President Juan Manuel Santos began his second term Thursday promising to spend the next four years governing for “all Colombians.” But there’s one group he won’t be leading: expats.
Despite his victory in the June 15 polls by more than 1 million votes, Santos lost miserably with Colombians living abroad — and nowhere was that loss more dramatic than in the United Sates.
During the runoff against Oscar Iván Zuluaga — who was backed by popular former President Álvaro Uribe — Santos eked out just 22 percent of the U.S. vote versus his rival’s 76 percent.
Now, as Santos tries to rally the nation and the world around a complex and sometimes controversial peace process with the country’s guerrillas, winning over Colombians abroad — a significant and influential group — could be tantamount.
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In 2012, the Foreign Ministry estimated there were about 4.7 million Colombians living abroad, or about 10 percent of the population. A third of the diaspora lives in the United States, followed by Spain, Venezuela, Ecuador and Canada.
Many who left did so in the 1990s and the early part of this century when Colombia was on the verge of becoming a failed state. As narco-cash sloshed through the economy, left-wing guerrillas and right-wing paramilitary groups battled for control and the body-count soared. Bombs were going off in the capital on a regular basis.
For those who fled the violence, the single most important issue is security and eradicating the guerrilla threat, said Eleuterio de la Cruz, the president of the Colombian-American Association of Florida. And many are fearful that the current peace process will backfire as it did under the Andrés Pastrana administration (1998–2002) when the the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia or FARC used a lull in fighting to regroup and rearm.
Instead, they long for Santos’ tough-talking predecessor Uribe, who helped break the back of guerrilla violence with military might. When Uribe backed Zualuga in the campaign, Colombian expats fell in line.
“Here, abroad, there’s a huge admiration for Uribe, so whatever he does people will follow,” de la Cruz said. “We admired his strong hand against the FARC.”
In Colombia, Uribe’s legacy is more complicated. While he remains one of the country’s most popular politicians, he’s also been hounded by scandals. His intelligence services were caught tapping the phones of journalists, judges and political opponents. And he’s been accused of having ties to right-wing paramilitary groups. Those allegations may get a very public airing as his foes in congress are pushing for a debate about the issue.
But those concerns don’t resonate abroad, said Alfredo Mantilla, editor of the Doral-based El Periodico newspaper that caters to the Colombian community in South Florida.
“If you ask a Colombian in the United States if they have any concerns about some of the dark spots in Uribe’s record — the corruption, the allegations — they will tell you it doesn’t matter,” he said. “All they care about is security.”
It’s ironic that Santos should be perceived as weak on security. He was Uribe’s minister of defense and responsible for some of the boldest attacks against the guerrillas. During his first race, in 2010, he ran on his record as a hawk. But midway through his first term, he announced that peace talks in Havana were in the works.
Uribe, who had been his backer, turned on him, painting him as a backstabbing flip-flopper.
“When people refer to Santos here, they use the same words as Uribe,” Mantilla said. “They call him a traitor.”
While Santos may be seen as weak abroad, here the move is often viewed as deft political work.
“For those of us who didn’t vote for him, the Santos of 2010 was a revelation,” wrote influential Semana columnist María Jimena Duzán. “For those who did vote for him, he was a disappointment that turned into betrayal.”
There’s also the question of vantage point. It’s no secret that South Florida often sees the world through Cuba-colored lens, said Susan Purcell, the director of the Center for Hemispheric Policy at the University of Miami. The fact that the government is holding the peace process in Havana and that Venezuela is one of the guarantors of the deal is viewed with alarm.
“Here, the Cuban lens is fairly strong and that has enhanced distrust because they [Colombians] don’t trust Cuba and they certainly don’t trust Venezuela,” she said. “It’s a more conservative environment in South Florida.”
She also speculated that expats have access to media with broader perspectives. Colombia’s press tends to be quite concentrated and, in general, backs the peace process.
Santos has recognized that he has a communication problem. While the peace talks in Havana dominate headlines, they also obscure some of the administration’s victories on the battlefield, Mantilla said.
But Santos has also put less energy into wooing the expat support. While Uribe and Zuluaga visited the United States, and particularly South Florida, multiple times in the months leading up to the race, Santos logged fewer visits.
Administration officials are aware of the problem and there are plans to try to reach out to South Florida Colombians to better explain the peace process. And Santos did visit Miami in July, after the election, to attend a Goldman Sachs investment conference.
Santos didn’t directly refer to Colombians abroad in his inaugural speech, but he did appeal for their support.
“There are people who like me and people who don’t like me,” Santos said, “but that doesn’t matter because we all like Colombia and that’s why we must work together.”
It’s unclear, however, if Colombia’s expats are ready to follow.