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| 1/14/2011 12:00:00 AM

What a turn!

In just five months, President Santos has achieved amazing changes in foreign policy. Colombia is becoming a mayor player in the international field., 234082

It is still impossible to say whether the government of Juan Manuel Santos will be a success nationwide or not. His intentions are ambitious, but so are the obstacles to implement them. The most recent one is the winter emergency that destroyed entire regions of the country. However, Santos’ foreign policy revolution already took place. One of the most visible results is the normalization of Colombia’s relations with Venezuela and Ecuador, in terms that seemed impossible just six months ago. The chemistry that Santos projects on his meetings with Hugo Chávez and Rafael Correa doesn’t give the impression of a reconciliation but of a true romance. The sentence “my new best friend”, about Chávez, could have been an unfortunate spontaneous expression, but reflects the new reality, that has enormous economic and diplomatic implications for the country.

Colombia’s change in diplomacy has been already registered abroad. The Economist recently addressed an article entitled Finding New Friends, pointing that “Santos has shown much more sensitivity than Uribe towards the importance of diplomacy”. Andres Oppenheimer, whose articles are published in the main newspapers of the world, has rightly explained Santos’ change. “There is a growing sense in Washington –especially in the congress- that Santos is moving Colombia away from its close alliance with the United States and pursuing a policy more independent and multilateral”. As an example of these changes he indicates the following five arguments: first of all, Santos’ first official international trip was to Brazil and not to the United States; second, there has been a representative number of times that Santos has met with the president of Venezuela; third, Santos has been complacent with Chávez’s wishes, such as Walid Makled’s extradition; fourth, Colombia has refused to sign a new agreement on military bases; and fifth, the government is looking for free trade agreements with Europe and Canada in the absence of ratification of the one signed with the United States.

Oppenheimer points out that there is already concern in the Washington, and he quotes Carl Meacham, aide to the Senate, who says that the delay in the ratification is “definitely pushing Colombia away and its orientation is no longer towards the United States, as it was in the past”. But Colombia’s independence from the United States is only one aspect of the new diplomatic strategy. Since January 1st the country has a place in the United Nations Security Council. Even though this is a temporary position and it is part of a protocol, Santos and his Foreign Minister, María Ángela Holguín, are planning on using this platform to strengthen diplomatic relations with other continents.

But the Security Council is only one of the scenarios in which the Santos administration intends to deploy its diplomatic strategy. Another important scenario to improve ties with the rest of Latin America will be South American Nations Union (Unasur), a community that former President Álvaro Uribe treated with disdain and distrust. There had been carried out the heated debate on the failed US-Colombian agreement that allowed United States’ military presence in Colombian bases. The country had felt uncomfortable in his ambiguous position: absent from some meetings and being accused in others. Santos has made a determined effort to get closer to Unasur. The clearest sign is the presentation of the candidacy of former Foreign Minister, María Emma Mejía, to succeed former Argentine President Néstor Kirchner in the General Secretariat of the Unasur. Elections will be held in coming weeks between Mejía and former Venezuelan Foreign Minister Alí Rodríguez, but, beyond who wins, Colombia sent a clear message of getting closer with the Latin American community.

On the other hand, Colombia also has aspirations of joining OECD, a group that originally gathered industrialized nations, but has expanded to include the best organized countries in the world based on their good governments. Mexico and Chile are the only Latin American members, while Brazil attends as a guest. Colombia took its first steps to facilitate its entrance during Álvaro Uribe’s administration, but it was said that it would not be possible before a decade. With Colombia’s new diplomatic strategy, this timeframe has been shortened to half.

Another goal of the President Santos and the Foreign Minister Holguín is to become a part of the APEC, the Pacific’s most important economic forum, although there is a restriction to welcome new countries that will end in 2012. Anyway, Asia has become a priority to Colombia, which is why Holguín will be visiting Cambodia, Korea and Vietnam in the last days of January, and Santos will be in Beijing during the first semester of the year. The government is analyzing the possibility of reopening the Embassy in Indonesia, as well as the ones in Turkey and the Arab Emirates. Santos is also planning an approach to the ASEAN with a “friends of dialogue” technique.

The previous program, at first glance very favorable, also has its risks and costs. When governments take positions it is impossible to have every one happy. One example of this occurred last year, when Santos had to decide whether to attend or not to the ceremony for the Nobel Peace Price granted to Lui Xiaobo. China’s government expected a friendly gesture from Colombia by not going, but that would have made the country look bad to the human rights community and the majority of the western nations. In the end, a second-level official was sent, leaving both sides dissatisfied. Same thing could happen with Colombia’s decision to extradite drug trafficker Walid Makled to Venezuela instead of the United States, who had also requested him.

Since Franklin Roosevelt times it has been an habit to measure the government reforms in the first hundred days. These measurements are usually harmless, because they are more concerned with intensions than results. Colombian Foreign Policy during Santos’ administration is, without doubts, the exception. Many of the results are a reality now and they are admirable. Even though Santos does not achieve anything more during the rest of his government, he already left an important mark in external affairs.

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