Santos or Mockus: Colombia’s Presidential Candidates Are Not as Polar as Portrayed

Colombia is electing a new president on Sunday, June 20, and both sides are making last minute efforts to portray the other candidate as extremist. But while the Green Party’s cultural reformer, Antanas Mockus, and former Minister of Defense, Juan Manuel Santos, have little in common, their economic and security policies are destined to be identical regardless of the election results.

A bit of background: After negotiations with Colombian guerrilla forces failed in 2002 just before the presidential elections, hard-line candidate Álvaro Uribe emerged as front-runner, pushing a “firm fist, strong heart” campaign that promised to use all military means necessary to marginalize the armed conflict to the edges of the Colombian rainforest. After being elected, Uribe used military might (and US dollars) to secure urban areas, giving him unprecedented approval ratings which would contribute to a second term in office. As a populist leader who carries an image of a hard-working, waste-reducing administrator, the Uribe years have also seen an incredible investment boom with modest progress for poverty reduction and job creation. Uribe also became known for enhancing the conditional cash-transfer program, Familias en Acción, both lauded as an innovative social program and criticized as a clientelistic control mechanism over low-income voters.

After being denied a constitutional amendment which would have allowed him to run for a third term, Uribe hand-picked defense minister Juan Manuel Santos as his successor—a clear message to Colombians that a Santos administration would mean the continued security policies of Uribe. Enter Antanas Mockus, a philosopher and mathematician turned mayor of Bogotá after a mooning incident in a public university catalyzed his rise to fame. Mockus became known for his unorthodox cultural and urban reforms, which included ordering “traffic mimes” to regulate the streets, a public awareness campaign as “super-citizen”, and achievements ranging from the creation of public space to a 70% homicide rate drop which has helped convert the seven-million-plus city from one of the least to most livable in Latin America.

It was revealed in late 2008 that after years of criticism of human rights violations against Uribe’s iron-fist security policy, one of the most severe humanitarian grievances indeed had occurred. What surfaced was an internal military policy espoused by none other than defense minister Juan Manuel Santos, which granted monetary rewards and promotions to soldiers who killed suspected guerrilla fighters. What ensued was graveyards of “false positives”—the result of a green light policy for soldiers to round up and murder anyone whom they accused of terrorism, including non-guerrilla, poor, homeless, and other Colombian civilians—with a high estimate of about 6,000 false positives identified by the very left.

Herein lies the root of the extremes in Colombian politics. The left acknowledges the progress made against armed guerrilla forces, but asks at what social cost? The right considers the Uribe/Santos duo “de confianza” (trustworthy), and argues that the number of false positives are much lower than predicted, and a small price to pay within the context of war. From here follows critiques of the economy and social programs.  The left believes Uribe’s social programs are a populist form of subsidizing the poor for their votes. The right, of which the largest support comes from low-income communities, are beneficiaries of social programs. Still, Mockus is thought of as a straight-talking non-politician who would take a different approach to both local and national challenges. Even those on the right like his character, and use the slogan “Mockus me cae bien, pero no sirve de president” (translation: Mockus resonates with me, but not as president).

But no matter what the result of the election and how different the candidates are, there is undeniable evidence that Colombian cities are safer and investment is flowing at record highs. While micro, social, urban, and process-oriented strategies could be different between the two candidates, the next President of Colombia will inevitably continue the military and pro-market reforms started by Uribe in 2002.

Ben Hyman is a Masters Candidate at the Department of Urban Studies and Planning at MIT, where Economics is his focus. Ben is working in Colombia this summer. This past year, he contributed extensive research to the Cartagena Practicum, which examined the viability of moving a major outdoor food market in Cartagena, Colombia.

* This post was originally titled Colombia’s New Poverty Agenda: Observations from an American Intern in the Colombian Government

One Response to “Santos or Mockus: Colombia’s Presidential Candidates Are Not as Polar as Portrayed”

  1. Martha says:

    Hi Ben,
    I am so glad you get to tell the story of Colombian politics so well. I totally agree with you that security policy will remain the same no matter who wins. At this point of the day when the new Colombian president is Santos, I wish we have more media players during the next administration and better labor policies. Saludos!
    Martha