Juan Manuel Santos took office Saturday as Colombia's new president, with a strong mandate to continue battling left-wing rebels and push economic growth.
REUTERS - Colombian 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.
A U.S. and British-trained economist, Santos 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 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.
Once seen as a failing state mired in cocaine violence, Colombia has enjoyed a resurgence since Uribe came to power in 2002. Oil and mining investment has soared as rebels from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, were battered and troops recaptured large parts of the country.
Among Santos' 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 causing concern about Andean stability.
The region, jobs and economic growth
Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva has said he will seek to mediate an end to the crisis and Venezuelan Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro traveled to Bogota for the
inauguration in a signal of a thaw in relations.
"We want to extend the hand of friendship," Maduro said upon arriving in Bogota. "We are willing to work on advancing, moving toward the future."
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 a renewal of $7 billion a year in trade.
While ties with Venezuela have become more tense, relations with Ecuador -- which were frayed since a 2008 bombing raid on the FARC in Ecuadorean territory -- have improved. President Rafael Correa flew to Bogota to attend the inauguration. "We are very, very close to reestablishing that confidence with Colombia, and with the presence of President Correa, we are in the last stages of this process," Ecuador's Defense Minister Javier Ponce told reporters in Colombia's capital.
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 sought to
distance himself, saying he will govern in his own manner.
Colombia's economy is on the mend with growth seen at more than 3.5 percent this year. But its jobless rate is among the region's highest, its currency is rising on a commodities boom and Wall Street wants Santos to tackle a stubborn deficit.
Date created : 2010-08-07