Colombia and its president, Juan Manuel Santos, are riding high. The armed forces have killed Alfonso Cano, leader of the FARC, the guerrilla movement which, thanks to international support and drug money, has been fighting the Colombian state for 40 years. Cano was the fourth high-level FARC leader eliminated in recent years, following Raúl Reyes, Manuel Marulanda and Jorge Briçeño. For practical purposes, these blows have beheaded the FARC; the two principal remaining leaders, Iván Márquez and Timoshenko, are in Venezuela, and are lacking in authority to really command the 6,000-7,000 guerillas still in the ranks of the FARC. The demobilization and possible negotiation that Santos has called for may well mean the end of Latin America's oldest guerrilla force, within the next few months.
Just previously, Santos had kept one of his most controversial campaign promises: to dismantle the Colombian intelligence service DAS, which had been involved in numerous corruption scandals, illegal telephone tapping and acts of violence under previous governments. A new security and intelligence agency is to be built from scratch. It remains to be seen just how clean this will be, but the end of the DAS was a necessary though not sufficient condition for improvement.
About a month ago, Colombia achieved the long-awaited ratification of the Free Trade Agreement with the US, suspended since the beginning of Bush Jr's second mandate. US congressional opposition to the treaty stemmed from two roots: the US unions, and human rights concerns. At last, Santos reached an agreement with Obama to the effect that his government's behavior in connection with union and human rights would be monitored for a year after the agreement is ratified.
Santos now enjoys improved, if necessarily somewhat distant, relations with groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch - so much so that the latter held its annual meeting for 2011 in Colombia - thanks to real advances in human rights made under his mandate.
Of these, the most important, which will really come into its own only if the guerrillas are wholly defeated or capitulate, is the Law for Reparations to Victims and Restitution of Lands, which Santos has pushed through Congress. This law is of immense importance, given the three-to-four million people displaced, widowed, orphaned and otherwise affected during the last 40 years. Compensation paid to victims and the restitution of small parcels of land will be a long way from justice, but is more than any state in Latin America has attempted on this scale, and is Santos' most audacious promise so far.
But his big challenge is that of reducing the terrible inequality in Colombia (the real origin of its chronic wars), and its poverty of infrastructure and education. Despite recent economic growth, the country still lags far behind others like Chile, Mexico, Brazil and Uruguay, where the middle classes now constitute an actual majority. The contrast with Chile is especially revealing, and shows the importance of political and intellectual leadership. For all the economic advances in recent decades, Chilean society is fed up. The president, Sebastián Piñera, is cornered by a wave of protest against an educational system that is bad, expensive and discriminatory.
Both Santos and Piñera are center-right politicos from good families who have experience in the business world. They have US college degrees, speak perfect English, and are at ease outside their respective countries. One is giving exemplary leadership to a still partly dysfunctional country; the other is at the helm of a Swiss clockwork nation, unique in Latin America; but his leadership seems deficient. In other words, politics counts - or as some might say, "It's the politics, stupid!"