An interview with Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos

By Lally Weymouth, Friday, August 26, 11:45 AM

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos came well prepared for the job: Previously, he served as his country’s finance minister, foreign trade minister and, most recently, defense minister under his predecessor, Alvaro Uribe. But while Uribe centered Colombia’s foreign policy around an alliance with the United States, Santos has maintained good relations with Washington yet also kept some distance, becoming more of an independent player in Latin America. Santos, who has been in office slightly more than one year and enjoys a strong domestic approval rating of 71 percent, sat down last week with Washington Post senior associate editor Lally Weymouth in Bogota. Excerpts of their conversation:

It is said that you are repositioning Colombia, that President Uribe focused only on America and that you are making it much more a force in your own hemisphere. Is that so?

Yes, it is a correct analysis but I want to be very clear:It is with the U.S. I personally have always been a good friend of the U.S. I am and will continue to be. I was educated there and for me, having strategic good relations with the U.S. is of the utmost importance. But I think they are not mutually exclusive, to have good relations with your neighbors and with the U.S.

You have warmed up relations with Venezuela, which were almost at an end under President Uribe.

Yes, they were not almost at an end; they were at an end. We had no diplomatic relations, no trade. The only discussions we had were through the media and we were talking about war, which is inconceivable. So I decided to have cordial and cooperative relations not just with Venezuela, but also with Ecuador, a country with which we also had no relations. What we decided is that it is in our interest to have a region that is not on the verge of war.

Venezuela was Colombia’s number two trading partner before relations broke off, but that trade level hasn’t been restored, correct?

No, it will never go back with the
regime that we have in Venezuela. They don’t believe in free trade; it’s as simple as that. I negotiated the free trade agreement 20 years ago with Venezuela. The trade went from $300 million to $7 billion and then it went back to zero because we had no trade. We are restoring it but on a different basis because they don’t trade freely.

There have been allegations that under President Uribe, the Department of Administrative Services [DAS] conducted wiretapping on Supreme Court members, reporters and union leaders. What did you know about the DAS activities when you were minister of defense under Uribe?

My answer is very clear and very simple. I had no knowledge about the DAS making illegal tapping, and I never received from President Uribe even a suggestion for our intelligence to be used for political purposes like the ones that the DAS was allegedly making.

The Washington Post reported this week that some U.S. assistance to Colombia may haven been diverted from fighting the FARC to conducting this wiretapping.

When I heard for the first time about this scandal about the DAS, I was in Washington about two years ago at the CIA. My point here is that never did U.S. officials or U.S. intelligence agencies ever have any participation in this illegal tapping that I know of. I am sure that if they had known that, they would have denounced it. That was my experience with U.S. officials and U.S. intelligence agencies. . .

Read complete article by the Washington Post


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