Santos is a new breed of diplomat at Colombia's helm

By Juan Forero
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 26, 2010; 10:09 PM

BOGOTA, COLOMBIA - The fiery socialist Hugo Chavez of Venezuela used to deride Juan Manuel Santos as the No. 1 "little Yankee.'' Now, as Colombia's new president, Santos calls Chavez "my new best friend.''

It has been an abrupt shift for Colombia, Washington's most stalwart ally in the hemisphere and the recipient of $9 billion in U.S. aid over the past three American administrations. But it has not been the only shift. In his four months in power, Santos has taken a series of stands strikingly at odds with those adopted by his predecessor, Alvaro Uribe, who was closely tied to the United States.

In two recent interviews with The Washington Post, Santos, 59, said he realizes his moves have raised eyebrows, as much here as in Washington, which has been a steady partner in Colombia's fight against drug traffickers and a Marxist insurgency. Santos's landslide victory in a June election, after all, was seen as a message of support for the policies of Uribe.

"They thought that I was going to be a surrogate of President Uribe and simply follow his policies. That was absurd from the beginning,'' Santos said. "Uribe is Uribe, and Santos is Santos, and Santos has a different approach."

But some current and former American officials say they believe the change in power in Colombia has left the United States better off, because many South American leaders viewed Uribe as overly militaristic and had come to distrust him.

In particular, Santos's decision to heal the long rift between Colombia and Venezuela has won support from the Obama administration, which sees it as playing to American benefit. The approach effectively left Chavez with little case to be made that Washington planned to use Colombia as a platform to invade his country, an argument that Chavez once frequently used to whip up his followers.

The diplomat

Santos is "doing something that's absolutely fantastic,'' Myles Frechette, a former American ambassador to Bogota, said of Santos. "He's taking Colombia into the 21st century diplomatically. He's gone out there to engage with the Brazilians and all the others."

Santos has good relations with both parties on Capitol Hill, and no U.S. lawmakers have criticized his approach. But Republicans who work on Latin American policy have disparaged the Obama administration for being too soft on Chavez.

"They think he should be more confrontational and slap Chavez down," Frechette said.

Buoyed by an approval rating topping 70 percent, the Santos administration is pushing legislative initiatives to compensate victims of Colombia's decades-long internal conflict, including those targeted by the state's security forces. Officials are also working to return to poor farmers up to 10 million acres of land stolen by corrupt politicians and local warlords. One bill winding its way through the congress would use mining royalties to help fund public education.

Rafael Pardo, a former senator who ran against Santos for the presidency, said Uribe would not have pursued those policies.

A tough conservative who looked to Washington for funding and guidance, Uribe worked tirelessly over his eight years as president to weaken a guerrilla group once thought invincible. But his policies were seen as favoring the elites, particularly wealthy landowners. His administration was also tarnished by scandals, the details of which continue to surface, and he left office with Colombia largely isolated in the region.

"Santos came from the Uribe administration, but he is executing a government completely different in style and in content," Pardo said.

From elite class

Some political analysts say the changes spring from a background markedly different from Uribe's.

While the former president comes from Colombia's conservative and influential ranching class, Santos is from a Bogota elite often at odds with rural landowners. After spending much of his life studying and working overseas, he held ministerial posts in successive governments, displaying what analysts have called a chameleon-like ability to adapt to the current political mood.

"You know, politics is an art," said Fabian Sanabria of Bogota's National University. "It is knowing how to navigate, knowing how to change when you have to change. He knows that."

As defense minister until last year, Santos ordered unprecedentedly ambitious blows against Colombia's biggest guerrilla organization, including the 2008 aerial bombardment of a jungle camp across the border in Ecuador. That strike killed a top guerrilla chief but triggered a diplomatic crisis that embroiled much of the continent.

Now, as president, Santos has shown a softer, gentler side, pressing to reestablish diplomatic relations with Ecuador, whose president was furious over the bombing. Santos has handed over secret computer files that Colombian commandos had seized from the rebels; Ecuador's president, Rafael Correa, had requested the files to help his government investigate the strike.

"Juan Manuel Santos has been a welcome surprise," Correa told a Colombian television interviewer during a recent visit to Bogota. "I think he is a person with great human warmth."

The shift on Chavez

The biggest diplomatic priority, though, has been to reestablish relations with Venezuela. That task fell to a respected career diplomat, Maria Angela Holguin, who had resigned as Uribe's ambassador to the United Nations, citing political meddling in the diplomatic service.

"We were in the worst possible situation with Chavez," Santos said in one of the two interviews with The Post. "No communication, no relations, no trade, and we were starting to talk about war, which is for me inconceivable."

Santos recounted how in his days as a journalist - he is a scion of a newspaper family here - he had criticized Chavez's approach to democracy. And as defense minister, he filtered intelligence information that seemed to show Venezuelan support for the guerrillas in Colombia.

Indeed, with concern swirling in Bogota about a possible military threat from Venezuela, Santos had also lobbied the United States for a security guarantee similar to that enjoyed by Israel and spearheaded a defense agreement that would have given the United States access to Colombian military bases, which rankled many Latin American leaders.

"Now I am not a journalist. Now I am not the minister of defense. I am the president of Colombia," Santos said. "I decided to forget what we had told each other - because it went both ways - and start a new relation."

In the end, the Obama administration never offered the guarantees that Colombia wanted, and Santos appears to have shelved the base agreement.

There is also a new outlook toward Washington, where some lawmakers were surprised when Santos approved the extradition to Venezuela of a suspected cocaine trafficker, Walid Makled, even though U.S. prosecutors had also requested his extradition. Santos said he wants a more active partnership with Washington on issues including trade and resolving regional diplomatic spats.

"We want to enhance our agenda, get out of the traditional points of the agenda that were only concentrated on drug trafficking and the fight against terrorism," Santos said.

Adam Isacson, an analyst at the Washington Office on Latin America, a group that tracks U.S. policy in the region, said the Santos and Obama administrations have new priorities that alter the long collaboration between Bogota and Washington.

Mexico, with its drug-related crisis spiraling out of control, may require more long-term U.S. attention and funding, Isacson said. He added that Colombia and the United States also say they need to place a greater priority on forging economic and diplomatic ties with the leading regional power, Brazil.

"I don't see the two countries saying no to each other on many things," said Isacson. "But I think, in general, both countries are going to be diversifying their relations in the region."

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