Colombia: Santos Approval Numbers Reach Lowest Point

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Juan Manuel Santos

BOGOTÁ, Colombia – The approval rates of Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos have hit their lowest point since he assumed power in 2010 as just 21 percent of his countrymen approve of his handling of the country’s highest political office.

In a poll conducted and released this week by Gallup Colombia, the numbers showed that the approval ratings of Santos have hit their lowest point at just 21 percent as Colombians pointed to the economy, security and the slow progress of peace talks with the FARC as their main concerns.

The planned March 23rd signing of the peace deal between Santos’ government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) was postponed, fuelling doubt among some citizens that the process was hitting a negative point. The talks, however, are not in jeopardy and have continued since that date.

The peace talks in question between the FARC, Latin America’s oldest insurgency group, and the Colombian government, started in October of 2012 initially in Oslo, Norway and then continued in Havana, Cuba with the hopes of ending a conflict that has lasted over half a century.

In reaction to a ultraviolent crackdown on peasant organizations, the FARC militarized in 1964. As the primary guerrilla force, the FARC rebels have been engaged in war with the Colombian government since then, a war that has claimed more than 220,000 lives and displaced several million more.

So far, an agreement on land reform has been achieved during the peace talks, along with the group’s future political participation and the topic of the illicit drug trade. The last point that was agreed upon, which was transitional justice, carried with it the sub-point of suspect and victim recognition and reparation, the most sensitive subject given that it concerned all those affected by the conflict. As such, it was also the longest point as negotiations about the victims lasted 18 months.

In late September of 2015, Santos and the FARC’s top leader, Timoleón Jiménez “Timochenko” (whose real name is Rodrigo Londoño Echeverri) announced in Havana that a definitive peace agreement should be signed between the long-warring factions on March 23 of 2016, six months from the date the two men met and came to the agreement in the Cuban capital.

This meant that the two sides had just 180 days to agree upon how the final points of the peace talks (end of the conflict, surrender of weapons and demobilization) would be defined.

According to a news agency linked to the FARC, the latest bump in the road came earlier this month when the government negotiators decided to change the wording in parts of the agreement text. This, in turn, caused the FARC to ask for another discussion on the topics so that the text can be re-worked in a way that will suit both parties. The biggest cause of the delay, however, was the discussion point of transitional justice because it took several months longer than expected to finish.

The missing of the deadline, as mentioned, did not jeopardize the process, but it did fuel the skepticism of those in Colombia who do not support the peace process and never have.

Indeed, this was visible in the results of the poll in which 66 percent of respondents said they felt the peace talks were “headed in the wrong direction” while only 27 percent said they felt the talks were “still on track.” The remaining 7 percent offered no opinion.

Strangely, in spite of the fact that the numbers showed less confidence in the peace talks, 71 percent of respondents said they did not believe a definitive agreement would be signed this year. This number is actually down from the 80 percent figure collected in the February poll conducted by the same company.

Despite most respondents viewing the peace talks as going in a negative direction, 66 percent of those polled said that they would approve of the agreement being developed in Havana once it is finally signed by the negotiating parties while 24 percent said they would not (and 10 percent did not know). This is an important statistic given that if a final agreement is eventually signed, the Colombian public will have to ultimately approve it via public referendum.

When asked about the start of possible peace talks between the Colombian government and the nation’s second-largest rebel group, the Ejército de Liberación Nacional (ELN) or the Army of National Liberation, the reaction was positive; 56 percent were in favor of the talks while 40 percent were against the idea.

The ELN has existed since 1964 like the FARC, and like the FARC, the Marxist/Liberation Theologist ELN has been labeled a terrorist organization by the government of Colombia and their US and EU allies. At times, the two groups have conducted operations alongside and against each other given that they operate within the same geographical area, but those instances have been rare.

Led by Roman Catholic priests, most notably Father Camilo Torres who was also a university professor, the group engaged in radical activities in opposition to ruling goverments and their continuation of policies that furthered the stark inequalities of Colombian society. They then took up arms after a crackdown by authorities on the group’s activist actions at universities.

Today, following decades of warring against the powerful and well-funded Colombian Armed Forces and right-wing paramilitary groups, the group is estimated to field some 3,000 armed guerrillas throughout the territory of Colombia.

The ELN, like the FARC, has participated in peace talks before, most notably in the mid-1970s, the late 1990s and early 2000s. Those previous talks fell apart, both with the FARC and the ELN, but hopes are much higher this time given that the latest round of negotiations with the FARC has produced more results than all the previous peace talks combined, and it reflects in the positive poll numbers.

While the numbers concerning the peace talks were more positive than expected, public opinion of other issues deteriorated. Concerning the state of the national economy, 82 percent of Colombians said that the situation is worsening while 90 percent said that the standard of living is falling while the cost of living is increasing.

Indeed, although the Colombian economy has been steadily growing in recent years, the growth has been slowed significantly mostly due to the sharp fall in the international price of oil and other commodities that Colombia produces in large quantities.

In addition, 85 percent of respondents said that corruption is one of the biggest problems plaguing the country and pointed the finger at politicians, which does not bode well for Santos and several of the prominent figures of his government.

Thus, as mentioned previously, the approval rates of Santos himself, who was re-elected for another four-year term in 2014, have hit their lowest point since he assumed power in 2010. His approval rating, according to the latest poll, is just 21 percent as the downward trend continues; in February, the figure was 24 percent while 42 percent approved of Santos in December of 2015.

In another piece of bad news for Santos, the approval ratings of Senator Álvaro Uribe have hit 56 percent in the latest poll.

Uribe, the two-term leader (2002-2010) and Santos’ predecessor, has been the most outspoken opponent of the peace talks. By using baseless evidence, hearsay and his own theories, he has sought to undermine the talks and has continued with the same rhetoric since returning to politics as a Senator with his right-wing Democratic Center party in July of 2014.

Prior to forming the Democratic Center in 2013, Uribe belonged to the Social Party of National Unity (La U), a party founded in 2005 by a group of right-leaning dissidents led by Uribe of the centrist Colombian Liberal Party (to which Santos still belongs). Santos, Uribe’s understudy and Defense Minister, then succeeded Uribe as President but after a clash over ideology, Uribe has repeatedly criticized Santos and formed the said Democratic Center which has become the biggest opposition party in the Senate.

Thus, Uribe, a man with links to illegal right-wing paramilitary groups and sectors of the Armed Forces, and his party wield a great deal of public influence and have made their feelings on the process known, even comparing the Islamic State to the FARC and saying that there is no difference between what the former has done in Paris and Brussels and what the FARC did in Colombia. This is despite the fact that during the ongoing peace talks, the level of violence has fallen to the lowest point ever observed since the beginning of the conflict.

The Gallup poll was conducted via telephone in the cities of Bogotá, Medellín, Cali, Barranquilla and Bucaramanga and polled 1,200 people over the age of 18. The data was collected from April 22 to May 1 and has a margin of error of 5 percent.

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