A new look for Colombia, U.S. relations

By Michael Shifter
Thursday, August 12, 2010

Juan Manuel Santos is not wasting any time. Three days after being inaugurated as Colombia's president, he met Tuesday with Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez; the two leaders restored diplomatic ties and reviewed how to better manage their countries' often volatile relationship. U.S. relations with Colombia -- Washington's major Latin American ally over the past decade -- may be on the verge of some important changes as well.

Chávez broke off diplomatic relations two weeks ago after Colombia publicly accused Venezuela of harboring rebels of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). But the tough charges were the last hurrah of Colombia's outgoing "democratic security" president, Álvaro Uribe. Ironically, Santos -- who was the notoriously hard-line defense minister under Uribe and won the presidency largely thanks to his immensely popular predecessor -- is shifting gears and adopting the role of conciliator and diplomat in dealing with Chávez.

While Santos is familiar with Chávez's unpredictability and knows as well as anyone where the FARC rebels are and what they are up to, he also knows the economic stakes for Colombia: Bilateral trade with Venezuela has dropped from $7 billion in 2008 to less than $2 billion today. Santos and Foreign Minister Maria Angela Holguin, who served as Colombia's ambassador in Venezuela, intend to remain vigilant on FARC while using diplomacy to build confidence between the countries. One promising step was the leaders' agreement to set up a "security commission" to monitor the often chaotic and violent border.

Yet in seeking to ease tensions with Chávez, Santos faces a fundamental dilemma: balancing a more diplomatic approach toward Venezuela with an overall strategic alignment with the United States. Chávez surely will continue to challenge such an alignment and try to curtail U.S. influence in the region. The Colombian "special relationship" with the United States, cultivated during the Bush administration, when Latin America often viewed Uribe as doing Washington's bidding, does not help Santos's pursuit of a more balanced foreign policy. Although the United States has been Colombia's closest ally in fighting rebels and drugs, for Colombia the relationship often resulted in isolation from neighbors.

Santos is moving to distance himself from the man he recently praised as "Colombia's second-greatest liberator" (behind Simon Bolivar). Domestically, Santos has made clear that he does not intend to govern in Uribe's shadow. Several members of Santos's able Cabinet had fallen out with Uribe. Notably, Santos has extended an olive branch to Colombia's high courts, often the target of Uribe's verbal attacks. He has extolled the virtues of the give-and-take of democratic politics and human rights guarantees. In his inaugural address, Santos outlined significant policy changes in health care, land redistribution and the justice system, and he stressed the importance of addressing Colombia's severe social ills and creating jobs.

It won't be easy to meet these goals. For all of its economic progress and increased foreign investment in the past seven years, Colombia has one of Latin America's most unequal income distributions and highest unemployment rates. Santos may enjoy enormous goodwill, but it is not clear how hard he will push for transformation -- or how willing legislators will be to go along with his proposals. But Santos knows that he must address these problems rather than attempt to ride Uribe's security legacy. Santos himself said in June that Uribe built the runway and now Colombia can fly. Indeed, the changed emphasis is a tribute to the success of Uribe's policies.

Rebuilding relations with Venezuela is part of a broader foreign policy strategy that includes more robust relations with neighbors and normalizing relations with Ecuador, which have been rocky since 2008. Santos, who made clear that Colombia should exercise regional leadership, is committed to deepening economic and political relations with Mexico, Peru, Chile and Brazil. He also intends to engage more directly with Asia (China in particular), where Colombia has been relatively slow in taking advantage of opportunities for economic cooperation.

Santos, who attended the University of Kansas and Harvard, is expected to maintain close ties with the United States. He would welcome congressional passage of the bilateral free-trade pact (which the Colombian Congress approved in 2006) and the continuation of the decade-long Plan Colombia aid, with a greater emphasis on the social questions that are so salient on his domestic agenda.

But for all of Santos's knowledge of Washington, his foreign policy priorities seem to lie elsewhere. Colombians are tired of often-futile visits to Washington aimed at convincing U.S. lawmakers that they should back the trade deal. Santos's inaugural address did not mention the United States. As president-elect he toured European and Latin American capitals but not Washington. For Colombia, it seems, as increasingly for the rest of Latin America, it is time to move on in the world.

The writer is president of Inter-American Dialogue, a nonprofit center for Western Hemisphere policy analysis, and an adjunct professor at Georgetown University.

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