Santos assumes Colombia’s presidency; Venezuela’s foreign minister strikes conciliatory note

By Vivian Sequera, AP
Saturday, August 7, 2010

Santos becomes Colombia’s 59th president

BOGOTA, Colombia — Juan Manuel Santos was sworn in Saturday as the 59th president of Colombia, which despite major security gains remains the Western Hemisphere’s only nation beset by a politically based armed conflict.

A reminder of that was the absence of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez 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.

Chavez broke diplomatic relations with neighboring 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, Nicolas Maduro, who struck a conciliatory tone. “We want to extend our affectionate hand, of friendship and as brothers to all the Colombian people,” he said after arriving.

Also attending was President Rafael Correa of Ecuador, which severed ties with Uribe’s government in 2008 after the Colombian military raided a guerrilla camp a mile inside its territory, killing a rebel chief and 25 others.

Those ties have been on the mend, however, and Correa’s foreign minister, Ricardo Patino, said he planned to meet Sunday with his Colombian counterpart “to renew dialogue to establish relations between the two countries.”

Santos, a 58-year-old economist, was a Cabinet minister in three previous governments. He 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 after promising to build on those security gains.

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.

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 is chairman of the House subcommittee on Western Hemisphere affairs.

The president at the ceremony who appeared to have traveled the farthest was Mikhail Saakashvili of the former Soviet republic of Georgia.

Venezuela’s Chavez has promised to lobby in Latin America for the recognition of the independence of two separatist Georgian regions — Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Just three other countries recognize that status: Russia, Nicaragua and the small South Pacific island nation of Nauru.

Associated Press Writers Cesar Garcia and Jessica Lleras contributed to this report.

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