BOGOTÁ, Colombia – Germán Vargas Lleras, the Vice-President of Colombia since 2014, has announced that he is leaving his post as the second-in-command to President Juan Manuel Santos as he intends to focus on finalizing his official candidacy for the 2018 election.
In October of 2013, Angelino Garzón Quintero, Santos’ Vice-President from 2010 to 2014, said that he would not be accompanying the Social Party of National Unity (PU) candidate in his re-election campaign. Garzón Quintero served in the position until the 7th of August, 2014 when Santos’ first mandate ended.
Garzón Quintero had suffered from several health issues in recent years, giving scares of the political kind to Santos who considered Garzón, a more left-leaning politician than the center-right President, vital to reaching across the aisle politically.
In 2013, Santos elected Vargas Lleras be his running mate for his re-election campaign in the wake of Garzón Quintero’s departure. Since 2014 (following the election), Vargas Lleras has been serving in that capacity but was no stranger to politics or State functions prior to assuming the vice-presidency, even having run for the top political office seven years ago.
Vargas Lleras belongs to the Radical Change (CR), a conservative party of which he is the leader. Previously, he belonged to the centrist Colombian Liberal Party and the Colombia Always Party, a smaller conservative party.
The 54-year-old, a lawyer by trade, served as a councilman for the city of Bojacá in his first job at 19 and soon moved to nearby Bogotá where he worked as a capital councilman.
Vargas Llera then served as a Senator from 1994 to 2008 (and was President of the Senate in 2003 and 2004) before setting his sights on the presidency in 2010, a quest that ultimately ended in defeat as he finished in a very distant third while Santos easily emerged victorious.
After initially rejecting a post in Santos’ government, Vargas Lleras eventually decided to accept the offer and became the Interior Minister, a role he would hold from 2010 to 2012.
Vargas Lleras was then designated Santos’ Minister of Housing, City and Territory where he was tasked with formulating and implementing policy related to housing, development and city services.
In addition, Santos awarded the ministry record-high funds that were designated for the building of free homes and apartments for the most vulnerable segments of the population; 100,000 houses and nearly 300 housing projects were built for Colombian victims of violence, those displaced by natural disasters and underprivileged families.
During this time, the Ministry of Transport was combined with the Housing Ministry and Vargas Lleras oversaw the implementation of billions of dollars into infrastructure including 4G mobile internet networks, highways, ports, airports, railroads and water and sanitation projects.
In 2014, Vargas Lleras was asked by Santos to be his running mate in the successful re-election campaign due to “personal convictions.” In accepting the position, Vargas Lleras adopted a more moderate political stance as Santos wanted his second-in-command to take on a “more active role.”
In addition to his experience in politics, Vargas Lleras also comes with the familial pedigree (as do most Colombian politicians).
His grandfather was Carlos Lleras Restrepo, a former president (1966-1970) who also shares a link to the Santos family as he served as Finance Minister under Eduardo Santos (1938-1942), the incumbent leader’s great uncle. Lleras Restrepo was a cousin of Alberto Lleras Camargo, who also led Colombia (1958-1962). Finally, his brother, Carlos Vargas Lleras, is a lawyer and former Ambassador to the United States.
Vargas Lleras’ time as Interior Minister and Housing Minister sent him all across Colombia, especially to the far-flung regions of the country usually ignored by many politicians. Vargas Lleras also traveled to the coastal and mountainous regions of the nations in visiting major population centers. This has made his name one that has commonly been heard in all the regions of the nation, elevating his profile.
The attention has not been all positive, however, as Vargas Lleras has been taped yelling wildly at his bodyguards, berating mayors and governors in public and giving awkwardly angry responses to questions at press conferences.
Furthermore, he is very closely linked to Luis Alberto Ríos, a wealthy businessman (whose son is a Radical Change council for Bogotá) that was listed in the Panama Papers for owning tax havens abroad. The party that Vargas Lleras leads has held one governorship since its inception and both governors (for the Department of Guajira) have been removed and imprisoned on corruption charges.
While it is uncertain how the voters will eventually view him, what is certain is that the 2018 election is expected to be the most “crowded” in Colombian history with seven politicians from Santos’ coalition (not counting Vargas Lleras) expected to present their candidacies, as are some 15 more from other political parties and movements.
Meanwhile, Santos has named Óscar Naranjo as his new Vice-President who will tentatively serve during the rest of Santos’ mandate which ends in August of 2018. Naranjo, a longtime military man and former head of the National Police, has been closely allied with Santos in recent years.