President Juan Manuel Santos Repositions Colombia in Region

By Gaudin, Andres | NotiSur - South American Political and Economic Affairs, January 14, 2011 | Go to article overview

President Juan Manuel Santos Repositions Colombia in Region


Gaudin, Andres, NotiSur - South American Political and Economic Affairs


Colombia is no longer the country that South Americans think of only for its persistent human rights violations, unconditional political alignment with the US, and the 50-year internal conflict that has cost tens of thousands of lives. It is not that those realities have disappeared, that they do not exist. It is, simply, that, with the departure of former President Alvaro Uribe (2002-2010) in August 2010 and the arrival of President Juan Manuel Santos NotiSur, July 2, 2010 , Colombia has turned an important page in its history.

The country still has its dark chapters, such as the possibility of granting a reprieve or other type of pardon to some 30,000 former paramilitary fighters responsible for crimes against humanity, or the only partial admission of the deep social roots of the internal conflict and the insistence on resolving it militarily.

But Santos repositioned the country on the international stage, reduced the most polemic issues of Uribe's political agenda with the US, and did nothing to prevent light being shed on the most serious scandals of the administration that preceded his. None of this would attract attention if Santos had not been Uribe's defense minister and handpicked candidate to replace him.

Santos repairs fractured relations with neighbors

The opinion is almost unanimous, even among the opposition, that Santos' major achievements in his five months in office are primarily in international relations, an opinion supported by evidence and not just perceptions.

In his first week in office, the new president was able to mend fences with neighboring Venezuela and Ecuador. Serious tensions with Venezuela had been a permanent feature of the eight-year Uribe presidency and, in the days prior to Santos taking office, escalated to such an extent that many in the region saw an armed confrontation as inevitable. Diplomatic relations had been frozen since March 2008, when Colombia's military entered Ecuadoran territory and bombed a camp of the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC), killing 22 people, including Raul Reyes, a top FARC leader NotiSur, March 7, 2008.

In that incident, which mobilized all of South America to defend the territorial integrity of Ecuador, Santos was a central figure: he planned the attack with information provided by the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), ordered the troops to enter Ecuadoran territory, and justified the operation in international arenas. As a result of the operation, Santos has an outstanding international warrant requested by the Ecuadoran judiciary.

Despite this history, but confident that he would not be detained, Santos visited Ecuadoran President Rafael Correa and extended a hand toward restoring longstanding normal diplomatic and trade relations.

With Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, the dialogue also improved immediately. Today, Chavez calls Santos "my friend," and Santos says that Chavez is "my new best friend." During the Uribe presidency, Santos had referred to Chavez as an "authoritarian president," and Chavez called Santos a pitiyanqui, a pejorative Central American and Caribbean expression for those who reject their culture and customs and try to emulate the US lifestyle.

In a poll published by the magazine Semana and reproduced by Italian news agency ANSA, in early November, 83% of Colombian respondents praised the country's new foreign policy and the end of tensions with Venezuela.

"Santos' actions in international politics have been spectacular; it was almost unthinkable that he would make such a notable change of direction regarding Uribe," said Augusto Ramirez Ocampo, ex-minister of foreign relations. The head of Colombian diplomacy during the administration of former President Belisario Betancur (1982-1986) also praised the change in bilateral Colombia-US relations, dominated during the Uribe years by the signing of a free-trade agreement (FTA) and Colombia's generous concession of a network of seven military bases for the use of US troops NotiSur, July 31, 2009.

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