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The Revolution of Santos

Author: Julia E. Sweig, Nelson and David Rockefeller Senior Fellow for Latin America Studies and Director for Latin America Studies
September 26, 2012
Folha de Sao Paulo

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First published in Portuguese in Folha de Sao Paulo.

What a difference a president can make. In just two years, Colombia's President Juan Manuel Santos has reoriented Colombian foreign policy toward South America. He has achieved a modus vivendi with his largest trading partner, Venezuela, and a political-rhetorical truce with its president, Hugo Chavez. He has cleaned up the mess his predecessor made with Rafael Correa's Ecuador, and tempered Colombia's best-friendy deference to the United States. He has forged unprecedented levels of trade, investment, security and humanitarian cooperation with Brazil. Most refreshingly, he has discarded ideology and replaced it with a problem-solver's pragmatism.

With respectable growth rates and investment grades, and a much-coveted trade agreement with the United States, Santos has set out to end the conflict with Latin America's oldest armed group, the FARC. Inequality and poverty, the concentration of the best lands in the hands of cartel and paramilitary financiers, 3 million internally-displaced, and rampant paramilitary influence in the Congress: these issues will remain even with a successful demobilization and integration of the FARC's 8,500 remaining soldiers. Santo now judges that taking the FARC off the battlefield and out of the drug trafficking business is an essential step to building the political will to take on these remaining deep cleavages.

Santos has asked for and accepted help from a variety of outsiders. The Norwegians have a track record—think the Oslo process between Israel and the PLO—and will host and pay for talks next month. Notably, the very same Hugo Chavez whom Uribe's government alleged to have given safe haven to the FARC and its business deals has now made it clear to the FARC that now is the time to take advantage of the opportunity presented by the real-politique-minded Santos, the very same Santos who as Uribe's defense minister presided over the Colombian military's decapitation of the FARC's high command.

And then there's Cuba, a country that can still keep a secret. Since February 2012, Havana hosted the framework talks that set the table for next month's talks in Oslo and Havana. Cuba has a longer history of facilitating talks with the FARC and the ELN than it does in arming them. As president, Raul Castro has kept a relatively low profile in foreign policy, long his brother Fidel's passion. But using Cuba's considerable capital among the Latin American left—armed and democratic—Raul has positioned Cuba as a serious broker and "guarantor" for talks that have the potential to end the last of the region's 20th century's armed conflicts. Barack Obama has applauded the process and kept silent on Cuba's role, giving Santos the space to maneuver. Obama's first term leaves little by way of a positive legacy in Latin America. In a second term, he might start by asking his friends in Latin America—Santos, Dilma, to help Washington and its unwitting ally in the Colombian peace process, Cuba, to establish one of their own.

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