BOGOTA, Colombia — Although he has yet to receive a single vote, Juan Manuel Santos carries himself with the swagger of a president.
Thanks to his close alliance with Alvaro Uribe, Colombia’s immensely popular outgoing president, Santos stands as the frontrunner heading into the May 30 first-round election.
A long-time figure in Colombian politics, Santos, 58, became a serious contender following his dramatic three-year stint as Uribe’s defense minister.
Santos directed a string of military raids that helped give the Colombian armed forces the upper hand in the long-running guerrilla war. These operations led to the capture or deaths of several top rebel leaders as well as the rescue of 15 guerrilla-held hostages, including three U.S. military contractors.
Improved security opened the door for new local and foreign investment and several years of solid economic growth. All of this has positioned Uribe as one of Colombia’s most successful presidents of the past century and some of his popularity has rubbed off on Santos.
“The Colombian people aren’t stupid,” Santos said in an interview at his well-guarded campaign headquarters in an upscale Bogota neighborhood. “They want continuity. We have to finish the job that President Uribe started.”
Several recent polls give Santos a comfortable lead over a half-dozen rival candidates. Another sign of his support was the outcome of the March 14 congressional election, which was dominated by Santos’ right-wing U Party.
Santos, who hails from a family of influential journalists and politicians, seems to have been grooming himself for the presidency his entire life.
His grandfather was president from 1938 to 1942 while his cousin, Francisco Santos, is the current vice president. The Santos family founded El Tiempo, Colombia’s most influential newspaper, while one of the candidate’s nephews edits Semana, Colombia’s largest newsmagazine.
After studying at Kansas and Harvard, Santos returned to Colombia. Between stints as an editor at El Tiempo, he served as foreign trade and treasury minister in previous governments then took over the defense portfolio for Uribe in 2006.
Although Santos has held powerful government positions, he’s never tested his support in an election and victory in the presidential race is hardly a sure thing.
If Santos fails to win more than 50 percent of the ballots in next month’s first round election — as current polls indicate — the top two vote-getters will meet in a June 20 run-off.
That could mean a showdown with Green Party candidate Antanas Mockus, the former Bogota mayor who is the darling of Colombian intellectuals and independents due to his reputation as an honest leader. Mockus has moved up to second place in most opinion polls.
“Mockus has sparked the kind of enthusiasm that hasn’t been felt for decades and many people will support him … because they are tired of corruption,” wrote newspaper columnist Rudolf Hommes.
Hommes was referring to a series of scandals that marred Uribe’s second term. Government spies were caught tapping the phones of the president’s political opponents. Uribe’s sons appeared to benefit from sweetheart land deals. Army troops were arrested for killing innocent civilians and dressing them up as guerrillas to win promotions.
Some of the army killings took place while Santos was defense minister. Human rights activists contend that pressure from Uribe and Santos on the military to produce battlefield victories led to some of the atrocities. Still, when the news broke, Santos quickly fired more than two dozen high-ranking officers and was later accused by some critics of being too harsh on the military.
“I see what I did as more of a positive [in the presidential campaign] than as a negative,” Santos said.
More recently, however, Santos’ U Party has come under scrutiny for endorsing questionable candidates. Leon Valencia of the New Rainbow Foundation, a Bogota think tank, says eight newly elected U Party legislators have direct or indirect links to paramilitary death squads.
Santos, in turn, has a reputation for shifting positions with the political winds.
For example, he opposed Uribe’s successful campaign to change the constitution and run for a second term in 2006. Then, after joining Uribe’s cabinet, Santos became a full-throated supporter of the president’s legally dubious attempt to run for a third term this year.
Santos vowed not to run for president if Uribe were on the ballot. But in February, the high court declared Uribe’s effort to seek a third term unconstitutional and Santos launched his campaign.
On the day the court announced its decision, Gustavo Petro, who is also running for president, said: “The happiest man in Colombia today is Juan Manuel Santos.”
Most candidates in the race, including Mockus, pledge to continue Uribe's security policies but Santos claims he's the only one who has delivered. He also pledges to pay more attention to unemployment and social development issues. Despite Colombia's recent economic renaissance, about half of all Colombians survive on less than $2 per day.
Colombia remains the largest recipient of U.S. foreign assistance outside of the Middle East and Afghanistan. Santos said he prefers to forge a partnership with Washington to resolve regional problems and points out that Colombia has been advising Mexico and Guatemala on how to combat drug cartels.
As for differences with Uribe, Santos talked about style rather than substance. "Uribe is a micro-manager while I like to delegate," Santos said. "But we both demand results."