In Colombia, the War Between the Presidents

Ex-President Uribe has several bones to pick with the man whom he annointed as his succesor, incumbent President Santos

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Colombian President-elect Juan Manuel Santos (L) listens to outgoing President Alvaro Uribe (R) at the handover ceremony of the Colombian Armed Forces supreme command at a military school in Bogota on August 6, 2010, on the eve of his government's inauguration.

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos owes his job to a fruitful partnership. From 2006-09, he served as Defense Minister for then-President Alvaro Uribe, one of Colombia‘s most popular modern leaders. Together they directed a military surge that drove back Marxist guerrillas and paved the way for Colombia’s economic revival – as well as for Santos’ election in 2010. In his victory speech, Santos gave Uribe his props, saying: “If we have come so far it is because we have been standing on the shoulders of giants.”

The giant is stirring once more but this time, instead of stalking insurgents, Uribe is determined to take down his former military chief. Accusing Santos of going soft on national security and of betraying Uribe’s legacy, the former president last week announced the formation of a new political party whose goal is to stop Santos from winning re-election in 2014. Uribe served two four-year terms (2002-10) and is constitutionally barred from running again. But his new Pure Democratic Center party intends to field presidential and congressional candidates who are more in line with his hard-right ideology versus Santos’ more moderate path. In a recent speech to hundreds of supporters at Bogotá’s elite Nogal Club, Uribe said: “I just want to be another worker in this struggle.”

But it’s clear Uribe is the ringleader of what some view as an outlandish crusade. Imagine Ronald Reagan coming out of retirement in 1992 to campaign against the re-election of his former Vice President, George H.W. Bush. In Colombia, as in most countries, members of the ex-presidents club are usually content to serve as prudent elder statesmen or diplomats removed from day-to-day politics. Colombian novelist Héctor Abad has likened these former heads of state to antique furniture, revered for their noble appearance but falling apart and best kept in the attic.

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Uribe, 60, never wanted to join their ranks. He spent much of his second term trying to change the constitution so he could run for a third, which he almost certainly would have won. When Colombia’s Supreme Court nixed that effort, Uribe threw his support behind Santos. But rather than be a stand-in for his former boss, Santos has charted his own course. Deciding that Uribe’s cold war with Venezuela’s socialist President, Hugo Chávez, was pointless and bad for business, Santos has normalized relations his neighbor. Unlike Uribe, Santos is willing to consider peace talks with the guerrillas and pays far more attention to international diplomacy and human right issues. Even more infuriating for Uribe is that under Santos, several of his former top aides and ministers have been indicted for crimes ranging from corruption to spying on political opponents.

Addicted to Twitter, Uribe has used the social network to defend his legacy and slam Santos. A recent study commissioned by the Foreign Ministry determined that 34% of the negative online news coverage about the Santos government over the past eight months was generated by scathing comments on Uribe’s Twitter account. “It’s very sad that it’s Colombians themselves that generate the negative comments which affect efforts to bring more investment and generate more employment,” said Foreign Minister María Ángela Holguín.

Uribe has been especially concerned about an increase in bombings and ambushes by guerrillas of the Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces, or FARC. Though debilitated by the Uribe-era military offensive, the FARC rakes in millions from the illegal drug trade and is nowhere near defeated. Uribe also claims that government troops are demoralized and can’t wage an all-out fight against the FARC due to increased scrutiny over human rights violations. “How can there be security when this government is more concerned with rejecting criticism than fighting terrorism?” Uribe told the Nogal Club audience. “How can there be security when our soldiers know about the government’s intention to negotiate with terrorists?”

(MORE: Have Colombia’s Rebels Really Given Up on Kidnapping?)

Santos maintains he would launch peace talks only if the FARC is serious about disarming. He also acknowledges that he needs to pay closer attention to security issues. Uribe’s remarks, in fact, took place at a reception for his former interior minister, Fernando Londoño, who was badly injured in May when terrorists detonated a bomb that destroyed his armored SUV on a busy Bogotá street. But Santos contends that by trashing his government, Uribe and his supporters are dividing the country and playing into the hands of the guerrillas. “What’s not acceptable,” Santos said recently, “is for the issue of terrorism to be used for political and electoral ends.”

For now, Santos seems to hold the upper hand. One recent poll put his job-approval rating at 67%. And while Uribe’s coattails helped Santos win the 2010 election by a landslide, the former president’s considerable popularity hasn’t carried other politicians since then. The candidates he’s loudly endorsed for mayor of Bogotá and other important posts have gone down to defeat. Lacking a charismatic challenger to Santos, Uribe’s movement may have trouble gaining traction in the 2014 presidential race.

Meanwhile, many Colombians view their political mudwrestling as pointless. Even the Roman Catholic Church has weighed in: Monsignor Juan Vicente Córdoba, head of Colombia’s Catholic Bishop’s Conference, recently called on Uribe and Santos to work out their differences. “These are two people who have both done a lot of good for the country,” he said. But for now, a truce between Colombia’s two political giants looks remote at best.

MORE: Colombia Gets Ready for Life After Uribe