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Colombia’s Pragmatic President Santos Burnishes the National Image

February 6th 2011

Latin American Topics - Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia

Since arriving at the presidential office on August 7, 2010, newly inaugurated Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos has sought to revise many of Colombia’s flawed diplomatic relationships, boasting in a number of instances a complete turnaround from the policies of his predecessor Álvaro Uribe. Under Uribe, U.S.-Colombian relations were immeasurably strengthened while Bogotá’s commercial and diplomatic ties with both Venezuela and Ecuador were essentially severed. In contrast to President Uribe’s envenomed foreign policy style and his not-to-be-denied hauteur when it came to tutoring Colombia’s Latin American neighbors in the intrinsic superiority of all things Colombian, Santos maintains a surprisingly level-headed manner of acquitting himself.

As a result, it appears his ability to successfully transmute his country’s damaged relationships with Venezuela and Ecuador, without compromising its relationship with the United States, can only restore his country’s valued role in the region. 

From Foe to Friend

Over the past four years, Colombia and Ecuador’s diplomatic relationship has been strung to its limit. The nadir in their ties came to the breaking point on March 2, 2008 when Uribe’s administration launched an aerial assault against a guerrilla camp located within Ecuadorian borders. Despite fierce public condemnation by Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa and Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, the attack was justified by the Bush administration, further tarnishing relations between Colombia and its neighbor countries. An Ecuadorian court went so far as to issue an arrest warrant against Santos (then Colombia’s Minister of Defense) for his involvement in the 2008 assault. Despite the decaying state of Ecuadorian-Colombian relations by that time, upon entering the presidential office Santos managed to rapidly reestablish diplomatic relations with Ecuador. Soon, Correa was praising Santos for his display of “great seriousness and a great spirit of Latin American integration.” Over the past few months, through the application of pragmatic diplomacy, Santos has successfully shifted from being perceived as an intolerable predator to being a true friend to Ecuador.

From Foe to Friend

Over the past four years, Colombia and Ecuador’s diplomatic relationship has been strung to its limit. The nadir in their ties came to the breaking point on March 2, 2008 when Uribe’s administration launched an aerial assault against a guerrilla camp located within Ecuadorian borders. Despite fierce public condemnation by Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa and Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, the attack was justified by the Bush administration, further tarnishing relations between Colombia and its neighbor countries. An Ecuadorian court went so far as to issue an arrest warrant against Santos (then Colombia’s Minister of Defense) for his involvement in the 2008 assault. Despite the decaying state of Ecuadorian-Colombian relations by that time, upon entering the presidential office Santos managed to rapidly reestablish diplomatic relations with Ecuador. Soon, Correa was praising Santos for his display of “great seriousness and a great spirit of Latin American integration.” 1 Over the past few months, through the application of pragmatic diplomacy, Santos has successfully shifted from being perceived as an intolerable predator to being a true friend to Ecuador.

The Israel of Latin America?

The Colombian air strike also profoundly marred Bogotá’s relationship with Venezuela. Despite Chávez’s initial threats of war, diplomatic relations were fully restored only days later. However, soon after Colombia’s deal with Washington,—permitting the U.S. access to seven Colombian military bases around the country—relations with Venezuela again turned sour. At the time, the increased U.S. bond with Colombia drew heated criticism from Chávez, who was opposed to any U.S. military presence in Latin America. A leaked cable dating back to February 5, 2009 sent from former U.S. Ambassador William Brownfield to Bogotá revealed that both then-President Uribe and Minister of Defense Santos perceived the new military agreement as a critical component of U.S.-Colombia links.

The cable also exposed the extent of the escalating tension between Venezuela and Colombia. It stated that the then-Colombian government sees Caracas as a threat, especially given its recent “arms purchases from Russia, and views a defense agreement with the United States as a deterrent to possible Venezuelan aggression.” 2 The communiqué further revealed that Santos, as Minister of Defense, on multiple occasions “alluded to the airlift of supplies from the United States to Israel during the 1973 Yom Kippur war and has requested similar ‘assurances’ from the USG [U.S. government] in the event of a conflict with Venezuela.” The leaked cable clearly demonstrated that Uribe administration’s hostility towards Chávez’s rule, as well as Bogotá’s dependence on American defense efforts, meshed well with Santos’ hard-liner views as Minister of Defense, and exemplified the likelihood that he would continue to hold these views during his presidency.

Santos Mystifies the Hemisphere

Just before his term came to an end, Uribe directly accused the Chávez government of supporting FARC terrorists in Venezuela, presenting his allegations at an Organization of American States session on July 22, 2010. The ongoing and heated squabbles between Chávez and Uribe further intensified the steadily disintegrating relationship between Colombia and Venezuela. The confrontation became so strained at times that Venezuela “froze” its diplomatic and commercial ties to Colombia. Santos, a close ally of Uribe’s—who previously contributed to the hostile relationship between Colombia and Venezuela—surprisingly did not publicly engage in the Uribe v. Chávez fracas after resigning from his position as Minister of Defense when preparing for his presidential race. When asked by reporters about his thoughts regarding the collapse in diplomatic relations between Colombia and Venezuela, Santos, Solomon-like, stated that, “the best contribution that we can make is to not express an opinion.” Santos’ complete turnaround towards Chávez exemplified his pragmatic desire to reestablish Colombia as a bona fide fundamental ally and contributing member of the neighborhood in which both countries find themselves.

Restoring relations with Venezuela was not only a diplomatic imperative, but an economic necessity as well. In 2008 alone, bilateral trade totaled USD 7.2 billion, of which USD 6 billion consisted of Colombian exports to Venezuela. 5 Without a doubt, Chávez’s and Uribe’s egotistical bickering came with a heavy economic cost. Therefore, it was crucial for Colombia to revive its trade relations with Venezuela due to the adverse effects that the trade freeze was having on the economy. For example, in 2008, when Chavez first “froze” trade with Colombia due to Colombia’s pending military agreement with the United States, fresh and frozen meat exports to Venezuela were hit the hardest among the Colombian commodities, dropping to zero from about USD 800 million. 

Santos had to recognize that Colombia’s commercial growth rested on its relationship with Venezuela. Months prior to his inauguration, Santos spoke of his desire to restore normal diplomatic relations with both Venezuela and Ecuador, foreshadowing his dissociation from Uribe’s rabid anti-diplomatic strategy towards its neighbors. Reviving trade with Venezuela was essential to Santos’ presidency since Venezuela “had been Colombia’s second-biggest export market after the U.S.” But it was not until taking office that Santos was able to restore relations.

Colombia will particularly benefit from its improved relations with Venezuela by obtaining a more pliable ally in Chávez to be utilized against the FARC. The January 26th agreement, between Venezuela’s top security official Tarek El-Aissami and Colombia’s Minister of Defense Rodrigo Rivera, exemplifies just how much bilateral relations have improved since Santos assumed office. The accord is set to secure their common border and boost collaboration between Colombia and Venezuela in combating drug trafficking with the creation of a commission to oversee anti-drug cooperation. Both countries agreed to share intelligence that will facilitate the coordination of anti-drug raids on both sides of the border, augment control over chemicals utilized to produce cocaine, and begin cooperative investigations of money laundering operations by drug traffickers. It is almost a certainty that the Santos administration will reap the benefits of its decision to depart from Uribe’s nonconstructive diplomacy.

Despite Santos’ new amicable relationship with Chávez, this is not likely to undermine Colombia’s recent close ties with Washington. Given Colombia’s increasing dependency on U.S. financial and military assistance (in fighting the FARC and maintaining a high level of military preparedness) and its hope for the rapid passage of a Free Trade Agreement, Santos cannot ignore the desires of Washington nor be entirely cavalier about its ties with Latin America.

Although Juan Forero, (a highly regarded journalist covering Latin American issues for the Washington Post and National Public Radio), states that in a recent interview Santos referred to Chávez as “my new best friend,” it is highly unlikely that he will become a party to Chavez’s episodic anti-American rhetoric.

Santos has demonstrated an admirable pragmatism in acknowledging the needs of his country and putting aside the petty diplomatic squabbles of his predecessor. He has matured diplomatically by wisely choosing to sharply deviate from Uribe’s sulking antagonistic style. Through Santos’ new orientation of his administration, Colombia’s relations with its neighbors Venezuela and Ecuador will almost certainly prove to be constructive and very cost effective.

Santos’ new governing style is advancing a positive perception of Colombia among Latin American leaders without particularly damaging Bogotá’s image in Washington’s eyes. Santos is likely to continue to exert a tactful approach to Colombia’s relationships abroad in order to advance the country’s well-being and in order to maintain a constructive allegiance with its neighbors and their kindred cultures.

Julissa Delgado is a Research Associate at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, from where this article is adapted.


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