Colombians at home, abroad don_t see eye-to-eye on fate of country

President Juan Manuel Santos began his second term Thursday promising to spend the next four years governing for _all Colombians._ But there_s one group he won_t be leading: expats.

Despite his victory in the June 15 polls by more than 1 million votes, Santos lost miserably with Colombians living abroad _ and nowhere was that loss more dramatic than in the United Sates.

During the runoff against Oscar Iv__n Zuluaga _ who was backed by popular former President _lvaro Uribe _ Santos eked out just 22 percent of the U.S. vote versus his rival_s 76 percent.

Now, as Santos tries to rally the nation and the world around a complex and sometimes controversial peace process with the country_s guerrillas, winning over Colombians abroad _ a significant and influential group _ could be tantamount.

In 2012, the Foreign Ministry estimated there were about 4.7 million Colombians living abroad, or about 10 percent of the population. A third of the diaspora lives in the United States, followed by Spain, Venezuela, Ecuador and Canada.

Many who left did so in the 1990s and the early part of this century when Colombia was on the verge of becoming a failed state. As narco-cash sloshed through the economy, left-wing guerrillas and right-wing paramilitary groups battled for control and the body-count soared. Bombs were going off in the capital on a regular basis.

For those who fled the violence, the single most important issue is security and eradicating the guerrilla threat, said Eleuterio de la Cruz, the president of the Colombian-American Association of Florida. And many are fearful that the current peace process will backfire as it did under the Andr__s Pastrana administration (1998_2002) when the the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia or FARC used a lull in fighting to regroup and rearm.

Instead, they long for Santos_ tough-talking predecessor Uribe, who helped break the back of guerrilla violence with military might. When Uribe backed Zualuga in the campaign, Colombian expats fell in line.

_Here, abroad, there_s a huge admiration for Uribe, so whatever he does people will follow,_ de la Cruz said. _We admired his strong hand against the FARC._

In Colombia, Uribe_s legacy is more complicated. While he remains one of the country_s most popular politicians, he_s also been hounded by scandals. His intelligence services were caught tapping the phones of journalists, judges and political opponents. And he_s been accused of having ties to right-wing paramilitary groups. Those allegations may get a very public airing as his foes in congress are pushing for a debate about the issue.

But those concerns don_t resonate abroad, said Alfredo Mantilla, editor of the Doral-based El Periodico newspaper that caters to the Colombian community in South Florida.

_If you ask a Colombian in the United States if they have any concerns about some of the dark spots in Uribe_s record _ the corruption, the allegations _ they will tell you it doesn_t matter,_ he said. _All they care about is security._

It_s ironic that Santos should be perceived as weak on security. He was Uribe_s minister of defense and responsible for some of the boldest attacks against the guerrillas. During his first race, in 2010, he ran on his record as a hawk. But midway through his first term, he announced that peace talks in Havana were in the works.

Uribe, who had been his backer, turned on him, painting him as a backstabbing flip-flopper.

_When people refer to Santos here, they use the same words as Uribe,_ Mantilla said. _They call him a traitor._

While Santos may be seen as weak abroad, here the move is often viewed as deft political work.

_For those of us who didn_t vote for him, the Santos of 2010 was a revelation,_ wrote influential Semana columnist Mar__a Jimena Duz__n. _For those who did vote for him, he was a disappointment that turned into betrayal._

There_s also the question of vantage point. It_s no secret that South Florida often sees the world through Cuba-colored lens, said Susan Purcell, the director of the Center for Hemispheric Policy at the University of Miami. The fact that the government is holding the peace process in Havana and that Venezuela is one of the guarantors of the deal is viewed with alarm.

_Here, the Cuban lens is fairly strong and that has enhanced distrust because they [Colombians] don_t trust Cuba and they certainly don_t trust Venezuela,_ she said. _It_s a more conservative environment in South Florida._

She also speculated that expats have access to media with broader perspectives. Colombia_s press tends to be quite concentrated and, in general, backs the peace process.

Santos has recognized that he has a communication problem. While the peace talks in Havana dominate headlines, they also obscure some of the administration_s victories on the battlefield, Mantilla said.

But Santos has also put less energy into wooing the expat support. While Uribe and Zuluaga visited the United States, and particularly South Florida, multiple times in the months leading up to the race, Santos logged fewer visits.

Administration officials are aware of the problem and there are plans to try to reach out to South Florida Colombians to better explain the peace process. And Santos did visit Miami in July, after the election, to attend a Goldman Sachs investment conference.

Santos didn_t directly refer to Colombians abroad in his inaugural speech, but he did appeal for their support.

_There are people who like me and people who don_t like me,_ Santos said, _but that doesn_t matter because we all like Colombia and that_s why we must work together._

It_s unclear, however, if Colombia_s expats are ready to follow.

Miami Herald | BY JIM WYSS

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