| 2010/08/30 00:00

Heading south

Juan Manuel Santos’ first foreign visit this week to Brazil confirms the new government’s interest in approaching Latin America.

Heading south

The fact that president Juan Manuel Santos has chosen Brazil for his first foreign visit confirms the twist that his government is giving to foreign policy. A Latin American approach, which had already been perceived both on Santos’ tour to several countries around the continent before his inauguration on august 7th, as well as in Nestor Kirchner’s participation in the reopening of binational relations with Venezuela. It seems that in the new president’s pragmatic view, there are no dilemmas between a close relationship with the United States and a deep integration with Latin America. Santos, apparently, aims for both.

A president’s first trip is often regarded as a signal about his priorities. And there are several reasons why outgoing Luis Inácio Lula da Silva’s Brazil deserves such a level of attention. Brazil and Colombia are neighbors, and glued together by the Amazon region. However, bilateral ties have never been developed up to their potential. Brasilia’s high profile in world politics and the new architecture in relations through the hemisphere -less dependant on Washington- give a considerable strategic value to communication between the two nations.

Both governments are interested in economic and trade relations. The new Colombia’s ambassador, Maria Elvira Pombo, who was director at Proexport after being a representative of that organization in São Paulo, has that profile. The Brazilian giant is a target for Colombia as a market and as an investment destination.

There are also several pending political issues in the agenda. In recent years, tensions between Colombia and Venezuela distanced Bogotá and Brasilia. Lula da Silva chose a neutral, not always understood and often criticized position. But under the new climate between Santos and Hugo Chávez governments, this tension disappears. During his inaugural speech, the new Colombian president expressed that he prefers direct links with Caracas rather than having intermediaries.

Consequently, Lula da Silva has good reasons to strengthen ties with Colombia and will not just coincidentally give Santos’ visit a State status, the higher one in Brazil’s Foreign Ministry. Colombia has been a key player, not always in presence, in Lula’s efforts to strengthen cooperation among South American countries. On the other hand, Brazil will surely insist on finding Colombia’s elusive support to it’s candidacy as a permanent member among the United Nations Security Council.

Within a month, on October 3, the candidate of Lula’s party, Dilma Roussef, is favored to win the presidency in a first-round victory. But analysts believe that if the opposition candidate José Serra wins, there wouldn’t be major changes in foreign policy.

Presidents Lula da Silva and Santos will also address a broad security and defense agenda. The presence of Colombian illegal armed groups in the border and the rise of drug trafficking towards the south have worsened. Santos met these problems when he was Defense Minister and received his Brazilian counterpart, Nelson Jobim, at least twice. They will meet again in Brasilia. The agenda includes topics such as the Colombian claim for breach of a contract between the Ministry of Defence and Embraer; the Colombia’s acquisition of Supertucanos combat planes in the past; the possible purchase of Brazilian armored patrol boats to the company Cotecmar; and a possible agreement for the use of runways at the border to combat drug trafficking, smuggling of precursors and gold garimpeiros trafficking.

Other agreements will be signed on other topics, cooperation in border areas included as well as between Polices on intelligence issues. Santos-Lula summit is just the first step of a long job that lies ahead.

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