Colombian president-elect wants to get along with neighbors

During a visit to South Florida, Colombia’s incoming president said he hopes to improve ties in the region and focus his administration on rooting out poverty and record-high unemployment.

Colombian President-elect Juan Manuel Santos said Thursday that he hoped to repair his nation’s tattered relationship with Venezuela and Ecuador — even as the Colombian government threatened to open fresh wounds in the ongoing battle.

Speaking in Coral Gables, Santos called on Ecuador and Venezuela to join in talks to resolve issues about trade and border security that “benefit everyone.”

The plea came as the Colombian government announced Thursday morning that it had evidence that four leaders of the leftist Armed Revolutionary Forces of Colombia, or FARC, were living in Venezuela — a charge that Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez has denied in the past.

`TERRORISTS’

  In an address to the Colombian-American Chamber of Commerce at the Biltmore Hotel, Santos said the issue of “terrorists in Venezuelan territory” needs to be discussed.

“You can have differences with your neighbors, but if you also have respect, you can have cordial relations,” he said. “It’s the people who suffer when leaders fight.”

Santos also reiterated his invitation to Chávez and Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa to join him at his Aug. 7 inauguration. Correa has said he will attend, but Chávez is still on the fence.

Relations between the three Andean countries have been strained since 2008 when Santos — then minister of defense — approved a cross-border raid on a FARC camp inside Ecuador.

The raid killed the rebel group’s second in command but it was a diplomatic fiasco. Ecuador’s courts have charged Santos with murder and Venezuela has virtually stopped trading with Colombia.

Colombia’s decision to allow U.S. military operations out of seven of its bases also has raised hackles in the region.

This fresh round of accusations only highlights the tightrope that Santos will have to walk, said Jorge Castañeda, the former foreign minister of Mexico and now a distinguished professor at New York University.

`DIFFICULT FELLOW’

  “Despite all his good intentions and all the nice talk from Chávez and Correa, the fact is that Chávez is a very difficult fellow to get along with because he continues to support the FARC and continues to give them safe havens,” said Castañeda, who attended the chamber event. “No president of Colombia can accept that.”

During the hour-long speech, Santos touted the security gains that President Alvaro Uribe had made and said he hoped to focus his administration on tackling poverty and unemployment.

Santos, who worked in two prior administrations as minister of trade and minister of finance, pledged to create 2.5 million new jobs and pull 7 million people out of poverty during his first four years in office.

He also called on the U.S. Congress to approve a long-stalled free-trade agreement.

“It would be incomprehensible for them to keep delaying the treaty,” he said.

But Colombia’s economic future hinges on keeping the nation safe, he said.

“Terrorism and insecurity are like weeds,” he said. “You have to pull them every day or they start growing again.”

jwyss@MiamiHerald.com

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