Just three weeks after Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos underwent surgery to remove a cancerous tumor from his prostate gland, Vice President Angelino Garzón announced yesterday that he may step down from office in order to undergo radiation therapy for a similar condition. He will receive 39 sessions over eight weeks.
This is the first time that the vice president has insinuated that he would leave his post; his term has been plagued with a myriad of health issues including a heart attack shortly after taking office and a stroke which left him comatose in June. While Garzón said that the cancer is not life threatening, he is “fully aware that [he] must leave up to the constitution and the law everything related to the present and future of the vice presidency of Colombia." It is not clear whether Garzón will renounce his post or whether he will let Congress—which earlier this month demanded he submit to a medical examination to determine his potential fitness to replace President Santos—make the final decision.
According to Colombia’s 1991 Constitution, the vice president is elected by popular vote on the same ticket as the president. If Garzón were to step down, his replacement would be elected by Congress to fulfill the remainder of the term. Despite the restoration in the Constitution, however, some legislators are still discussing eliminating the position if he is not able to fulfill his duties due to his health.
Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos resumed his governmental duties on Monday after undergoing surgery to remove a non-aggressive, cancerous tumor from his prostate in Bogotá last Wednesday. Following a prognosis with a 97 percent chance of a full recovery without chemotherapy or radiation, the president’s doctors deemed the surgery a success. Santos is the sixth South American president to undergo treatment this year. Presidents Hugo Chávez of Venezuela, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner of Argentina, Dilma Rousseff of Brazil, as well as former Presidents Fernando Lugo of Paraguay and Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva of Brazil have also publicly battled cancer.
While he is not allowed to travel during his three-week recovery, President Santos has resumed his domestic duties, signing 34 decrees and calling to congratulate Hugo Chávez on his victory on Sunday. He is currently preparing for the long-awaited peace negotiations between the Colombian government and the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia—FARC) which will begin in Norway on October 17. The nearly fifty-year conflict between the Colombian government and the rebels has centered on land reform, an issue which the FARC does not feel has been addressed despite the president’s 2011 land titling and redistribution program, the Victims and Land Restitution Law.
Successful negotiations would benefit President Santos’ approval ratings and the improved stability will make Colombia more attractive for investors. A boost in investment would be welcome, given the International Monetary Fund’s reduced growth predictions for the region, from 3.4 and 4.2 percent for 2012 and 2013, respectively, to 3.2 and 3.9 percent.
Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, 61, will undergo surgery in Bogotá today to remove a non-aggressive tumor located in the prostate gland. Details of the condition and the procedure were revealed by the president on Monday, hours after the tumor was discovered and only a week before the awaited peace negotiations between the Colombian government and the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia—FARC) begin in Norway.
“There's a 97 percent chance of being totally cured,” assured the president, who joined the list of Latin American past and present leaders such as Presidents Hugo Chávez and Cristina Fernández, and former Presidents Luiz Inácio Lula Da Silva and Fernando Lugo who have suffered from this condition in the past two years.
Andrés Paris, FARC’s spokesperson in Cuba, assured that the president’s health will not get in the way of the peace talks. According to Colombian affairs specialist Harvey Kline, if Santos is able to broker a peace deal with the FARC in the coming months, it will ensure his re-election in 2014. Experts estimate the FARC has today only one third of the combatants it had 10 years ago. Given the government’s military advantage over the armed group, this time a peace agreement seems increasingly plausible.
All actors, including former President Uribe—who has become the biggest opposition of Santos’ peace process—expressed their support to the president and wished for his short recovery. Santos will be conscious during the surgery and is expected to return to his residency in two or three days.
Now we know: President Hugo Chavez admitted last night that he has cancer.
A lot hinges on his recovery.
The debate - and fear - swirling around Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez's absence demonstrates the institution-less condition that twelve years of his government have left Venezuela in. Where before his absence after June 10 left the country wondering about his condition, the news now of his battle with cancer has opposition and allies alike all-too aware of his fallibility--and worrying about the polarized country's future. His absence has left a vacuum in Venezuela underscoring a system that is not only incapable of selecting a replacement but also institutionally incapable of balancing competing (some of them criminal and potentially violent) elements within the government. The risk--not just now--is that even should he return to full health, Venezuela is fast becoming a failed state, held together by one sultanistic leader and the opposition's hatred of him.
After his speech last night, the Vice President, Elias Jaua and others called for "maximum unity" in the Partido Unido Socialista de Venezuela (PSUV). That unity is likely to fray with President Chavez's uncertain recovery and his probable intermittent absence as he seeks treatment. Criminal elements within the regime are likely to pursue any means possible to avoid being revealed and relinquishing their nefarious and lucrative businesses. Already there are rumors of individuals within the government reaching out to segments of the opposition.
The situation should be a reminder, not just to the U.S. whose policy on Venezuela has been adrift the last three years but also to Venezuela's neighbors that this regime--and the eventual transition to another leader (whenever and whoever that may be)--is not likely to follow the relatively smooth patterns of the democratic transitions of the 1980s. The U.S. and neighboring governments should see this as an opportunity to begin to lay plans for how to best deal the likely implosion of the Bolivarian government, in a way that should involve efforts to form a government of national unity and rebuild consensus and the rule of law in the polarized and politicized country.
In the meantime, one of the worst things the opposition could do now is to try to force a confrontation with the government. In the past, the opposition engaged in a deluded and ultimately dangerous strategy of street politics--organizing mass protests as a sign of strength in the hopes of bringing down the government or provoking a violent reaction by elements within it. Unfortunately, on April 11, 2002 they got what they wanted--though at the cost of human life, Chavez came out the victor. Doing the same now could provoke a political crisis with dangerous consequences. Let's hope now that they have rediscovered the merits of competing in elections and have a number of new, fresh leaders that they use this opportunity to double down and focus on the presidential elections in 2012.
June 1: This AQ-Efecto Naím segment looks at sustainable cities in the hemisphere.