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.