A recent poll by Gallup shows that the popularity of Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos has spiraled down to an astonishing 21% approval rate, his lowest since he took office in 2010. The comprehensive poll also signals that it is not just the president himself that is unpopular, but also the policy decisions he has taken on specific issues.
The likelihood that the Colombian head of state might be re-elected in 2014 (should he decide to run again) looks grim as, in spite of some diplomatic successes, domestic issues continue to cripple his presidency. Namely, the ongoing protests by the country’s farmers have spearheaded the population’s widespread discontent with Santos’ economic policies, which include a free trade agreement (FTA) with the U.S.
The farmers’ protests
A series of protests by farmers that started in the countryside in mid-August have quickly spread throughout the country, including Bogota. The peasants and farmers demand that the government review its policies regarding subsidies and free trade agreements (i.e. with the U.S.), which affect the country’s vital agricultural sector.
Specific issues of discontent are the price of fertilizers and the lack of protection from agricultural imports, such as onions, which affect the local market prices and, in turn, hurt Colombian farmers.
Additionally, policymakers have joined peasants in critiquing the FTA between the U.S. and Colombia. In a May 10 statement in the Colombian Senate’s website, Senator Jorge Enrique Robledo of the Polo Democratico Party argued that the FTA with the U.S. has had negative effects on his nation. The article provides data regarding Colombian imports from the U.S. between June 2012 and March 2013 (including products like rice, milk, poultry and pork), revealing that the amount has increased by 70% since the FTA came into effect.
In other words, the Colombian policymaker’s article indicates that Colombia is now importing more agricultural products than it is exporting due to the FTA, significantly affecting the country’s own agricultural sector.
The peasants’ protests disrupted traffic as they took over major highways and spread throughout the country. Moreover, the peasants’ protests have gained the support of the general population, shown by protests in downtown Bogota where citizens banged pots (the ever popular cacerolazos) as recently as September 4th. Additionally, the camioneros, the truck drivers that are the cornerstone of the transportation of goods, have rallied in favor of the peasants and have protested in Medellin.
In the wake of these alarming developments, Juan Manuel Santos ordered the deployment of the Colombian Army within Bogota to quell protests. The head of state presumably felt that the military’s intervention was necessary since the police have not been able to bring the protests under control.
(Two people died and around 200 were injured during protests and acts of vandalism in Bogota in late August while an additional three protesters may have died as recently as September 5 in Cauca). Nevertheless, the internal deployment of the armed forces has never been popular, given Latin America’s history, and this move likely helped the decrease of popular support against the leader.
Some successes … but concern continues
Leaving the recent protests aside for a moment, is the South American President’s growing popularity justified? From an outsider’s perspective, the South American nation would appear to be doing fairly well, particularly when compared to neighboring Venezuela, which recently suffered major blackouts.
At a diplomatic level, the country is a member of the Pacific Alliance, the newest Latin American trade bloc that is composed of the region’s economic rising stars. Meanwhile, at the domestic level, Santos’ administration has been working to reach a historic peace agreement with the FARC guerrillas.
The government’s goal is to have a peace treaty signed before December 2013. Moreover, media reports are rumoring that the government may begin peace negotiations with Colombia’s other insurgent movement, the ELN.
But the aforementioned successes have not aided the perception of Juan Manuel Santos’ presidency by the Colombian population, best exemplified by the farmers’ protests. The most recent Gallup poll demonstrates that Colombians are also concerned about a variety of issues (besides agriculture). For example, there is a rising unease regarding citizen security, which increased from 73% (a similar poll was taking in June) to 84%. Additionally, concerns about the way the economy is being handled went up from 49% to 71%.
Moreover, the Colombian-FARC negotiations are moving ahead at a snail’s pace, with few advances in the discussions’ five-point plan. In late-August, the two sides took “a break,” as Juan Manuel Santos ordered his negotiations team to return from Havana, Cuba (where the discussions are taking place). Given popular discontent with his administration, a peace agreement could save the Santos presidency, but the current situation signals that it is highly unlikely that a treaty can be reached before the end of the year.
In an August 30 tweet in the Colombian president’s official Twitter account, Juan Manuel Santos (or whoever tweets for him) posted, “We will work to create a national pact for the agricultural sector and rural development.” If Santos still plans to announce a re-election bid for the upcoming 2014 elections, the first goal is to achieve some successful agreement with the agricultural sector.