February 13, 2011 9:54 pm
Colombia’s Juan Manuel Santos is riding high: a 90 per cent approval rating probably makes him the world’s most popular president.
“My kids say ‘Dad, congratulations’, but I tell them ‘Don’t be stupid! We can only go down’,” he jokes during an interview at the presidential palace.
If Mr Santos is nervous, he doesn’t show it, as befits a renowned poker player. Still, the pressures have taken their toll on the 59-year-old: his voice is husky from a recent bout of flu.
Since the self-proclaimed “extreme centrist” won last August’s elections with 70 per cent of the vote, Mr Santos has embraced the presidency with a modernising zeal and canny pragmatism.
Tensions have eased with Colombia’s unpredictable neighbour, Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez – who used to deride Mr Santos as a Yankee stooge but now calls him “my new best friend”.
Mr Santos’ first state visit was also to Brazil and he is yet to travel to the US – a profound shift of emphasis from his predecessor Álvaro Uribe, under whom Mr Santos served as defence minister.
While the US dithers over ratifying a long-delayed free trade agreement, Colombia is pursuing trade pacts with Japan and South Korea. A Canadian free trade pact, which could displace US grain exports to Colombia, is also about to be implemented.
“The fact there are other countries I want to have good relations with does not mean I am depriori-tising the US,” he says.
Meanwhile, Colombia’s successes under Mr Uribe’s administration in quelling narco-traffickers and leftwing insurgents has allowed the technocratic Mr Santos to unleash initiatives that aim to haul South America’s third biggest country into the 21st century.
“Too often in Latin America we spend 80 per cent of our time talking about the past, and only 20 per cent on the future. In Asia it’s the inverse.”
One sign of Mr Santos’ desire to swap that ratio around is his determination to upgrade Colombian infrastructure: currently, it costs as much to ship goods from China as it does to bring those goods from the coast to Bogotá. One particularly ambitious proposal would see the Chinese build an alternative to the Panama Canal.
“It all depends on how such [infrastructure] improvements are financed,” he comments, with an eye on Colombia’s budget. “If they can be done through foreign investment, via concessions, the sky is the limit.”
Another is his emphasis on social policies and fighting corruption in a country with one of the world’s highest levels of inequality. Congress is debating two laws to compensate victims of Colombia’s decades-long violence, and restitute land stolen by guerrillas or paramilitary groups during the fighting. “We have to heal wounds . . . it’s symbolic,”, he says.
Mr Santos acknowledges that his seven-month-old government, with its Nike-like “just do it” approach, may not be able to deliver all it has promised.
“There are many enemies [of reform],” he says. “I am aware of the dangers . . . It is a very difficult test.”
But Mr Santos is as hard-headed as he is ambitious. That is apparent in his take on drug legalisation: “I’m not a fundamentalist . . . But this has to be a multilateral approach.” In the meantime, “fighting drug trafficking is a matter of national security”, as it should be in the UK, Europe and west Africa.
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