Americas summit host seeks role as regional leader

Apr 12, 2012, 8:00 AM

Associated Press

CARTAGENA, Colombia (AP) – Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos faced a dilemma. He was set to take center stage as host of this weekend’s summit of Western Hemisphere leaders in this colonial-era port. But Washington’s veto of Cuba as a participant was threatening to torpedo the meeting.

So off he went to Havana, where Cuba’s leader graciously told Santos his country had no intention of spoiling the summit by insisting on an invite. Without Barack Obama, there is no summit, Raul Castro jokingly told Santos last month, according to officials with direct knowledge who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk with the press.

Disaster averted, the Colombian leader’s reputation as a deft diplomat and budding powerbroker who gets along with just about everybody was enhanced.

“There is little question that Santos has emerged as a regional leader. This was his aspiration from the day he took office,” said Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue think tank in Washington.

Since his August 2010 inauguration, Santos has mended frayed relations with Venezuela and Ecuador, brokered the return to Honduras of coup-ousted former President Manuel Zelaya, dispatched counternarcotics experts to train Mexicans and offered similar help to drug crime-besieged Central America.

Santos, 60, has also opened his country to Chinese investment while still remaining Washington’s closest Latin American ally.

The president, a University of Kansas graduate and a scion of one of Colombia’s most influential families, is widely believed to aspire to fill the regional leadership vacuum left by former Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. Brazil’s current leader, Dilma Rousseff, “is far less interested in the limelight and more focused on domestic priorities than her predecessor,” said Shifter.

Although he has not yet shuttled among Latin American capitals to put out political fires as Silva did, Santos can boast his share of achievements and is certainly ambitious.

Last weekend, he told the Bogota newspaper El Tiempo, which his family ran until recently, he would like to persuade a re-elected Obama to stop excluding Cuba from such meetings and help the country “seek a new relation.”

The statement suggested Santos would like to help end the U.S. embargo on the communist Caribbean nation, which could in turn help him seek peace with Colombia’s leftist rebels.

Latin American countries led by Brazil say they won’t come to any more regional summits if Cuba is excluded again. Ecuador’s Rafael Correa is boycotting this sixth Summit of the Americas because of Cuba’s exclusion, but he is the lone president to do so.

Santos tamed Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez well before the Venezuelan discovered he was sick with cancer. Toning down the antagonistic rhetoric of his predecessor, Alvaro Uribe, Santos persuaded Chavez to help him capture and extradite several major Colombian drug traffickers and rebels.

His cordiality with Correa is also notable considering that, as defense minister, Santos sent troops across the border into Ecuador in 2008 to kill a top rebel with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, triggering a regional crisis.

Santos has risked Washington’s good graces as he assuages neighbors. He extradited, for example, an alleged major Venezuelan drug trafficker back to his homeland even though he was wanted by the United States.

“In contrast to the very solicitous relationship that Uribe had, Santos has adopted a much more pragmatic and distant approach,” said Cynthia Arnson, Latin America director at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington.

That included shelving an agreement made under Uribe to expand the U.S. military footprint at Colombian bases.

Yet Santos, a social progressive but military hawk who was defense minister in 2006-2009, can boast of making Latin America’s fourth most-populous nation a lot safer.

Afflicted by the mayhem of drug cartels in the 1990s, when leftist rebels controlled about half the national territory, Colombia is now a country where a U.S. president finally feels comfortable enough to spend a night.

In Obama’s case, it will be two nights. None of his three predecessors spent the night in Colombia as president, though all visited.

The United States can claim considerable credit for the improvement, thanks to supplying billions of dollars worth of military training and technology that helped Santos and Uribe weaken Latin America’s last major leftist rebel force with operations that included killing two top FARC leaders.

Colombia isn’t free of problems, though. The country remains at war, and is still the top supplier of cocaine to the United States. Its half-century-old conflict drove at least 259,000 Colombians to flee their homes last year, the human rights group CODHES says.

Sandra Borda, a political scientist at Los Andes University in Bogota, said that to truly be a leader, Santos needs to occasionally veer from his centrist path with a bold determination.

She suggested that an area ripe for such action is the growing regional debate about drug legalization that could dominate the two-day summit.

The drug war has cost Colombia and other Latin American nations dearly without making a dent in supply, critics say. Santos says all positions should be discussed and the United Nations should eventually decide what path should be taken.

Colombia watcher Adam Isacson of the Washington Office on Latin America says he doesn’t think Santos has proven himself a regional leader, which Isacson defines as “a single country that can strong-arm the entire continent into agreeing to its priorities.”

Yet Colombia under Santos “has loosened its ties to the United States, other governments don’t question its motives as much.”

___

Frank Bajak on Twitter:
http://twitter.com/fbajak

Vivian Sequera on Twitter:
http://twitter.com/viviansequera

(Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

World News

(Photo by John Phillips/Getty Images for BoF VOICES)...
Associated Press

Vivienne Westwood, influential fashion maverick, dies at 81

Vivienne Westwood, an influential fashion maverick who played a key role in the punk movement, died Thursday at 81.
1 month ago
FILE - British Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaks during his first Cabinet meeting flanked by his ...
Associated Press

Rishi Sunak: UK’s ex-Treasury chief gets his shot at PM job

LONDON (AP) — Rishi Sunak ran for Britain’s top job and lost. Then he got another shot — and the chance to say “I told you so.” The former U.K. Treasury chief was runner-up to Liz Truss in the contest to replace the scandal-plagued Boris Johnson as Conservative Party leader and prime minister. But Truss […]
3 months ago
Britain's Prime Minister Liz Truss addresses the media in Downing Street in London, Thursday, Oct. ...
Associated Press

Truss quits, but UK’s political and economic turmoil persist

LONDON (AP) — British Prime Minister Liz Truss quit Thursday after a tumultuous and historically brief term marred by economic policies that roiled financial markets and a rebellion in her political party that obliterated her authority. After just 45 days in office, Truss became the third Conservative prime minister to be toppled in as many […]
3 months ago
People receive medical treatment at the scene of Russian shelling, in Kyiv, Ukraine, Monday, Oct. 1...
Associated Press

Russia unleashes biggest attacks in Ukraine in months

KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Russia retaliated Monday for an attack on a critical bridge by unleashing its most widespread strikes against Ukraine in months, a lethal barrage that smashed civilian targets, knocked out power and water, shattered buildings and killed at least 14 people. Ukraine’s Emergency Service said nearly 100 people were wounded in the […]
4 months ago
This illustration made available by Johns Hopkins APL and NASA depicts NASA's DART probe, upper rig...
Associated Press

NASA spacecraft smashes into asteroid for defense test

A NASA spacecraft rammed an asteroid at blistering speed Monday in an unprecedented dress rehearsal for the day a killer rock menaces Earth.
4 months ago
Associated Press

At least 9 killed as Iran protests over woman’s death spread

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Clashes between Iranian security forces and protesters angry over the death of a 22-year-old woman in police custody have killed at least nine people since the violence erupted over the weekend, according to a tally Thursday by The Associated Press. The scope of Iran’s ongoing unrest, the worst in […]
4 months ago

Sponsored Articles

(Pexels Photo)...

Sports gambling can be fun for adults, but it’s a dangerous game for children

While adults may find that sports gambling is a way to enhance the experience with more than just fandom on the line, it can be a dangerous proposition if children get involved in the activity.
(Desert Institute for Spine Care photo)...
DESERT INSTITUTE FOR SPINE CARE

Why DISC is world renowned for back and neck pain treatments

Fifty percent of Americans and 90% of people at least 50 years old have some level of degenerative disc disease.
(Photo via MLB's Arizona Fall League / Twitter)...
Arizona Fall League

Top prospects to watch at this year’s Arizona Fall League

One of the most exciting elements of the MLB offseason is the Arizona Fall League, which began its 30th season Monday.
Americas summit host seeks role as regional leader