Inaugurated August 7, 2010, Colombia’s President Juan Manuel Santos is striking a prudent balance between preserving the security policies of predecessor Alvaro Uribe and forging a new path for economic and social development in Latin America’s third-largest nation. Santos’s productive first six months signal that Colombia is an advancing and able partner in a problematic region. Colombia hopes that solid achievements will clear the way for passage this year of the U.S.–Colombia Free Trade Agreement (FTA), originally signed in November 2006.
Democratic Security and Prosperity
On the global scene, Colombia’s recovery of security and stability in the first decade of the 21st century is a remarkable success story. Once deemed on the brink of state failure in the late 1990s, Colombia is now a regional democratic player moving toward greater prosperity and social stability.
Santos—an experienced and artful politician and former minister of economy, finance, and defense—wants to tackle the endemic poverty that affects 44 percent of his countrymen and fuels criminality and insurgency. He aspires to place Colombia on a growth track of 5 percent annually or better in order to generate 3 million new jobs and reduce labor informality.
Since taking office, Santos has advocated new measures geared toward reducing the fiscal deficit, improving infrastructure, and upgrading Colombia’s investment climate. His government promotes market-friendly policies. Overall Colombia earned an improving score in The Heritage Foundation’s 2011 Index of Economic Freedom. In late 2010, Santos announced that Colombia will apply for membership in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, a step aimed at keeping in stride with the world’s leading market economies.
An architect of President Uribe’s “democratic security” program, Santos has kept pressure on the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and other illegally armed groups. Once in control of perhaps a third of Colombian territory, FARC has been pushed away from population centers or across borders and reduced to an estimated 8,000 fighters. Santos does not rule out peace talks with FARC if it is prepared to cease terrorist activities and release hostages. His government is also vigorously pursuing re-emergent criminal bands connected with the drug trade and rural violence.
Human and Labor Rights and Disaster Relief
President Santos has launched institutional reforms focused upon strengthening the rule of law, reducing corruption, ending impunity, and compensating victims of violence. A sweeping Victims’ and Land Restitution Act, approved in December 2010, will help tens of thousands of victims of guerilla and paramilitary violence and coercion and regain lost land, perhaps as much as 770,000 acres. The act also provides for indemnification of victims of state security forces.
Working in tandem with his Vice President Angelino Garzon, a former labor leader, Santos is taking steps to protect labor rights and activists. His government is standing up an independent labor ministry. It is committed to reviewing all homicides of union leaders since 2000 and providing fresh resources to the Ministry of Interior and Justice to protect journalists, labor leaders, and human rights defenders. Colombia actively cooperates with the International Labor Organization. The murder rate for labor activists has fallen below that of the Colombian populace as a whole. The government has also increased its attention to minorities, notably the indigenous and Afro-Colombians.
President Santos responded swiftly to historic flooding in late 2010 that affected as many as 2 million Colombians. The Colombian government distributed over $309 million for reconstruction and humanitarian aid. Even before the flooding, Santos committed to constructing a million new houses over four years.
Revitalized Foreign Policy
President Santos is using foreign policy to build stronger regional ties and repair Colombia’s damaged relationship with Venezuela and Ecuador. In a key tension-lowering meeting in August 2010, Santos induced Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez to “reset” relations by ending hostility toward Colombia and disavowing support for FARC and insurgent and criminal organizations. Santos also received a promise from Chávez to resume regular commercial ties and settle hundreds of millions of dollars in debt owed to Colombian farmers and businessmen. While wary of Chavez’s longstanding diplomatic and material support for FARC, Santos elected to defuse a situation that had become a permanent state of crisis and attempt the complex tasks of building mutual confidence between neighbors.
In the first weeks of his presidency, Santos skillfully negotiated the full resumption of diplomatic ties with Ecuador and offered diplomatic support to Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa in the midst of the September 30 police mutiny in Quito.
On the economic front, Colombia has pursued free trade agreements with Canada, the European Union, and China. From Argentina and Canada come agricultural products that enter Colombia with duties lower than those placed on U.S. products, duties that would end with the passage of the FTA. Trade experts believe that over the past two years, the U.S. has lost $1 billion in agricultural sales because of failure to pass the FTA.
Santos wants a relationship with the U.S. that is more than “drugs and thugs.” The Administration’s record thus far is mixed. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with Santos in May 2010 and hosted Garzon in a January 2011 visit. The U.S. has created a High-Level Partnership Dialogue to broaden cooperation. Clinton even indicated that the White House will send the FTA to Congress this year.
The Administration continues to support Plan Colombia but seeks to switch from “hard” support (aircraft, weapons, aerial eradication, military training, etc.) to “soft” programs (post-conflict programs, demobilization, alternative development, legal and judicial reform, etc.). Overall proposed funding for Plan Colombia for FY 2011 will fall to $464 million from $540 million in FY 2009.
In the White House and the halls of Congress, however, key policy gatekeepers, including the President, appear reluctant to lend full support to the FTA. They are inclined to blame the Colombian government, elites, and the military and police for continued violence, drug trafficking, and poverty. Others find political justifications to cover neo-protectionist beliefs.
For now, Colombia and President Santos remain in limbo, uncertain of who speaks the truth in Washington. They hear repeated expressions of support for the FTA from a President who now speaks of the need for greater exports and recession-ending job growth while the agreement languishes in a White House inbox. The White House and Congress can end this by:
- Finalizing FTA discussions and sending it—along with the FTA for Panama—to Congress for approval;
- Extending an invitation to President Santos for an official White House visit soon after President Obama returns from Latin America; and
- Authorizing sustained security assistance that supports Santos’s broad post-conflict, pro-prosperity agenda and preserves democratic security.
No Excuse Not to Act
Two years into his Administration, President Obama needs a signature achievement that demonstrates that the U.S. is serious about partnering with friends in the Americas. In Colombia and President Santos, the President has found the right partner. Now he needs to act.
Ray Walser, Ph.D., is Senior Policy Analyst for Latin America in the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies, a division of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies, at The Heritage Foundation.