Monday, August 8, 2011

Santos Marks One Year in Office With Soaring Approval Ratings

Now exactly one year after taking office, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos is enjoying widespread support in his country, and his willingness to dialogue with other heads of state in South America even has some analysts talking about his potential as a “regional leader.”  In an interview with the Associated Press, Santos downplayed this title, saying that while he appreciated the compliment, he does not consider it an appropriate description.

Nonetheless, it is hard to see some of his administration’s efforts so far as anything but a newfound exertion of Colombia’s diplomatic muscle.  Last week Santos was in Mexico (where the Colombian armed forces have trained more than 5,000 soldiers in counternarcotics operations) in order to discuss security cooperation with his counterparts there, and this week Latin American finance ministers are meeting at his suggestion in a special UNASUR gathering in Buenos Aires to discuss regional approaches to the U.S. and European debt crises.

President Santos seems to be doing well at home as well. According to a recent Invamer Gallup opinion survey, support for Santos is at 71 percent. The poll also noted that 76 percent of Colombians voiced favorable opinions of the armed forces, which can be seen as an endorsement of Santos’ security policies as he attempts to grapple with a resilient guerrilla insurgency, armed bands of neo-paramilitaries and sophisticated drug trafficking networks in the country.

On top of this, the president faces virtually no mainstream political opposition. Even the party of his onetime electoral rival, the Green Party, has signed on to his governing coalition despite the protests of former presidential candidate Antanas Mockus.

Still, Santos faces a number of challenges in the future, the most notable of which is the recent uptick in FARC attacks. As noted in the July 29 brief, the number of rebels operations has increased dramatically in the past several months, with the FARC using non-uniformed urban militias and hit-and-run tactics to retake the initiative in certain parts of the country. So far the president has been reticent to recognize this development, and has repeatedly sought to downplay the FARC’s strength, especially as it pertains to the guerrillas’ use of neighboring Venezuela as a safe haven. When Admiral Edgar Cely, the commander of Colombia’s army, asserted last week that FARC and ELN rebels still operate in parts of Venezuela (a claim which was supported with firsthand accounts given to Caracol Radio by the director of a Venezuelan NGO), Santos denied this allegation, saying that his military chief was “mistaken and should not have said this.”

In the coming months, Santos will no doubt have to reassess his attempts at balancing diplomatic ties with Venezuela with counterinsurgency and anti-crime efforts, as more and more Colombians are expressing doubts about the security situation. This could be difficult, as a separate Gallup poll cited by El Espectador on June 30 found that nearly three quarters of Colombians believe that insecurity in the country is getting worse.

News Briefs

·         El Tiempo reports that Mockus has now officially announced his candidacy for mayor of Bogota as a member of the Independent Social Alliance Movement. Alfonso Prada, the Green Party spokesman in Colombia’s Chamber of Deputies, said it was "regrettable" that Mockus could not address his aspirations within his former party, and criticized him for causing "unnecessary damage" to those who supported him in the presidential campaign.

·         The opposition Coalition for Democratic Unity (Mesa de la Unidad Democrática – MUD) in Venezuela has sent a letter to House Republicans criticizing their recent vote in committee to defund the Organization of American States (OAS).  According to the Washington Post, in the letter the MUD said “international law and multilateral diplomatic action…are the only acceptable tools for the international community to support our democracy,” and claimed that the proposed bill would jeopardize the restoration of democratic rule of law in Venezuela. Of the measure’s most vehement supporters, only Connie Mack (R-FL) has so far responded to the criticism, saying he “believes that holding the OAS accountable for undermining democratic efforts in the region…is not only necessary, but beneficial to individuals working to obtain freedom through democracy.”  Exactly why Rep. Mack believes he knows better than the Venezuelans about what’s best for democracy in their country, however, remains unclear.

·         The New York Times takes a look at the deepening role of the U.S. in Mexico’s drug war, noting that Mexican President Felipe Calderon has jumped through a number of hoops in recent years to get around a law prohibiting foreign militaries from operating on Mexican soil.  As evidence, the article mentions a unit of “fewer than two dozen Drug Enforcement Administration agents, C.I.A. officials and retired military personnel members from the Pentagon’s Northern Command" working with Mexican officials in a joint intelligence center, but it is not clear whether this small team represents a major “game-changer” in terms of security cooperation.  More interesting is a prediction by Brookings Institute’s Vanda Felbab-Brown, who told the Times that she believes the Merida Initiative is bound to be a major political football in the upcoming election season. Felbab-Brown said she expects to see “a lot of questioning of Merida, and some people asking about the way the money is spent, or demanding that the government send it back to the gringos.”

·         Meanwhile, El Diario de El Paso reports that cities in southern Texas are seeing a population boom as residents in Mexican border cities flee northward to escape drug violence. Mission, Texas, is a favorite destination, and has gone from a city of 45,914 residents in 2000 to 68,196 in 2009.  Officials estimate that the figure has risen by some 6,000 since then, and expect that the number of residents will jump to 81,000 by 2014.

·         The Wall Street Journal reports that Mexican drug cartels are continuing to move into the methamphetamine trade as the drug becomes more popular in the U.S.  Mexican officials have uncovered 103 clandestine methamphetamine labs during the first six months of this year, which is a 25% increase from the same period last year.

·         An appellate court in Cuba has upheld a 15-year prison sentence for Alan Gross, the USAID contractor who was caught distributing satellite phones to members of the Jewish community on the island, reports the New York Times. While the ruling did not come as much of a surprise, it means that the U.S. will inevitably refocus its efforts towards pressuring the Cuban government for his release as a humanitarian gesture.

·         The L.A. Times is the most recent U.S. media outlet to report on the growth of the Cuban service industry in the wake of the recently-proposed economic reforms. The paper cites government statistics which claim that as of July 19, more than 325,900 Cubans had taken out licenses to operate or work at private businesses involving nearly 200 approved activities, including “hairstyling, carpentry, shoemaking and dance instruction.

·         The Economist reports that Brazil has abolished a payroll tax on clothing, footwear, furniture and software manufacturers as part of a series of reforms to the country’s industrial policies which were recently announced by President Dilma Rousseff. The move will also be accompanied by anti-dumping measures, as Brazil struggles to keep its currency from heating up too quickly.

·         The Bolivian government has purchased six K-8 fighter jets from China, in the latest indication that the country is deepening its influence in Latin America. Milenio reports that the planes will be used to crack down on drug smuggling flights out of the country, and says that a number of pilots, instructors and technicians were trained in China in the maintenance of the aircraft.

·         Democracy Now’s Amy Goodman has an insightful interview with Annie Bird, co-director of Rights Action, in which she details leading Guatemalan presidential candidate General Otto Pérez Molina’s past involvement in human rights abuses in the country’s decades-long conflict. The interview also features archival footage of Pérez from the 1980s, in which he stands over the bodies of alleged “guerrillas” and defends the military’s brutal policies.  As Bird notes, his past leadership of the military’s operations in one of the most violent regions in Guatemala raises serious questions about his willingness to hold the army to human rights standards if elected.