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A look at Juan Manuel Santos, the enigmatic new president

Juan Manuel Santos easily won Colombia's presidential run-off on Sunday. Santos, who once supported peace talks between the government and FARC, was elected vowing to continue outgoing president Alvaro Uribe’s hardline security policies.


Colombians overwhelmingly elected conservative ex-defence minister Juan Manuel Santos on Sunday to be their new president with a substantial 69.2 percent of the overall vote. Antanas Mockus, the Green Party candidate and a former mayor of Bogota, managed only 27.4 percent.

1951  Juan Manuel Santos is born in Bogota, Colombia

1972  Obtains a degree in Economy and Business Administration from the University of Kansas

1983  Appointed sub-director of his family-owned newspaper "El Tiempo", Colombia's most influential newspaper

1991  Appointed minister of foreign trade during the administration of president Cesar Gaviria

2000  Appointed minister of finance and public credit during Andres Pastrana's administration

2006  Appointed minister of defence under Alvaro Uribe

2010  Elected 40th president of Colombia

As outgoing president Alvaro Uribe’s defence minister, Santos is associated with Uribe's successful military campaigns against the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, most famously the rescue of 15 high-profile hostages in 2008, including former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt and two American contractors. Running for “Partido de la U”, Uribe's party, Santos was elected with a mandate to continue his hard-line security policies. During a speech after his victory, Santos reassured Uribe’s supporters by saying, "This is also your victory, President Uribe".

However, his past political actions show that Santos is much more than just another hard-liner.

Before becoming defence minister, Santos headed peace negotiations between FARC and the Colombian government. In 1997 he supported dialogue with the rebels and pushed through the creation of a demilitarised zone that made it possible to hold peace talks with the group. Santos negotiated with FARC leader Manual Marulanda Velez, also known as "Tirofijo" ("Sure-shot" in English), and other senior members of the organisation. But peace talks came to an end when Uribe was elected in 2002.

A compassionate pragmatist

Santos is known for his pragmatism. He has at times adopted policies according to the prevailing political climate without adhering to one clear ideology. He served as minister of foreign trade for liberal president Cesar Gaviria in 1991. He then became minister of finance and public credit during Andres Pastrana’s moderate conservative administration in 2000. Santos' move toward the right was only confirmed when he joined the outgoing government, a right-wing independent movement, as defence minister in 2006.

During the presidential campaign, Santos was criticised by many for using the ends to justify the means. As defence minister, Santos sent Colombian troops into Ecuadorean territory in 2008 to kill Raul Reyes, FARC's second in command, in breach of international law. The move caused a diplomatic rift between the two countries and made headlines across the world.

The influence of other international leaders

The influence behind some of Santos’ political thinking can be traced directly to other national political movements. In 1990, influenced by the Bill Clinton-Al Gore presidential campaign slogan of “Put people first”, Santos created an organisation called Good Government. For 19 years this organisation has studied Colombia's governments, making sure they move beyond the usual battles between free-market advocates and those in favour of state-controlled production to make the wellbeing of the people a priority.

Another big influence on Santos' views has been former British Prime Minister Tony Blair. Santos expressed his admiration for Blair's New Labour movement, a manifesto that attempted to reconcile free-market polices and socialist ideals. With Blair’s assistance, Santos published a book called "The Third Way" in 1999 in which he adapted Blair's ideology to Colombia's economy.

During his presidential campaign, Santos referred frequently to these socialist-liberalist ideals, espousing support for "the market as far as possible", but stating his willingness to rely on the state "to the extent necessary".

Santos will probably continue many of the policies he pursued under Uribe’s leadership. What remains to be seen is whether he will maintain the hardline approach of the past few years or return to the more conciliatory policies of his earlier political career.


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