By Robert Valencia
Last week, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos announced that his administration would consider whether the position of vice president in Colombia’s current and future governments is still necessary. In an interview with Colombian newspaper El Tiempo, President Santos explained that having just a presidential designate—that is, someone who can succeed the president in case of the latter’s partial or absolute absence—would be better than having a vice president’s office because it’s “less costly.” He added that in the 1991 Constitution, the vice president’s office was “ill-designed”. Many Colombians question the stability of current Vice President Angelino Garzón due to his health condition, erratic decision-making, and failed attempts to ease the festering feud between Santos and his predecessor Alvaro Uribe. The role of the vice president needs to be reexamined in Colombia—as well as in other Latin American countries—but the discussion shouldn’t hinge on personal disagreements.
Uribe has been a staunch critic of Santos’ recent policies, such as his restored friendship with Hugo Chávez, his reopening of peace talks with the guerilla group FARC, and his 2011 enactment of a law granting land restitutions to those displaced by the near half decade-long conflict with FARC. Uribe believes that all of these measures jeopardize the national agenda to foster democracy and that the only way to achieve peace is through law enforcement and stronger judicial processes. Though Garzón had no previous connection with Uribe surrounding these policies, he attempted to mediate between Uribe and Santos by proposing a bill to amend the constitution and its judicial system in order to appease both leaders. Instead, his bill only signaled the stark difference between Garzón and Santos.
It’s no coincidence that Angelino Garzón’s role in the Santos administration has preserved the influence of Uribe’s policies. During the Uribe administration, Garzón helped start negotiations for the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement that was later approved by Santos. Uribe then appointed him as Colombia’s permanent representative to the United Nations in Geneva from 2009 until 2010, when he joined Santos in the presidential ticket. Garzón’s support for a constitutional amendment to reform the judicial system—strongly supported by Uribe-leaning lawmakers—raises questions whether Garzón is leaning toward Uribe’s politics, which have always opposed the way Santos rules the country. Garzón’s role in the Santos-Uribe strife is thrown into further question by his recurrent health problems. Garzón underwent surgery to relieve cardiac pain soon after his inauguration as vice president in 2010 and was kept under intensive care for almost a month this June after suffering an ischemic stroke caused by a blood clot in his brain.
Garzón belongs to a rare breed of Colombian vice presidents who have tried to play a major role in their administration’s decision-making process. However, his volatile behavior toward other ministers’ work, criticism of several social programs by President Santos, fragile health, and ties with Uribe have jeopardized the future of the vice presidential seat. Historically, of the 56 administrations in Colombia’s history, only 10 have had a vice president and only three of those— José Manuel Marroquín, Miguel Antonio Caro, and Ramón González Valencia—took over the presidential seat following coups d’etat or presidents’ illnesses in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Despite the pivotal role of the vice president during the Thousand Days’ War between 1899 and 1902, the office was abolished right after the end of that conflict. The office of the vice president was finally restored in 1991, but has rarely been significant in Colombian politics since then.
Two administrations after 1991, a vice president began to emerge as a crucial player. During the Álvaro Uribe administration, Francisco Santos Calderón—Juan Manuel Santos’ cousin—was an active advocate of Plan Colombia, the multi-million dollar U.S. aid program to help combat cocaine producers and FARC, and social-related initiatives to halt drug production. Calderón also worked on the Parapolítica trials, in which politicians were found to have close ties with paramilitary groups and the drug trade. Calderón’s vice presidency, however, was mired with controversy. His comments on whether Colombia should reevaluate its relationship with the United States should the latter not approve the bilateral Free Trade Agreement sparked a rebuttal from President Uribe and other national leaders. Calderón was also accused of having ties with the late Carlos Castaño, leader of the paramilitary group ACCU. Since leaving office, Santos Calderón—like President Uribe—has continued to wield a public voice, making a controversial comment in 2011 about President Santos’ inability to halt student protests against a divisive educational reform. He later withdrew the statement and apologized to the Colombian media and the students.
Within Latin America, Colombia is not the only country that has contemplated removing the seat of vice president. In Chile, the vice president’s permanent seat was eliminated under the 1833 constitution. Mexico only had seven vice presidents before the position was abolished during the Queretaro Congress of 1917. In Argentina, the vice president is still an active figure, but with an irregular presence; the seat was either vacant or absent from 1861-62, 1966-1973, and 1974-1983. Brazil abolished the vice presidency in 1934 and restored it in 1946. In Venezuela, under Hugo Chávez’s “Fifth Republic,” there hasn’t been a single influential vice president. Seven vice presidents have come and gone since Chávez took power in 1999, each of them being replaced after a year of service without explanation.
The reasons for the possible removal of Garzon’s office seem personal, stemming from Garzon’s close ties with former President Uribe. President Santos even sponsored Garzon’s candidacy to chair the International Labor Organization at the expense of the state (a $100 million campaign), in an attempt to displace Garzón from his vice presidential seat. If the Colombian congress—with some members eagerly supporting the measure—approves the removal, it will also undermine Alvaro Uribe’s plans of running for vice president in 2014.
The vice president should not be in constant opposition with the president: A congruent administration is helpful in improving the well-being of its citizens. But in the case of Colombia, the decision to annul the vice presidency should not be based on personal contention. The vice president’s future must be determined based on whether the position places a heavy fiscal burden on taxpayers and its real impact in the decision-making process. For now, it seems that the fate of the vice president is following the typical cyclical pattern in Colombia and elsewhere in Latin America. Such figures are created in hopes of shoring up a country’s national policies, but the president and his last word far outweighs the second-in-command’s opinion, leading the office of the vice president to an apparent dead end.
Robert Valencia is a Research Fellow at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs and is a contributing writer for Global Voices. He also has a personal blog called My Humble Opinion.