Latest update: 07/08/2010
- Colombia - FARC - Hugo Chavez - Juan Manuel Santos - Venezuela
Santos to take office amid challenges from FARC, unemployment
President-elect Juan Manuel Santos takes office in Colombia on Saturday with a continuing campaign against leftist FARC guerrillas, spurring economic growth and mending ties with neighbouring Venezuela among the challenges ahead.
By NEWS WIRES (text)
REUTERS - Colombia's President-elect Juan Manuel Santos takes office on Saturday with a strong mandate to keep fighting left-wing guerrillas, spur economic growth and tackle a messy diplomatic dispute with neighboring Venezuela.
Santos, a former defense and finance minister welcomed by Wall Street, takes over the helm of a much safer Colombia after eight years of President Alvaro Uribe's U.S.-backed campaign against Latin America's oldest rebel insurgency.
Santos, a U.S. and British-trained economist, has vowed to continue Uribe's crackdown on FARC rebels and maintain his pro-business approach, which has seen foreign investment grow five-fold since 2002 as Colombia's cocaine trade-driven conflict waned.
Santos has a healthy majority in the Congress. But he must tackle high unemployment and push through reforms to reduce deficits which are blocking Colombia from regaining the investment grade credit status it lost in a 1990s crisis.
"The country is on the right track in a lot of areas, but it still has serious problems, which we are going to tackle," Santos told reporters. "My government is here to resolve problems and look to the future."
Once seen as a failing state mired in cocaine violence, Colombia has enjoyed a resurgence since Uribe first came to office in 2002. Oil and mine investment soared as rebels from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia or FARC were battered and troops retook parts of the country once under rebel control.
Among Santos' key challenges will be managing relations with his Andean neighbors, particularly Venezuela, where President Hugo Chavez has broken off diplomatic and trade ties in a confrontation that stirs worries about Andean stability.
Chavez, a staunch U.S. foe, accuses close Washington ally Colombia of working with the White House to undermine his socialist government. Colombia says Venezuela allows FARC rebel leaders to seek refuge across its borders.
Santos, son of an elite Bogota family, and Chavez have clashed repeatedly in the past. But both men say they want to mend ties, especially because of benefits stemming from a renewal of $7 billion a year in bilateral trade.
In a signal of possible thaw, Venezuela's foreign minister will attend the inauguration on Saturday in the first direct meeting between the countries since the Andean neighbors broke relations earlier this year.
Colombia's economy is on the mend with growth seen at more than 3.5 percent this year. But its unemployment rate is among the highest in the region, its peso is rising on the country's commodities boom and Wall Street is demanding Santos tackle a stubborn fiscal deficit.
Uribe leaves office as the country's most popular leader. But his second term was marred by scandals over abuses by troops, illegal wiretapping of his critics, and probes into legislative allies over collaboration with paramilitary gangs.
As Uribe's defense minister, Santos was the architect of some of the strongest blows against the FARC and he acknowledges his debt to his former boss. But he has also sought to distance himself, saying he will govern in his own manner.