- The Washington Times - Monday, June 21, 2010

Juan Manuel Santos won a stunning victory in his bid to succeed outgoing President Alvaro Uribe on Sunday. Colombian voters gave him, his vice-presidential candidate, Angelino Garzon, and their platform a lopsided 69.1 percent majority against opponent Antanas Mockus, who received 27.5 percent of the vote. The 9 million votes cast for Mr. Santos were the highest number ever given a Colombian presidential candidate.

Mr. Santos, who served as defense minister in the Uribe administration and is credited as the key to Colombia’s successful offensive against the communist narco-trafficking terror organization FARC, campaigned on a detailed platform that called for completing the struggle to establish a secure and stable society, with a strong drive in favor of economic development and against corruption among its main points.

With his defense record a virtual given, Mr. Santos and running mate Mr. Garzon placed particular emphasis on employment as a key benefit of economic growth, on the stump and in their advertising. Commercials stressed a “work, work, work” theme in response to the country’s 12 percent unemployment and 32 percent underemployment.

Economists see Colombia - and most of South America - as recovering from the financial crisis of the past three years, with neighboring Venezuela the sole example of year-to-year decline. The new administration also will be helped by strong interest in Colombia from numerous international institutions, including the World Economic Forum, which held a seminar for world business leaders in Cartagena in April.

Also in April, HSBC Bank Chief Executive Michael Geoghegan termed Colombia one of the world’s most interesting emerging markets in a major speech to Hong Kong-based business leaders. In fact, Colombia is counted among the freshly dubbed CIVETS group of countries (Colombia, Indonesia, Vietnam, Egypt, Turkey and South Africa) that are expected to excel in the next decade, rivaling the BRIC countries’ (Brazil, Russia, India and China) development during the past 10 years.

President-elect Santos’ surprise selection of Mr. Garzon as his vice president appears to have been a wise choice politically and on the merits. Although Mr. Garzon has solid credentials, many wondered whether his presence on the ticket would hurt Mr. Santos.

In the election, the easygoing former communist, union leader, federal minister and departmental governor proved to have strong voter appeal. Indeed, Mr. Santos had told me, “My choice of Angelino may have made some people in Bogota unhappy, but millions of other Colombians were delighted.”

Mr. Santos and Mr. Garzon had served as ministers, respectively, of finance and of labor in the Cabinet of former President Andres Pastrana. When we met shortly before the election, the vice-president-elect told me, “We have a high mutual respect and confidence. Our experience working together was always excellent, and we have developed a strong friendship. When we were ministers, we agreed on virtually every issue, including combating the guerrillas, stopping narco-trafficking and setting wage guidelines.

“In fact, we complement each other. As labor minister, I pressed hard for an across-the-board workers wage increase. Although we had different points of view, we arrived at a mutually agreeable meeting of the minds.”

Mr. Santos has said his vice president will oversee human rights and social programs. He also will assume one of outgoing Vice President Francisco Santos’ (a cousin of the president-elect) principal duties, directing the efforts to forge free-trade agreements with the European Union and several other countries, plus gain approval of the U.S.-Colombian Free Trade Agreement (FTA), long awaiting Senate action.

AFL-CIO opposition to the FTA has been based on purported human rights abuses against Colombian union leaders and members. It is a fact, however, that many guerrillas use union membership as a shield to deflect military action against them.

Mr. Garzon has served most recently as Colombia’s ambassador to the U.N. Human Rights Commission. Clarifying such issues at home and resolving them in Washington should be a major undertaking early in the Santos administration.

“Colombia has made significant advances in human rights in the past eight years,” Mr. Garzon stated. “We are committed to being leaders in this area at the same time as we work to build the economy and provide opportunity for every Colombian who wishes to work.”

Both winning candidates are among very few in public life who have never been accused, much less convicted, of corruption. The vice-president-elect said the new administration would “make a major drive against corruption at all levels. As leaders, we will set the example that every peso should be accounted for. Every person has a responsibility to honor himself by being honest and transparent with public resources.”

A guiding Santos principle has been to unify Colombia’s historically fractious society. In his acceptance speech on Sunday, the president-elect underscored the theme, saying, “This is the time of national unity, the time for Colombian harmony. This is the time to work together for prosperity.”

As Colombia enters its third century of independence from Spain, its citizens have rejected amorphously enunciated “change.” They have voted to reinforce the nation’s security and build its economy, simultaneously handing Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chavez his sixth and most bitter setback in the last half-dozen Latin American presidential elections.

Moreover, Colombians have set an extraordinary example for Latin America by holding peaceful, transparent elections in a region renowned for its chaotic approach to governance.

John R. Thomson is a journalist and former diplomat and focuses on political and geopolitical issues in developing countries.

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