Santos: 'Colombia can play a role . . . that coincides with the U.S. interest'

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 26, 2010; 7:12 PM

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, who was inaugurated Aug. 7 and has taken his country by storm with a wide array of new initiatives, spoke to The Post's Juan Forero on Dec. 6 in New York and again on Dec. 10 in the Colombian capital, Bogota.

Q: You and President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela had been bitter rivals. How did you change that relationship?

A: I told Chavez from the beginning: "Let's not pretend to change each other's minds. We think very differently on many aspects but let's respect our differences, and if we respect our differences we can have cordial relations, and that is in the best interest of both the Venezuelans and the Colombians." And that is what I have been doing, establishing a cordial relationship under the understanding that he doesn't mingle in our internal affairs and vice versa.

Q: What did you get out of this new relationship?

A: So far we have done very well in the sense that we have been starting to collaborate on aspects that for us Colombians are very important. We started having trade, he started paying our exporters, he started collaborating in security issues and for the first time he has helped us recover a couple of kidnapped people that were taken to Venezuela.

Q: You also immediately began to try to reestablish relations across the continent, though your closest ally is the United States. What's your strategy?

A: I have had extremely good relations with the United States and with both parties (Republicans and Democrats), and I hope to continue to have these good relations, which I, again repeating, do not consider to be mutually exclusive with having good relations with Venezuela or Ecuador or whichever country in South America. And as a matter of fact, President Obama, Secretary Clinton and many members of Congress have celebrated that we have improved our relations with Venezuela and with Ecuador.

Q: You speak of "enhancing" the relationship with the U.S., which has long been defined by the war on drugs. What do you mean?

A: We have improved enough [in the security situation] to be able to include other points in our bilateral agenda like education, the environment, like transfer of technology. . . . Let's really be strategic partners, not in name but in practice. And what does that mean? That means that Colombia can play a role in the region that coincides with the U.S. interest, like for example helping the Central American countries and the Caribbean countries and even Mexico and other South American countries in the fight against drug trafficking.

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