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'Santos will give the country a wider international vision'

Juan Manuel Santos, who takes office as Colombia's president on Saturday, must craft a governing strategy that will both capitalise on the security gains of his predecessor and deliver tangible benefits for ordinary citizens.


Juan Manuel Santos easily won Colombia's presidential elections in June, vowing to continue outgoing president Alvaro Uribe’s hard-line - and sometimes controversial - security policies. On Saturday, Santos takes office as the country’s 59th president.

The new president, who hails from one of Colombia’s most influential families, inherits a national defence strategy that has significantly reduced the power of the FARC guerrillas, but also has to deal with deteriorated, potentially explosive relations with the leftist governments of neighbouring Venezuela and Ecuador.

Stephen Donehoo, a Colombia expert and a director at the Washington-based international consulting firm McLarty Associates, explained to how Santos will attempt to carry Uribe's weighty legacy, and what policy issues that will shape the new president's own tenure.

How will a Santos government be different from Uribe's?

Stephen Donehoo: Expect a wider international vision based on his personal diplomatic experience at the helm of the finance, trade and defence ministries. Since he won the presidential elections Santos has travelled widely in Europe and also in Latin America, but he has not paid a visit to Washington. I think that is telling. Santos will look to strengthen and multiply relations with other countries (including its neighbours) in addition to Colombia's already strong ties to the US. A first year in office will see stronger relations with the region's like-minded governments: Dominican Republic, Mexico, Costa Rica, Panama, Peru. But I think he will look to build a rapport with the leaders of other centrist governments, including those in Guatemala, El Salvador, Paraguay, Uruguay, and even Ecuador if they can clear the legal hurdle facing him in the Ecuadoran courts.

What kind of people is Santos picking for his cabinet?

S.D.: It seems that they are by and large clean, technically experienced and capable, and with a couple of exceptions, they are not politicians. Santos' real strength is his broad experience internationally, built on his personal education and past duties in previous governments. If Santos has an area of reduced strength it may be in retail-level politics within the country. He doesn’t have as much experience tackling the issues that are important to Colombia's rural areas and the poorer parts of urban centres. The country is bursting at the seams with investment potential, but lacks the necessary infrastructure. Santos knows this, and it's no accident that he named former Manizales mayor German Cardona as his new transportation minister and Juan Carlos Echeverry as finance minister among his first cabinet picks. I think Santos intends to make growing the economy and building infrastructure key factors in his government's policy.

Can you see the volatile relationship between Colombia and Venezuela changing or remaining the same under a Santos administration?

S.D.: We won't really know until after the legislative elections in Venezuela in September. Much of the hubbub we've seen in the last two months seems to be posturing by President Hugo Chavez and by President Alvaro Uribe. It is interesting to see President Chavez now portraying Uribe as the bad guy and Santos as the good guy. Chavez said some nasty things about Santos when he was defence minister and a candidate. We'll see what Santos is willing to do publicly between his inauguration and the elections in Venezuela, but Uribe has put Venezuela on notice that Colombia may be willing to take Chavez and other members of his government to the International Criminal Court for harbouring the FARC, a recognized terrorist organization.

Is Santos likely to accept negotiations with the FARC, as the guerrilla group has offered?

S.D.: This happens every time they have a new government in Colombia. The FARC leader comes up and says, "we want to talk", but I don't know what the FARC has to offer right now. They have maybe 5,000 troops left, and half of those are somewhere outside Colombia. The security forces have pushed them so far into the jungle and so high into the mountains that they hardly have any contact with the civilian population, so they have problems resupplying to survive and are much less able to recruit new members. Santos has no reason to say, "all right, let's talk". They're not going to disband. Just because of history, he may need to continue to show some willingness publicly, but I would expect Santos to give the Colombian armed forces, police, intelligence services, and lawyers the resources and leeway to continue to go after them in Colombia and in other parts of the world.

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