Santos wins landslide victory in Colombian election

But will the former defence minister take responsibility for the murder of 2,000-plus civilians?

Juan Manuel Santos made a clean sweep of the second round of the Colombian elections, winning the highest vote ever received by a president. He seduced the electorate on Sunday with a message of national unity.

But Santos's victory is controversial. During his term as minister of defence, it emerged that the army had murdered more than 2,000 civilians over several years, passing them off as rebels.

Under President Àlvaro Uribe's "democratic security" policy, soldiers are rewarded according to the number of rebels they kill, a practice called "positivos".

The scandal known as "falsos positivos" erupted late in 2008 when 19 young men were reported missing in the municipality of Soacha, only to reappear as rebels killed in action a day later, on the other side of the country.

"Those young people were contacted by guys that were related to the army and they were delivered to them," says Maria Victoria Llorentes, executive director of the think tank Ideas para la Paz, which monitors the Colombian armed conflict.

But the army is also under tremendous pressure to defeat the rebels. Uribe and now Santos have made this the cornerstone of their mandate.

"Uribe has been pushing the military forces a lot for results. Previous presidents were not pressing as hard; he is really obsessed with these figures," says Llorentes

Juan Manuel Santos reacted quickly when the scandal emerged. He fired leading members of the military staff and forced the commander of the armed forces, General Mario Montoya, to "resign". Santos also created a new human rights doctrine for the armed forces in late 2008.

But doubts remain over how much he knew.

"Santos only took action once the killings went public," says Hollman Morris, a journalist and strong critic of Uribe's presidency. "Why only in 2008? What happened to the internal control mechanisms of the armed forces? You could think they hushed it up."

Close your eyes

On the contrary, Roy Barreras, a senator and member of Santos's political party, defends him. "The minister of defence of this government was the one who denounced the falsos positivos, which had been happening for a long time. He warned about the phenomenon and stopped it."

The murders outraged Colombia's educated classes, who denounced them in the media, but they left the rest of the country indifferent.

"It was like, yes, it's horrible and everything, but that is it. Life goes on," says Maria Victoria Llorentes. "The feeling against the Farc [Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia] is so strong. In fact, that is why Santos is winning. The rest of the people couldn't care less."

"The feeling of greater security and safety that Uribe and Santos were able to transmit weighs more than the scandal," says Angelika Rettberg, a political analyst at Los Andes University.

"There is also something classist about it: these kids are mainly poor kids, so it makes it easier for people to close their eyes."

Yet many people feel not enough was done.

"In Israel, for the murder of nine activists on the flotillas, they are asking for the prime minister to resign. And here in Colombia where thousands died, we elect Santos as president," says William Salamanca, 43, a taxi driver.

It is the question of political responsibility that remains most troubling. No one knows who should take the blame for the falsos positivos.

But a recent verdict condemning General Plazas Vega for murders committed by the army during the siege of the Palace of Justice in Bogotà in 1985 is setting a new precedent.

Will President Juan Manuel Santos be held accountable in the future for the falsos positivos?

Getty
Show Hide image

Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle