Thomson, co-author of Revolutionary Horizons: Past and Present in Bolivian Politics (Verso, 2007). He has contributed to New Left Review, NACLA Report on the Americas, and CounterPunch, and his short fiction and translations have appeared in the Brooklyn Rail. Also, he authored the novel Vanishing Acts: A Tragedy (City Works Press, 2010).