In Colombia, Prudent Politics From Uribe's Successor

Alvaro Uribe became so popular for marginalizing Colombia's guerilla insurgency that he tried to change the Constitution and run for a third term as president. When the courts nixed that, Uribe put his political heft behind his defense minister, Juan Manuel Santos, who this summer won 70 percent of the vote. The result was expected for the new bearer of the Uribe brand. But Santos' swift shifts from that brand have since left even seasoned observers scratching their heads.

"He's doing something that the public wasn't asking for and the polls don't reflect. It's remarkable," says Adam Isacson of the Washington Office on Latin America.

Santos has reached out to human rights workers and justice officials with whom Uribe had long been at odds, and pushed to repair severed relations with Uribe foe Hugo Chavez. Most surprisingly, he introduced one law—which Uribe has criticized—offering identical compensation for victims of guerilla as well as state crimes and another to return land to displaced farmers that could anger wealthy rural elites crucial to Uribe's base.

Much is prudent politics: Humanitarian issues have stalled a free trade agreement in the U.S. Congress, and a thaw with Venezuela could open an export market and ease a 1,375-mile-border concern. But Santos was a political heavyweight well before coming into Uribe's fold, and he has developed the security chops to manage Colombia's protracted conflict. Now that there's breathing room, he can make his mark by going after its roots.

"Santos made his own decision to be more than just hard-nosed on the military side—that he was going to try and build a much more balanced and effective framework to bringing the conflict to an end," says Mark Schneider of the International Crisis Group. "He wants to, as quickly as possible, show that he's his own man."

The clock is ticking. Uribe reportedly plans to return to politics soon and has hinted at a 2011 bid for the powerful Bogota mayor's office, which sits just down the road from the presidential palace.