Colombia's Santos vows to build on decade of progress

Colombia's new conservative President Juan Manuel Santos also struck a conciliatory tone as he was sworn in Saturday, despite the recent bellicose rhetoric from Venezuela's leftist leader, Hugo Chávez.

By , Staff writer

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    Colombia's President Juan Manuel Santos (l.) addresses the audience during his inauguration ceremony as outgoing president Alvaro Uribe looks on, in Bogota, Saturday. Santos took office promising to restore broken ties with Andean neighbors Venezuela and Ecuador, spur economic growth and keep up a hard-line with leftist FARC guerrillas.
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When Álvaro Uribe was sworn in as president of Colombia in 2002, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) disrupted the inauguration with a mortar attack in the capital, Bogotá.

Eight years later, Juan Manuel Santos was sworn in Saturday as the 59th president of Colombia, in a peaceful event that underscored how much security in the war-torn country has improved. And while Mr. Santos promised to maintain Mr. Uribe's hard line against the leftist rebels, he equally emphasized social equality, good governance, and international relations – in attempt to move Colombia, and his own administration, into a new era.

“From the appointments he has made and what he has said so far, he is trying to set himself apart [from Uribe], and not just continuing exactly on with his security policy,” says Arlene Tickner, a political analyst at the University of the Andes in Bogotá. “[In his inaugural speech] he stressed much more the need to consolidate the gains made in security in terms of democracy and institutions.”

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A vow to stay tough

Santos has the luxury of not having to focus solely on security, and that is thanks to Uribe.

Colombia is by no means free from the threats of violence. During the Santos inauguration, some 30,000 troops guarded the city to prevent a repeat of the unrest during Uribe's 2002 swearing in.

But the kind of terrorism that marked the country 10 years ago is largely absent today. Overall, kidnappings are down by 90 percent. The government says that number of FARC members has been slashed in half and the rebels pushed deep into rural areas.

Santos, who was defense minister under Uribe and orchestrated some of the most successful operations against the FARC, vowed to stay tough.

"It is possible to have a peaceful Colombia, a Colombia with no guerrillas, and we will prove that by reason or by force," Santos said Saturday in his inaugural speech. "As long as they don't free the hostages, as long as they perpetrate terrorist acts, as long as they don't return children recruited by force, as long as they keep on planting mines and polluting the Colombian countryside, we will keep on battling those who commit violence, without exception, by any means available.”

Beyond security

But security was by no means the centerpiece of Santos's first remarks as president of Colombia. He also addressed employment and job opportunities to bridge social divides, strengthening institutions and democracy, and mending relations with many countries in Latin America.

While Uribe leaves office with approval ratings of 75 percent, his second term was marred by political scandals that called into question the amount of corruption and the number of human rights abuses tolerated in the name of security. Critics say he did not do enough to address poverty reduction and inequality.

And Uribe's relationship deteriorated with many of the leftist leaders who surrounded him in the region.

Restoring ties with Venezuela

One of the first tasks ahead for the Santos administration is to restore Colombia's relationship with Venezuela, which cut off diplomatic ties and sent troops to its border with Colombia after Colombia alleged that Venezuela tolerates the presence of the FARC.

Relations with Ecuador are also suffering after Ecuador raided a FARC camp in Ecuadorian territory in 2008.

Ms. Tickner says that Uribe was so focused on the United States, which provided $6 billion in antidrug aid, that Colombia looked more northward as an aid recipient than as a player in its own backyard.

That could change as Santos, who won a runoff in June with 69 percent of votes, seeks to make his own mark on Colombia, not just be remembered as the continuing Uribe policies.

“I think his plans are to make Colombia a more proactive actor at the regional level,” she says.

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