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Colombia after Uribe

Former defense minister, who hails from a family of influential journalists and politicians, is the leading contender to become Colombia's next president.

“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."