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Latin America’s Beacon of Change

BOGOTA – Next month, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos will host the sixth Summit of the Americas. Every Latin American leader except Cuba’s – 32 altogether – will attend to discuss an ambitious agenda of regional cooperation. The event could mark the high point of Santos’s 19-month-old presidency.

External perceptions of Colombia have improved markedly over the past decade, reflected in rising foreign investment and exports, both of which reached their highest levels ever in 2011. Colombia is no longer seen as a problem country whose neighbors fear destabilization from its guerrillas and narcotics traffickers. Moreover, its democracy has matured, and its economy is advancing toward modernity, driven by an economic bonanza of mineral resources, mainly oil, coal, and gold.

Colombian diplomacy is experiencing a golden era as well. Santos has improved relations with neighboring countries and the Andean sub-region as a whole, despite deep ideological disagreement with these countries’ leaders – Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez, Ecuador’s Rafael Correa, Bolivia’s Evo Morales, and Peru’s Ollanta Humala.

Each of these leaders governs his country in the region’s nationalist tradition of caudillo rule. They also employ an economic model that, unlike the neo-liberalism that Santos promotes, distrusts the free market and – especially in the case of Chávez and Morales – hinders free trade. The differences extend to other vital questions as well, such as their conception of democracy and their relations with the United States.

Colombia maintains close ties with the US, which has provided $6 billion in aid over the past ten years – almost all of it coming in the form of military assistance – to strengthen the government’s ability to confront the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC, Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) and drug traffickers. Moreover, the two countries have just ratified a free-trade agreement. By contrast, for Chávez and, to a lesser degree, other Andean leaders (Peru being a notable exception), the behemoth to the north is a dangerous imperialist enemy.

Santos’s predecessor, Álvaro Uribe, endured tensions with Venezuela and Ecuador because of their alleged support for the FARC, a Marxist-Leninist guerilla insurgency that funds itself largely through drug trafficking. Colombia’s diplomatic relations with both countries were suspended, and Chávez’s support of the FARC, which suffered its worst military defeats during Uribe’s eight years as President, brought the country to the brink of war with Venezuela.

But, in August 2010, just days after taking office, Santos abandoned Uribe’s confrontational attitude and worked to normalize relations with Colombia’s neighbors. He prepared an agenda of cooperation on multiple issues, including security as a top priority. Ecuador and Venezuela, interested in putting the conflict behind them, began to participate in operations against illegal groups – leftist guerrillas, right-wing paramilitary forces, and drug traffickers – that use their frontiers to elude Colombia’s armed forces.

Santos was a political ally of Uribe’s, and served as Defense Minister in his administration, but, as President, he has radically transformed the country’s foreign policy. He has set aside Uribe’s overly ideological approach and combative rhetoric, instead adopting a pragmatic attitude aimed at fostering good relations with his counterparts.

In addition, Santos has embraced a more diverse agenda, rather than focusing on security matters and military cooperation with the US, as Uribe had. As a result of his policies, Colombia’s diplomatic stature has grown. The country has become a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council; a former foreign minister, María Emma Mejía, is now Secretary General of the Union of South American Nations; and Santos himself has visited more foreign countries and attended more multilateral forums than any Colombian leader since independence 201 years ago.

For a year and a half, Santos’s policies have been advancing in concentric circles. After normalizing ties with neighboring countries, he began to address regional issues, softening Uribe’s radical and unpopular positions. Now he is seeking closer ties with regions and powers beyond the Americas. Colombia is currently in line to enter the OECD and Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation.

These projects will not be realized immediately. To succeed, Santos will need to demonstrate persistence throughout his second term, if, as expected, he is re-elected in 2014. Some critics believe that Santos’s intentions are too ambitious, or that they are unsustainable in the long run. But his results, and the domestic and foreign support that his changes have received, suggest that he is headed in the right direction. Indeed, one hopes that others will follow his example.