At first glance, Alvaro Uribe Velez and Francisco Santos Calderón hardly seem the perfect pair. While Uribe has been described as a stiff, conservative hard-liner, Santos, with his long hair and inviting smile, is a little more touchy-feely. However, as the May 26 first round of the Colombian presidential elections approaches, the duo sits atop opinion polls. Vice presidential candidate Santos balances presidential aspirant Uribe, a seasoned politician who has headlined his campaign with a stern promise to crack down on leftist guerrilla groups. The two hope to effect change with “a firm hand and a big heart,” as their campaign slogan boasts. This unlikely partnership began nearly a dozen years ago, not in the trenches of Colombian politics, but around the dinner table and in classrooms when both men were studying at Harvard.
Even while in full campaign mode—and coping with a recent attempt on Uribe’s life—Santos took time to answer written questions (in his native Spanish) about how his months at Harvard shaped current Colombian politics.
Santos arrived at Harvard in 1991 shortly after being kidnapped and held for eight months by Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar. Santos, who had been working as a journalist for Colombia’s largest newspaper, El Tiempo, studied at Harvard as a Nieman Fellow. During that same year, Uribe came to Cambridge to study business administration at the Extension School. The two met and became acquainted at dinners for Colombian students during the six months that their stays overlapped.
The ever-volatile situation in Colombia contrasted starkly with the comparatively quiet atmosphere of Cambridge. Santos describes his time at Harvard as “a special time in my life.” Besides serving as a meeting place for him and Uribe, Harvard “was fundamental to my intellectual development,” he says. “Everything I learned here was important.” He fondly remembers taking courses spanning topics from Latin American history to the history of jazz. “I wanted to increase my general knowledge of all subjects which interested me. I never thought about beginning a political career while I was at Harvard,” he says—though he took courses in political science and negotiation.
Santos returned to his post at El Tiempo—which is currently owned by Santos’ family—while his future running mate and former dinner companion Uribe followed his political aspirations and became the governor of the Colombian state of Antioquia. Fate brought Santos closer to a political career in 1996, when he participated in a march against kidnapping in Antioquia, where Uribe was governor. “Back then, Alvaro committed himself body and soul to these marches,” Santos says. “My wife, who also knew Uribe (we had all met up at Harvard), had organized a different march at Medellín, so she was the most direct contact with Uribe in this process.” The next year Santos returned to Antioquia to write a column about Uribe. “At this point,” he says, “I was able to experience first-hand what kind of politician he was.” And Santos certainly does gush about his running mate: “He is a politician who makes good on his promises, a politician of character, with nothing to hide—a politician with a capital P!”
The relationship between Uribe and Santos became strong enough that when Uribe asked Santos to be his running mate, Santos “seized the opportunity” on something of an emotional whim. “I think if [the decision] had been a totally rational one, I wouldn’t have gone into politics,” Santos says. “Here, to be a politician is very risky.” Indeed, only last week the two survived a bomb attack on their motorcade. “Though our lives are in danger at every second,” Santos says, “my interest in helping this country go forward goes before personal, family, professional and the paper’s interests.”