Obituary: Hernando Santos

HERNANDO SANTOS was Colombia's leading newspaper editor, but was much more than that. He was also adviser, confidant and father confessor to every President of Colombia for the past 20 years and more. He was a man of moderation, tolerance and civilised argument in a country often given to extreme antagonisms and violent solutions.

Santos was born in Bogot in 1922 into one of Colombia's leading political families, a pillar of one of the two great parties, the Liberals. His uncle, Eduardo Santos, was President of the Republic in the 1930s, but Hernando preferred to exercise influence behind the scenes, through El Tiempo, the newspaper acquired by Eduardo Santos in 1913. Hernando studied law in Bogot but never practised the profession. Instead, he went straight to El Tiempo in 1948, and was involved with the paper for the rest of his life.

El Tiempo, Colombia's biggest-selling daily, has always enjoyed great influence in Colombian political life, and never more so since Hernando Santos became editor in 1981, after serving a long apprenticeship on the newsdesk and then as deputy editor. He went into work seven days a week, and his employees sometimes suspected that he was there 24 hours a day. He regarded the newspaper as one of the fundamental institutions of Colombia's democratic system, and saw it as his responsibility to line up El Tiempo behind whoever was in power, even if it was a member of the rival Conservative Party.

The current President, Andres Pastrana, a Conservative, acknowledged as much when he commented that, although he knew Don Hernando never approved of his political ambitions (Pastrana is another media man, a former television presenter), he always valued his fatherly advice and criticism.

Santos's most controversial stand was the support he gave a Liberal President, Ernesto Samper, after he was accused of accepting millions of dollars in surreptitious campaign contributions from Colombian drug barons before the 1994 elections. The issue split the party, and Samper teetered on the brink of resignation for many months, under the threat of impeachment proceedings in congress and heavy-handed pressure from Washington, where the Clinton administration regarded him as irredeemably tainted by association with dirty money. But Santos urged him to hang on, arguing that it would do immeasurable damage to the country's democratic system if he was forced from office. Samper took his advice, served out his term and handed over to his elected successor last year.

Although he occasionally found time to attend bullfights and buy pictures by contemporary Colombian artists, which were his other great passions, Santos eventually found that being constantly at the beck and call of presidents, ministers and politicians was taking its toll. He liked to say that his epitaph should be: "Here lies Hernando Santos. Now please stop bothering me."

El Tiempo has in recent years become the centrepiece of a media and communications group that also includes interests in cable television, mobile telephones and book publishing. But Santos remained devoted to the paper. In recent years he had taken a back seat, acting as conciliator-in-chief as chairman of the board of the family firm, and writing an occasional column under the pseudonym Hersan. The last one, a meditation on the consolations of old age, appeared on the day after his death.

Control of El Tiempo remains firmly in the family, and Hernando Santos's old place as editor will be taken by two members of the next generation, his son Rafael and nephew Enrique.

Colin Harding

Hernando Santos Castillo, newspaper editor: born Bogot 12 August 1922; married 1948 Helena Caldern (died 1983; five sons, two daughters); died Bogot 20 April 1999.