FORREST HYLTON, AUTHOR, PROF. OF HISTORY AND POLITICS, UNIVERSIDAD DE LOS ANDES, BOGOTA: The leading candidate right now is Antanas Mockus, a Colombian of Lithuanian descent who was the mayor of Bogotá from 1995 to 1997 and again from 2001 to 2003. He’s joined forces with the former mayor of Medellín, Sergio Fajardo, and they are together running on the Green Party ticket. And this is the surprise candidacy that has really taken the media and public opinion by storm. Most polls have Mockus now leading the right-wing candidate Manuel Santos, former minister of defense under current President Alvaro Uribe and a member of the country’s leading media family, which owns the country’s major daily newspaper, called El Tiempo. Juan Manuel Santos was predicted to win fairly easily after the legislative elections in March, which gave a clear majority to the right-wing supporters of President Uribe, and Juan Manuel Santos has been picked as Uribe’s successor. Nobody counted on this candidacy from Mockus and its impressive popularity gains, if we’re to believe the polls in the last four weeks.
Juan Manuel Santos was minister of defense when Colombia illegally bombed a FARC camp in Ecuadorian territory just across the border from Colombia, and he’s now wanted on charges to stand trial in Ecuador with that violation of Ecuadorian sovereignty. He has also been alleged to have met with paramilitary chieftains. We just heard last week the testimony from the leading paramilitary chieftain, who is currently serving a sentence in the United States for cocaine trafficking, about his relationship with the Santos family, and in particular Juan Manuel Santos and meetings that he had in the presence of Juan Manuel Santos and the man known as the "Emerald Czar", Victor Carranza, who led very bloody paramilitary campaigns of anticommunist counterinsurgency in the lowlands in the late ’90s. And Juan Manuel Santos has just been associated with him and other leading paramilitary chieftains in the testimony that has emerged. So he has some very questionable associations and has participated in some of the darker incidents in recent diplomatic history in Latin America, and he is extremely unpopular with a great number of Colombians of both the left and the right.
Santos was the defense minister during the "false positives" scandal, in which more than 2,200 civilian men were dressed up and passed off as guerrillas in order to inflate the Army’s body count and make it look as though they were making serious strides against the FARC insurgency. The tactic in the past had been to use peasants. What was new about this false positives scandal was that they recruited very heavily from the slums of southern Bogotá and then took these men very far from their homes, and they appeared dead, dressed up in uniforms, many days later.Arguably, one of Colombia’s biggest problems is the problem of impunity, particularly for homicide. Certainly, Santos and his involvement with some of these extremely dark incidents during the Uribe presidency represents that tradition of impunity for Colombian leaders. Uribe, more than any other recent president in Colombian history, has been involved in a never-ending series of scandals, many of which point directly back to him, including scandals involving illegal wiretapping and surveillance of political opponents and journalists and human rights activists. And so in many ways Manuel Santos is simply the continuation of that legacy of Uribe’s presidency, a lawless presidency which in many ways has only made the problem of impunity in Colombian society even worse than it was.How to explain his rapid descent in the polls? We have to be a little bit careful about trying to say what these polls represent, because in many ways the polling data and the polling process reflects urban opinion. And there can be little doubt that there is a massive sector of public opinion in the great cities, middle-class people in particular, but really people from all ranges of society, who are extremely tired of the corruption, the never-ending scandals, and even the growing sense that in fact these security policies haven’t worked so well, because many people feel a strong sense of insecurity, particularly in the cities. In the countryside we don’t really know what people think, because polling, pollsters, and polling data really doesn’t reflect what’s happening in the countryside, where most of the war is heavily concentrated. In the countryside, Uribe himself was able to ally with right-wing figures in the regions and localities who were able to deliver the vote for him, and it would not be surprising at all if Santos was able to use the existing political machinery that Uribe has created in order to lasso, so to speak, the rural vote for himself. And it’s pretty unlikely that Mockus will have a strong showing in the countryside. But most people in Colombia do live in the cities. And in terms of public relations and campaigning, Mockus is running a very strong campaign right now, where Juan Manuel Santos’s campaign is clearly in crisis, in part because Santos simply assumed he was going to win without having to work for it and isn’t really prepared to run a vigorous campaign. He has a Venezuelan fellow working for him, Jota Jota Rendón, J. J. Rendón, who specializes in going negative, and that’s what Santos has been trying so far. But the more negative he goes, the more it seems to rebound in favor of Mockus. So it’s not clear how Santos is going to regain his edge in the public opinion polls, but it might be that those public opinion polls don’t reflect the political reality of Colombia and Santos might be able to get elected anyway.
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The Real News Network
17 May 2010