Monday, March 3, 2014

Will Vargas Lleras Pull Santos Left or Right?

German Vargas Lleras:
 Colombia's next VP?
It's easy to see why Pres. Santos selected Germán Vargas Lleras, currently minister of housing, as his running mate for his reelection campaign. The harshest criticisms of Santos have not come from the left, as one might once have predicted, but from Santos' predecessor, the very conservative ex-Pres. Alvaro Uribe, on the right. Vargas Lleras comes from the ranks of Uribismo, and so can shield Santos from some of those attacks.

Vargas Lleras marks a dramatic change from the Santos' current VP, the genial Angelino Garzon, once a union activist and still a leftist. Garzon, who has suffered a series of health problems during the last four years, provided a useful defense for Santos' left during the last campaign, when most expected Santos to follow Uribe's aggressive militaristic policies against the leftist guerrillas. Santos, after all, was Uribe's minister of defense. But Santos began peace negotiations with the FARC guerrillas - a decision which has earned him constant criticism from Uribe and his supporters, who say that the talks amount to giving in to the FARC, who are classified as terrorists by many governments.

Vice Pres. Angelino
Garzon participated in the last negotiations with the FARC, during the Pastrana administration. Those talks failed and have come to represent government weakness. That connection makes Garzon a handicap for Uribe.

As vice president, Garzon helped in negotiations with protesting farmers and others, as well as advocating for human rights. Garzon has also shown refreshing independence, even criticizing Santos administration policies on issues including poverty and the peace negotiations.

Vargas Lleras, in contrast, criticized the last peace negotiations with the guerrillas. He has also been the target of two bomb attacks, at least one of them apparently perpetrated by guerrillas, in which he lost several fingers from one hand. As Santos' minister of the interior from 2010 to 2012, Vargas Lleras authored the controversial Ley Lleras, which critics charged would censor the Internet.

Will Vargas Lleras push Santos to the right? Could his presence hinder the peace negotiations with the guerrillas? Perhaps Vargas Lleras' presence will give Santos room to move left.

A poster on Plaza Bolivar portrays Pres. Santos as wanting
to oust Bogotá Mayor Gustavo Petro in order to use
 the capital's budget for his own reelection.
 I haven't seen any evidence of this charge.
In practice, the vice president doesn't do much. So little, in fact, that Garzon had been nominated to be Colombia's ambassador in Brazil while still holding down the vice president job. Garzon unexpectedly rejected the ambassadorship.

Santos is almost sure to be reelected - barring an economic disaster or a collapse of the peace talks, which appears less likely with the addition this week of a representative of the FARC's powerful and drug-rich Southern Block to the negotiating table.

In polls, Santos is far ahead of other presidential candidates. However, he's way behind the 'blank' or 'empty vote', which scored more than 40% intention of vote in a recent poll. That's a bizarre situation considering that Santos has been pretty successful by most objective standards: the economy is strong and stable, Colombia's at peace with its neighbors, the peace negotiations are progressing and Santos has not had any major scandals, unlike two of his three predecessors. Political analysts seem to believe that the 'blank vote' is playing the role of 'undecideds' and that these people will choose candidates as the campaign progresses.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

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