Colombia’s Santos Urges American Engagement

The president says “there will be great results” if the United States return to Latin America.

Colombia’s president urged his American counterpart Barack Obama to focus more on maintaining relations across the Western Hemisphere.

“If the United States realizes its long-term strategic interests are not in Afghanistan or Pakistan but in Latin America, there will be great results,” Juan Manuel Santos Calderón said ahead of the Organization of American States’ sixth leadership summit in the Caribbean port of Cartagena this weekend.

Santos also urged his fellow South American leaders to bridge their ideological divides and cooperate wherever possible. “Let’s respect our differences, but stay together,” he said. “Who would have imagined Venezuela and Colombia working together?”

Although Santos is a conservative who, as defense minister, intensified the counterinsurgency effort against the FARC while Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez is a bombastic leftist who sympathizes with the rebel movement, there has been a rapprochement in the bilateral relationship since the former took office last year.

Chávez, who is undergoing cancer treatment in Cuba, did not attend the Summit of the Americas. After warmly greeting Obama at the same conference in 2009, the Venezuelan president accused the American of continuing the “fascist” policies of his predecessors

American-Colombian relations were frayed by President Obama’s two year delay of the implementation of a free-trade deal. Bogotá agreed in 2007 to reduce tariffs and trade barriers. America is its leading trading partners. Nearly 40 percent of Colombian exports are headed for the United States. By contrast, Colombia accounts for just 1 percent of America’s trade volume.

Santos’ attempted normalization of ties with his neighbor Chávez coincided with Obama giving his country the cold shoulder. Venezuela is Colombia’s second largest trading partner.

Opposition Republicans in the United States have chastised the president’s Latin American policy. One former presidential contender, Rick Santorum, said in January that Obama’s was “a consistent policy of siding with the leftists, siding with the Marxists.” He “held Colombia out to dry,” said Santorum, in not ratifying the free-trade agreement sooner which had been negotiated by the previous, Republican administration.