Santos assumes Colombia’s presidency amid conciliation with Venezuela, EcuadorBy Vivian Sequera, AP
Saturday, August 7, 2010
Colombia’s new leader conciliatory with neighbors
BOGOTA, Colombia — Juan Manuel Santos, sworn in Saturday as Colombia’s 59th president, vowed to cement security gains but declared himself open to dialogue with rebels in hopes of ending the Western Hemisphere’s only armed conflict.
He also got to work immediately mending frayed relations with neighboring Venezuela and Ecuador.
Although he was invited, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez was not among the 14 Latin American and Caribbean leaders, including Felipe Calderon of Mexico and Inacio Lula da Silva of Brazil, attending Saturday’s ceremony on the carpeted cobblestones of Bogota’s central plaza. Also absent was Chavez’s close ally President Evo Morales of Bolivia.
Chavez broke diplomatic ties with Colombia two weeks ago after outgoing hard-line President Alvaro Uribe’s government presented the Organization of American States with video of alleged Colombian rebel camps in Venezuela.
Chavez did, however, send his foreign minister.
In Caracas later, after he heard Santos express a desire for improved relations, Chavez said he is ready “to turn the page and look to a future with the hope of peace, brotherhoold and full integration between Colombia and Venezuela.”
President Rafael Correa of Ecuador did attend the inauguration, though he severed ties with Uribe’s government in 2008 after the Colombian military raided a guerrilla camp a mile inside his country, killing a rebel chief and 25 others.
Those ties have been on the mend, however, and one of the first things Santos did as president was hand over to Correa the hard disks from the computers of rebel chief Raul Reyes that the Colombians seized in the raid.
As a condition for fully restoring relations, Correa had asked for the hard disks, which include electronic messages indicating leftist rebels contributed to his 2006 election campaign. The countries’ foreign ministers were to meet Sunday to work on returning ambassadors to each of their capitals.
Santos, a 58-year-old economist, set a new, less confrontational tone. He is a scion of one of Colombia’s leading political families. Uribe is a rancher’s son from Medellin, the country’s second city.
And the mood was certainly more relaxed than Uribe’s 2002 inauguration, when homemade mortars lobbed at the presidential palace by leftist rebels killed 19 people, most of them indigents who were blocks away.
Santos indicated his presidency would take a broader approach to ending Colombia’s nearly half-century conflict — focusing for one on attacking the nation’s deep-seated inequalities at their roots through social programs and job creation.
He signaled an unwillingness to talk peace with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, until it frees its hostages, halts “terrorist acts” and stops recruiting child soldiers and planting land mines.
“But at the same time I want to reiterate: The door to dialogue is not locked,” Santos said.
“It is possible to have a Colombia at peace, a Colombia without guerrillas, and we’re going to prove it! By reason or by force!”
A Cabinet minister in three previous governments and the great grandnephew of a president, Santos held the defense portfolio in 2006-2009 under Uribe, who remains immensely popular among Colombians for sharply diminishing murders and kidnappings and badly battering the rebels. Santos won election with 69 percent of the vote June 20.
Before his official inauguration, Santos, his wife, Maria Clemencia Rodriguez, and three children began the day high in Caribbean coastal mountains at an unorthodox “passing of the baton” ritual presided over by indigenous people from four nations.
Dressed entirely in white linen and barefoot, Santos received a wooden staff, a necklace of polished stones and two string bracelets, one for each wrist.
The stones represent the earth, water, nature and the government, whose job Santos said later in his inaugural speech is to protect them. The bracelets represent equilibrium.
Colombia is Washington’s staunchest ally in Latin America.
Representing the United States at the afternoon inauguration was Jim Jones, President Barack Obama’s national security adviser, and a congressional delegation led by Rep. Eliot Engel, a Democrat from New York who chairs the House subcommittee on Western Hemisphere affairs.
Associated Press Writers Frank Bajak, Cesar Garcia and Jessica Lleras contributed to this report.
Tags: Barack Obama, Bogota, Colombia, Ecuador, Inaugurations, Latin America And Caribbean, South America, Uribe, Venezuela