Colombian president-elect sends clear signals of a break with his predecessor's combative style

Sat, Aug 7, 2010, 01:00

Incoming president Santos pledges focus on ethics as well as ‘democratic security’

COLOMBIA’S INCOMING president has promised to run an ethical government in his latest hint of a break with the tumultuous eight-year administration of his popular but controversial predecessor, Álvaro Uribe.

“We have carried out an exercise to fix some principles and values of good government which have to do with a system of governing with public ethics,” said Juan Manuel Santos to reporters on Thursday at an event to mark his inauguration, which takes place today.

Mr Santos was swept into power with a promise to continue the “democratic security” policies of the outgoing administration, which saw Colombia’s military make huge gains against the country’s Marxist guerrilla insurgency.

The improvement in security made Mr Uribe the most popular president in Colombia’s modern history and his endorsement helped Mr Santos, who served as his defence minister, to a record nine million votes in June’s presidential election.

But recent years have also seen a dramatic rise in accusations of human rights abuses and corruption levelled against the authorities.

While careful not to criticise his still powerful former boss, who will still command the loyalty of most members of congress, Mr Santos has spent recent weeks sending clear signals of a break with Mr Uribe’s combative style, which provoked bitter disputes with political opponents at home as well as a series of regional diplomatic crises.

He has appointed several prominent Uribe critics to senior ministries and spoken of a wish for better relations with neighbouring countries. He remained silent during a recent diplomatic spat with Venezuela, which followed Mr Uribe’s accusation that Hugo Chávez’s government tolerated the presence on its territory of Colombian guerrillas.

“Since his victory Santos has continued to express his gratitude to Uribe but he has also sent a message that there will be a change of style and of policies. His nine million votes was the biggest in Colombian history and allows him to put some distance between himself and Uribe,” says Marcela Prieto Botero, of the Institute of Political Sciences in Bogota.

Mr Santos received a boost this week in his campaign to distance himself from the Uribe years when a public prosecutor said there were no grounds to continue an investigation into his involvement in the so-called “false positives” cases.

The new president was under scrutiny for his role while defence minister in the murder of hundreds, possibly thousands, of civilians who were killed by military units who claimed their victims were guerrilla combatants in order to claim bounties.

Families of the victims and human rights groups say the administration was, at the very least, wilfully negligent in offering soldiers bonuses for higher kill rates, considering the military’s long-documented record of human rights abuses. But Mr Santos still faces possible efforts by Ecuador to prosecute him for his role in ordering an attack on a Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or Farc, base just inside its territory in 2008.

The operation, which killed Farc’s deputy leader Raúl Reyes, was popular in Colombia, but governments in the region denounced it as a violation of Ecuador’s sovereignty. On Wednesday a judge in Ecuador’s capital of Quito said he was still considering whether to grant a request for the extradition of Mr Santos to face trial for the attack.

Despite breaking diplomatic links with Colombia following the cross-border raid, Ecuadorean president Rafael Correa is to attend today’s inauguration and will hold a brief bilateral meeting with Mr Santos.

Mr Chávez is not set to attend. Last month he broke his government’s remaining diplomatic ties with Bogotá after Mr Uribe’s office offered evidence of Colombian guerrillas operating on Venezuelan soil. The crisis is the latest in a series of blow-ups between the ideological foes.