Can Colombia's Santos unify the Americas?
Building consensus is important as the Americas struggle with high crime and violence. At this weekend's Summit of the Americas in Colombia, all eyes are on President Santos.
Mexico City and Boston
As Latin America asserted its diplomatic and economic autonomy from the United States over the past decade, Colombia was consistently seen as the outlier – a lackey of the US, which has invested billions in the antidrug Plan Colombia. Colombia had scant credibility among those who sought a more unified – and independent – voice for Latin America.Skip to next paragraph
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But that reputation is starting to change under President Juan Manuel Santos. Now, as his country gears up to host the Organization of American States (OAS) Sixth Summit of the Americas in mid-April – the only regional body that includes the US and Canada – he will have the opportunity to put Colombia's new breed of leadership on display.
Building consensus among Latino nations is particularly important today, at a time when many say the region is plagued by high rates of crime and insecurity. But the challenges facing Latin America are the problems of the north as well, and a leader who can bridge key differences between the political extremes regionally, as well as with the US, is key to taking on daunting issues such as the trafficking of drugs and weapons.
"Santos has taken several steps to assert Colombia's position regionally and globally," says Arlene Tickner, a political analyst at the University of the Andes in Bogotá, Colombia. So far, she says, he is proving to be adept in the role. "He is much more efficient in trying to create bridges between the left and the right in the region."
When Mr. Santos was elected president in 2010, few believed he would veer from the path of his predecessor and former boss, Álvaro Uribe, who moved Colombia closer to the US with his hard-line security views. Santos served as defense minister under Mr. Uribe, raising concerns about his human rights record. But by many accounts, he has brought more transparency to local institutions. And his shift away from the US was evident early; in his inaugural address, he said he would prioritize relations with Venezuela and Ecuador – and didn't even mention his large neighbor to the north.
"In a relatively short period of time, he totally put into reverse Colombia's traditional policies," says Larry Birns, head of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs. Among those policies, he says, was Colombia's strong pro-US stance, hostility toward Venezuela, support for the Plan Colombia model of fighting the drug war, and hard-line security policies.