Guest Post: Colombia on the International Stage

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Presidents Santos of Colombia, Chavez of Venezuela and Castro of Cuba chat during a family photo session during the CELAC summit in Caracas (Carlos Garcia Rawlins/Courtesy Reuters).

Presidents Santos of Colombia, Chavez of Venezuela and Castro of Cuba chat during a family photo session during the CELAC summit in Caracas (Carlos Garcia Rawlins/Courtesy Reuters).

This is a guest post by Sebastian Chaskel and Michael Bustamante. Sebastian Chaskel is a Master in Public Affairs student at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. Michael Bustamante is a doctoral student in history at Yale University. Both served as research associates at the Council on Foreign Relations in the Latin America program. This post draws on an article published in the February edition of Current History.

Today, Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos travels to Havana to meet with Cuban officials and Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, currently convalescing in a Havana hospital. This hastily planned visit will last just a few hours,but the main item on the agenda holds broader regional significance. Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, and Nicaragua have pledged to boycott the upcoming Sixth Summit of the Americas if Cuba is not invited to participate. As host of the April event, the Santos administration is trying to broker a solution agreeable to all parties.

President Santos is likely under no illusions about the waning salience of the Summit process and the Organization of American States to which it is linked. Colombia itself is a full participant in rival regional forums that have emerged in recent years to challenge the traditional U.S.-led inter-American system (for example, the newly minted Community of Latin American and Caribbean States, or CELAC). Yet Santos nonetheless stands to gain from a smooth summit meeting in Cartagena, especially on the symbolic front if he can broker Cuba’s ad-hoc participation in the face of U.S. opposition. (The OAS suspended Cuba’s membership in 1962, but lifted this suspension in 2009. Cuba has not requested formal readmission, and Washington opposes Cuba’s participation in the summit unless it meets requirements for full membership under the 2001 Inter-American Democratic Charter).

President Santos is proving to be an able and independent leader in the international realm in more ways than one. In the 1990s and 2000s, Bogotá’s close security ties with Washington dominated discussions of Colombian foreign policy. Indeed, Colombia’s internal problems have long drawn more concerted attention from observers than its international ties, and with good reason. Yet since assuming the presidency in 2010, and no doubt owing in part to the dramatic (although still incomplete) improvement of Colombia’s domestic security situation over the past fifteen years, Colombia’s new president has pursued an increasingly diverse, mature, and noteworthy diplomatic agenda.

The first foreign policy priority for President Santos upon taking office was repairing relations with Colombia’s immediate neighbors. The preceding Álvaro Uribe administration repeatedly alleged Venezuelan and Ecuadorian government complicity in providing refuge to the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) within their territory. As a result, on the day of Santos’s inauguration, Colombia’s ties with both governments remained severed. Eighteen months later, Colombia has restored formal relations with both countries. Trade and bilateral cooperation are on the rise. This diplomatic reversal has withstood a number of tests. In March 2011, to cite one example, the Colombian armed forces intercepted a shipment of Venezuelan uniforms and weaponry destined for the FARC. Still, in this instance and others, diplomacy helped avoid conflict. Santos has repeatedly urged Colombians to look toward the future, and since 2010, Venezuela has saw fit to arrest and deport various alleged members of the FARC and the Ejercito de Liberación Nacional (ELN, the second major armed rebel group after the FARC) back to Colombia. In exchange, Bogotá sent Walid Makled, a drug trafficker wanted in both Caracas and Washington, to Venezuela. Dialogue and negotiation, Santos seems to believe, will prove a better strategy for reducing the FARC’s ability to use Colombia’s neighbors as safe-havens.

Of course, Colombia’s relationship with the United States continues to be critical, and in October 2011 the U.S. Congress finally ratified the bilateral free trade agreement that had languished on Capitol Hill since 2006. Yet surprisingly muted fanfare greeted news of the belated ratification in Bogotá. In a sense, Colombian foreign policy had already moved on. While the FTA was on hold in Washington, Colombia signed similar trade pacts with Canada, Chile, the European Free Trade Association, and the European Union. During President Santos’ tour of Asia in September, South Korea upgraded its relationship with Colombia to one of “strategic cooperation.” Meanwhile, exports to China have increased by 85 percent since 2006. Thus, even as the United States remains Colombia’s leading trade and diplomatic partner, and even as U.S. security and development assistance continues to flow, few Colombians see the long-sought FTA as the country’s golden ticket to success. It is but one piece of an increasingly multipronged global strategy.

In general, Santos has been much less willing than Uribe to jeopardize relations with neighbors to shore up ties with the United States. In 2009, Uribe’s decision to allow the U.S. military expanded access to Colombian bases plunged his government’s relationship with almost all Latin American countries into crisis. By contrast, in August 2010, when Colombia’s Constitutional Court declared that agreement unconstitutional without congressional approval, Santos opted not to send it to Congress.

Santos’ effort to broker a solution with regard to Cuba’s participation in the Summit of the Americas represents just the latest evidence of Colombia’s renewed assertiveness on the global stage. On the domestic front, too, Santos has emerged (somewhat surprisingly, given his pedigree in the Uribe government) as a reformist leader from the political center, pursuing bold legislation dealing with fiscal responsibility, corruption, and perhaps most significantly, comprehensive land and financial restitution for victims of Colombia’s devastating armed conflict. (For more on these programs, as well as some of potential complications or risks attendant to implementation, see our article in Current History).

Regardless of whether today’s lightning visit to Havana resolves the current controversy over the upcoming Cartagena summit, Colombia appears to be coming into its own, at home and abroad. Faced with legacies of profound violence, corruption, massive forced displacement, and extreme inequality (at 0.58, Colombia’s Gini coefficient is one of the highest in the world), not to mention continuing conflict with the FARC and newer criminal gangs, clearly much progress remains to be made. Yet a year and a half into his presidency, Juan Manuel Santos has taken a number of important first steps to remedy widespread injustice at home and to pursue a more independent foreign policy in line with national interests.

Published in conjunction with Latin America’s Moment at the Council on Foreign Relations.