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

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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.

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