In 1935 Franklin Roosevelt told a Democratic Party convention that his New Deal social, labor and public works programs had enraged the "economic oligarchs" of the United States. Coming from that very class, Roosevelt sardonically "welcomed" the hatred of his class, and with noblesse oblige, realpolitik, and a huge heart, forged the American progressive social contract that allowed capitalism and democracy to coexist throughout the 20th century. His New Deal begat Lyndon Johnsons' Great Society: both, which involved spending government revenue on people and passing laws to regulate the environment, finance and markets, made good on the American self-image of meritocracy and social mobility. Because of its widespread capacity to limit social conflict and polarization, Roosevelt and Johnsons' social contract gained the buy-in of ardent Republicans -- Nixon and even Reagan -- before their party succumbed to the chaos created by today's fringe elements.
Decades later, the old consensus has morphed into one best embodied by the Clinton-Blair-Cardoso "Third Way" of "as much market as possible and as much state as is necessary." That quote comes from President Juan Manuel Santos, a scion of one of Colombia's wealthiest families, who having burnished his hard-line credentials as Alvaro Uribe's war minister, is now leading Colombia through a transformative moment in its history. His government and the FARC, working for two years in Havana, have now negotiated three of the four major planks of a peace agreement after fifty years of insurgency and war that has produced millions of victims among dead, kidnapped, tortured, displaced, and impoverished Colombians.
Earlier this week in New York, I heard Santos talk about concepts like eliminating poverty, reducing inequality, instituting land reform, and making education accessible to all Colombians. His discourse, and hopefully the policies to implement it, represent a striking contrast to what I heard in Medellin only a few years ago when the suggestion that land reform might help reduce rural conflict elicited accusations of sympathy for the FARC. Or when visiting Bogota with a retired American general and a Wall Street financier, a group of business leaders told us not to worry that (then) some 30 percent of Colombians lived on less than 2 dollars a day. Why? As one put it, "2 dollars a day goes a lot farther in Colombia than it does in New York City."
Eighty years ago, Roosevelt fought against that kind of cavalier disregard. Santos clearly rejects it and understands the link between peace, democracy and social inclusion. It is too soon to say that he is Colombia's Roosevelt. But by challenging the status quo that his own class has sustained and benefited from, and by trying to move Colombia down the arduous and unpredictable road away from political, narco and terrorist violence toward reconciliation, Santos' world class political courage impresses and reassures even this skeptic.
This article was originally published in Portuguese in Folha de São Paulo. It is originally available here.