Small Wars Journal

Colombian President Santos: Success in an “Inter-mestic” Environment

Wed, 09/02/2015 - 8:28am

Colombian President Santos: Success in an “Inter-mestic” Environment

Jonathan Bissell

The recent move by the Obama Administration to normalize relations with Cuba and the ensuing Summit of the Americas in Panama put the global spot light, at least for a rare moment, on the Western Hemisphere.  A quick review the Western Hemisphere and the turbulent Organization of American States will bring many colorful and populist leaders to light.  However, upon closer examination, and despite profound challenge, both nationally and internationally, the leadership of Colombian President Juan Santos has become a model for other hemispheric nations to follow.  Under his leadership, Colombia has successfully fought an internal insurgency, stabilized the country, enhanced its economic welfare, dramatically improved its standing on the Fragile States Index, and significantly decreased levels of coca growth and cocaine trafficking.  While doing so Santos has emerged as a global leader, pragmatically strengthening relationships with diverse states and making sensible policies domestically to garner wide support nationally  His transparent and common sense approach to incredibly complex national and international problems has become a model worthy of emulation to all leaders throughout the Western Hemisphere and the world.

Despite criticism from pundits, Colombian President Juan Santos has pragmatically led Colombia through a difficult era, and currently has it poised to reach a lasting internal peace.  International relations scholar Joseph Nye describes power distribution in the contemporary era as extremely complicated due to the effects of globalization.   In this new world, it is often difficult to separate domestic and international issues creating the so-called “inter-mestic” issues.  Leaders continue to play their traditional game of “political chess,” albeit they must now do so in a three-dimensional manner, playing vertically and horizontally on three planes concurrently. 

It is difficult to find a Western Hemispheric leader who has had more accomplishments than President Santos.  His policies are based on three benchmarks: 1) the improvement in the measurements of the Fund for Peace’s Fragile States Index (FSI), 2) the decreasing levels of coca growth and exports, and 3) Colombia’s economic growth.  Colombia has made significant progress in recent years with its Plan Colombia.  Recent history demonstrates what happened before the current drug policy was not in place.

In late 1989, presidential candidate Luis Galán was murdered near Bogotá, Colombia, allegedly by gunmen working for drug cartel king Pablo Escobar.  This led to a national effort to rid Colombia of its scourge of international drug-trafficking.  Colombia established greater cooperation with the United States (US) in combatting the growing, cultivating, and trafficking of cocaine.  Over the last 25 years, Colombia has worked hard to strengthen its democracy, grow its economy, and end the 50-year cycle of violence.

Arguably, the first Colombian president to launch a holistic attempt for broad reform was President Pastrana in 1998.  He developed Plan Colombia to end “armed conflict, eliminate drug-trafficking, and promote development.”  Pastrana was followed into office by Álvaro Uribe in 2002.  President Uribe fought the narco-traffickers ferociously and appointed Santos as his Minister of Defense during those decisive years. 

The Colombian drug policy is based on a comprehensive strategy, flexible policy, and diffused information model.  It recognizes that as Colombian economic growth continues, increased incomes will create higher drug consumption domestically.  Colombia recently began to benefit from the plan.  It shows remarkable improvement in the FSI published annually by the Fund for Peace.  More than 150 indicators form the framework of the methodology for the Index. These measurements are stitched together by 12 social, economic and political primary indices.  The results are exhibited in the advancement Colombia has made, moving from 41 to 59 over the last five years

The US’s International Narcotics Control Strategy Report shows that illicit drug-related activity in Colombia continues to drop.  This has contributed to a rise in the street prices of cocaine in the US, and a drop in usage from 3% to 2.2%.  The Colombian cocaine yield dropped from nearly 600 Metric Tons (MT) in 2001, to 175 MT in 2012.  The cultivation in 2013 was projected to be down another 6%.  United Nations (UN) data also mirrors these trends closely.  The UN estimates the Colombian cocaine production has been reduced by 50% since 2007, and continues to fall.  This is down considerably from an estimated 600 MT in 2000.  

Nevertheless, critics persist, centering their arguments on the “balloon effect,” which shifts illicit drug cultivation to the nearby Andean states of Peru and Bolivia.  Detractors point to the negative effects of aerial fumigation on rural residents.  The government confronts these issues directly - coordinating with locals prior to fumigation and using alternative crop development programs.  These development programs had assisted nearly 500,000 people by 2010. Colombia also assists other Latin America countries in their fight against the illicit traffickers. 

Santos uses the security gains Colombia makes against illicit traffickers to strengthen his democratic institutions.  As the Colombian military retakes the areas previously claimed by the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC), the National Police replaces it to maintain peace, supported by aid agencies and the increasing professionalism of federal agencies.  Colombia’s economic growth improved significantly under Santos, from 1.7% in 2009 to 6.6% in 2011, and remained strong at 4.7% in 2013.  It is becoming more economically viable as it eradicates illegal activities.  Colombia’s Finance Minister recently speculated that a peace with the FARC could boost economic growth by another 1%

Santos’ 2014 re-election reflects the appreciation Colombians have for his policies.  Able to wield a “stick and carrot” simultaneously, he is using his credibility as a former Defense Minister to negotiate a peace agreement with the FARC.  He recently agreed to a bi-lateral cease-fire, but not before skillfully negotiating a deal to drive an ideological wedge between simple drug traffickers - las Bandas Criminales Emergentes (BACRIM) - and the radical dissidents who are open to a political settlement (FARC).  Santos appeals to both sides of his domestic constituency as well as international allies as diverse as the US and Venezuela.  

Santos recently angered domestic pacifists by supporting the firing of Bogotá’s leftist mayor for corruption, while annoying conservatives who desire a strictly military solution against the FARC.  He stayed ahead of the argument against the war on drugs, treating domestic consumption as a health issue.  In 2011, Santos, along with other Latin American presidents, called for a new global drug strategy, accentuating the current strategy’s failures.  This criticism seems to have affected the verbiage of the US’s 2013 National Southwest Border Counter Narcotics Strategy, especially regarding the illegal trafficking of firearms and bulk cash.  It now appears visionary, as the US currently grapples with its own drug policy, as Maryland, Colorado, California and Washington D.C. have recently legalized or decriminalized some drugs, making the US appear incoherent in its own federal and foreign policy drug interdiction policies.  It seems that Santos has taken US President Bill Clinton’s famous political skill of “triangulation” to a transnational level, all the while remaining true to Pastrana’s three original goals.

There is an old adage that states when life hands you lemons you make lemonade.  Santos has done so with his effective drug policy in Colombia, impacting the entire world.  He has stayed flexible, continuously adapted his strategy, divided his enemies and built effective coalitions.  Under Santos’ leadership, Colombia has made improvement in economic growth, decreased the amount of drugs trafficked illegally, improved its standings on the FSI, and is in the process of negotiating a peace agreement with the FARC.  Concurrently, Santos constructively criticized US drug policies and improved diplomatic relations with Colombia’s counterparts throughout Latin America.  In such a multifaceted and complex world, President Santos has been the epitome of a successful “inter-mestic” leader.

Categories: El Centro

About the Author(s)

Jonathan Bissell is a Major in the United States Army with 25 years of service.  He has served overseas for seven years in Panama, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Iraq, and Peru.  He spent the majority of his career in combat arms units as a logistician.  For the last four years, however, Jonathan has worked as a Foreign Area Officer in Latin America, where he works with partner nations to strengthen defense ties and improve military capacity through security cooperation. He is currently a student at the Elliott School of International Affairs in the Master of International Policy and Practice program.


JB Bissell

Sun, 11/01/2015 - 9:41am

In reply to by Geoffrey Demarest


thanks for the interest in my view. I don't completely disagree your analysis. I would classify Santos as more of a centrist than a leftist, however. I simply think he deserves a lot of credit for keeping his country on the right track in a complex environment.


Geoffrey Demarest

Mon, 10/26/2015 - 9:27pm

Jonathan, Interesting article. Allow me to suggest, however, that some valid criticism is coming not just from pundits, but also from a respected and informed opposition. The just-held regional elections were not especially kind to the Colombian left, so maybe the Colombian public is not as enthusiastic about President Santos’ peace negotiations with the FARC as your essay might lead readers to infer. Periodismo Sin Fronteras and Colombian News are opposition opinion sources, apparently aligned with former President Uribe, that might provide some useful leavening. Regards, Geoff