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Santos and the Company He Keeps: Populist Progressives Encircle Colombia

By: Javier Garay - @Crittiko - Aug 14, 2014, 10:55 am
Santos cozying up to populist progressivism casts doubt on his second term as president.
Santos cozying up to populist progressivism casts doubt on his second term as president. (VTV)

EspañolOn August 7, President Juan Manuel Santos was sworn in to his second term in office. Although one cannot be certain that his new term will mean a complete shift to the typical Latin-American progressive statism and populist policies, his latest proposals have shown a tendency in this direction.

During his acceptance speech, Santos announced his priorities will be education, equity, and peace — all laudable goals. However, behind these goals is Santos’s ambition to go down in history as a great president, forcing him to juggle various political forces and try to please them all.

Since it is impossible to please everyone, Santos has opted to lean toward the progressive side of Colombian politics ever since his first term in office. This is how he gained the additional supported necessary to win the presidency for the second time, while at the same time opening the door for progressives to potentially pressure his administration to implement their proposals.

Until now, the Colombian government has been a friend of greater economic liberty. This has been demonstrated through its liberalized trade policy, respect for private property rights, and the state’s withdrawal from certain economic activities, such as the move to privatize the energy company ISAGEN.

In Santos’s second term as president, the prioritization of the progressive agenda will potentially threaten this trend. For example, the peace negotiations with the Marxist-Leninist guerrilla known as FARC have pulled him away from the conservative sector of Colombian politics, represented by former president Álvaro Uribe, and brought him closer to traditionally populist leaders, such as Piedad Córdoba and Clara López.

The president has also recently emphasized the country’s urgent need to improve education, both in quality and in access. While the issue is certainly relevant, the alternatives the president proposed in his inauguration speech ignore the potential for greater competition to improve education and instead reverts to the traditional approach of the state as sole provider and guarantor.

Consequently, we’ve seen President Santos being increasingly surrounded by the worst of statist populism in Latin America. Surprisingly, standing behind Santos during the inauguration was Ernesto Samper, secretary general of UNASUR and former president of Colombia (1994 to 1994). Samper is remembered in Colombia not only for his lousy government but also for having attained the presidency with the help of resources from the Cali Cartel. Furthermore, the fact that he is now the head of UNASUR reveals his compliance with the worst statist regimes on the continent, such as Venezuela.

Representatives from all the statist governments in Latin America, beginning with Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa, attended Santos’s ceremony. While other delegations from around the world were also in attendance, Santos appears to have a desire to base his priorities on the consent of Colombian and other Latin American populists.

This budding relationship with progressives threatens to generate greater pressure and concessions for interventionist policies, and ultimately jeopardizes the progress made in terms of opening up the economy and preserving individual liberties.

This is not meant to suggest that populist progressivism has taken over the Colombian government. However, it does demonstrate how far we are as a country to establishing stable and long-lasting path to liberty.

Translated by Rebeca Morla.

Javier Garay Javier Garay

Javier Garay is a professor at the Externado University of Colombia. He has written two books on international issues, such as development, after his doctoral dissertation focused on the same topic. Follow him on Twitter @crittiko and through his personal blog, Crittiko.