Colombia Leader Seeks Wide-Ranging Changes, and Looks Beyond the U.S.
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NEIVA, Colombia -- President Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia glows when speaking of a plan by Chinese and European investors to build a city for 250,000 people near the Caribbean coast. His foreign minister has circled the globe in the seven months that Mr. Santos has been president, visiting places like Cambodia, but not Washington.
In a reconciliation that has taken many in Latin America by surprise, Mr. Santos is now so friendly with President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela, who just last year was accusing Mr. Santos of plotting to assassinate him, that he takes delight in referring to Mr. Chávez as "my new best friend."
Mr. Santos, in a wide-ranging interview here, insisted that the United States, which has long considered Colombia its top ally in the region, remains a "great partner," even as some in Colombia's establishment grow increasingly frustrated with a stalled trade deal and a steady reduction in American counterinsurgency aid.
But he also emphasized a remarkable foreign policy move under way in which Colombia is shifting its gaze from the United States to Asia, repairing ties with Venezuela and Ecuador and adopting a measured posture within Latin America that stands in stark contrast to the hawkish style of Mr. Santos's conservative predecessor, Álvaro Uribe.
"I consider myself very pro-American; I want to continue and even strengthen our relationship, but it's common sense and common logic to diversify your international relations, especially in a world that is changing," said Mr. Santos, 59.
Retooling foreign policy is not the only abrupt change Mr. Santos is seeking in Colombia, which has received $6.5 billion in security and development aid from the United States since 2000. Startling some in Colombia's more conservative sectors, he is also pushing projects aimed at reducing Colombia's alarming income inequality.
The expansion of a program to return land to thousands of farmers who were forced to flee their homes during the country's long civil war, improvements in tax collection and a broad upgrade in Colombia's infrastructure rank among the most ambitious of the president's proposals.
Smiling broadly, Mr. Santos, the Harvard-educated scion of a Bogotá publishing family that is one of Colombia's most powerful clans, said he would be pleased if these social projects resulted in his being called a "traitor to his class" by the end of his presidency, a nod to the title of the biography of President Franklin D. Roosevelt by H. W. Brands.
"If in four years they are going to call me the small Roosevelt of Colombia, then I would be honored," said Mr. Santos, an unabashed admirer of the New Deal. He said the connection went deeper, explaining that Roosevelt asked his great-uncle, Eduardo Santos, a former president of Colombia, to build support in Latin America for what would become the Marshall Plan, which rebuilt Europe after World War II.
Seizing on an approval rating of nearly 80 percent, Mr. Santos is taking his ideas to different parts of the country. He allowed a reporter and a photographer on a recent trip that included a stop in Neiva.
Inaugurating a low-income housing complex here, Mr. Santos, who was a journalist and a trade negotiator before running for president, peppered his speech with references to the Swiss architect Le Corbusier and James J. Heckman, a Nobel Prize-winning economist at the University of Chicago. The audience fidgeted.
Then Mr. Santos, who as defense minister in Mr. Uribe's administration orchestrated crushing blows against the guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, denounced the rebel group for shifting into gold mining to finance itself. The audience applauded.
Although he campaigned last year as Mr. Uribe's heir, Mr. Santos has tried to distance himself from his predecessor. Mr. Uribe remains widely admired in Colombia for his strides against the FARC despite being tarnished by scandals, including the revelation of ties between paramilitary death squads and some top allies.
Mr. Santos's emergence as one of Latin America's most visible leaders involves a new seat on the United Nations Security Council and an ambitious effort to achieve greater integration among Colombia and market-oriented countries like Chile, Mexico and Peru. "This will in a way counterbalance Brazil," he said, referring to the region's rising power. "It's not against Brazil; it's to unite the region."
The move out of the shadow of Mr. Uribe, who showed scant delight at international meetings, has something to do with Colombia's shifting political winds. Fatigue toward Washington, which stood by Mr. Uribe, is clearly setting in here.
Semana, an influential newsmagazine, ran an article last week titled "With Friends Like These," lamenting the delayed trade deal, which has stalled amid concerns over the killings of union officials. Another article focused on WikiLeaks cables that described the Colombian presidential palace as resembling, in Semana's view, "a branch of the U.S. Embassy."
(Some voices go even further in expressing disdain for Washington's new indifference toward Colombia. The financial magazine Dinero published a cartoon this year referring to the trade deal that showed President Obama's smiling face morphing into a middle-finger salute.)
While Mr. Obama is bypassing Bogotá in a trip to Latin America this month that includes stops in Brazil, Chile and El Salvador, some Colombia watchers say it makes sense on both sides. "It would be humiliating for Santos to greet Obama without the free trade agreement," said Christopher Sabatini, senior director for policy at the Council of the Americas in New York.
Meanwhile, new options are emerging, notably with China. Mr. Santos said that Chinese delegations "are coming almost every week." He said that a Chinese proposal to build a $7.6 billion rail system that includes a land-based rival to the Panama Canal, first reported by The Financial Times in February, remained on the table.
While viability studies for the canal alternative are advancing, Mr. Santos said his government was evaluating a related project involving Chinese and European investors to build a city for as many as 250,000 people south of Cartagena. That project, which would be designed by the Spanish architect Ricardo Bofill, would include an industrial park to manufacture products for export throughout the Americas.
Despite considering such plans, Mr. Santos said he hoped that the United States would refocus attention away from its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan toward its own hemisphere, where American influence is waning.
"I ask myself, 'What is the real strategic interest of the U.S. in Afghanistan?' " he said, while regretting cuts in Washington's $350 million aid package to Colombia, which "is peanuts compared to what you're spending" elsewhere.
"What I say to many of the Americans, 'It's in your interest to stop neglecting Latin America,' " said Mr. Santos, adding that the turmoil in North Africa and the Middle East might have a "positive collateral effect" of stirring interest closer to home. "I think this is the moment for the U.S. to reshuffle their cards."
First Published March 6, 2011 12:01 am