The Colombian Perspective: Professor Arlene Tickner Evaluates President Santos

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September 27, 2011

Is Santos more domestically or internationally focused (particularly in contrast to Uribe)? 

Santos is both domestically and internationally focused, as was Uribe, but he has emphasized foreign policy more than his predecessor did. The main explanation for this shift is related to the improved security situation within Colombia, and the success of the Uribe administration (in which Santos was the minister of defence) in combatting the FARC guerrillas. The general sense in Colombia that security – at least in relation to the armed insurgency – has improved, has provided Santos with breathing space to address other issues, including foreign policy. In this regard, his focus during his first year in office has been primarily economic, in keeping with Uribe’s efforts to create a favourable investment climate in Colombia, attract new foreign investors, and increase trade.

Does Santos hanker after a hemispheric, regional, or global role for Colombia?

Santos seems to act on a long-held belief in Colombia that the country’s potential resources are not reflected in its regional or global role. For the past eight to 10 years, Colombia’s international aspirations have been put on hold as the country has addressed its internal security crisis (consisting of an intensification of the armed conflict in the mid-1990s, the illicit narcotics problem, and the increasing entanglement of the two).

At minimum, Santos understands that a country that aspires to global recognition as a “middle” or “emerging” power has to cultivate strong ties with its own region. And that is what he set out to do as soon as he took office: He aimed to normalize relations with Venezuela and Ecuador, and to repair the damage to South American relations that Uribe caused (due to his excessive alliance with the U.S., his anti-terrorist discourse, and his “anything goes in the name of fighting terrorism” attitude).

At maximum, as a member of the UN Security Council (and an aspirant to OECD membership), Santos is attempting to position Colombia as a country whose know-how on issues related to conflict, peace, and security should be listened to, and as a country that respects the economic and political rules of the global game. Whether or not this signals interest in playing a greater global role is hard to tell. More importantly, however, it is not clear that Colombia has the diplomatic architecture needed to do so.

How does Colombia see Canada as a middle power? Does it see Canada as simply a U.S. ally, or as something else altogether?

Given Canada’s close (and obsessive) alliance with the United States, it has not occupied Colombia’s attention until now. However, as Colombia attempts to diversify its trade (and political) relations, Canada is increasingly seen as a potential partner. The fact that Canada was willing to approve a free-trade agreement with Colombia while the agreement in the United States was agonizing was valued tremendously in Colombia, as it constituted a “bill of good health” that was considered sorely needed to gain greater investment confidence and expand trade. It also seems that a more ideological or political affinity developed between the Uribe government and Prime Minister Stephen Harper. However, more than a U.S. ally, or an ally on its own account, Colombia views Canada as a potential investment and trading partner.

How important is the mining sector in Colombia? To what degree is the government willing to compromise human rights and other concerns to pave the way for economic growth in this area?

The mining sector in Colombia is tremendously important right now, and is viewed as a key part of the government’s strategy to attract foreign investment and promote trade. Although there are differing views on the willingness of the government to sacrifice human rights and environmental concerns to facilitate economic growth in this area, there is considerable public debate on the issue. In other words, although the government is trying to sell Colombia as a safe place to invest – one that has tremendous economic potential and is investor friendly – the fact that this is such a politically sensitive issue means that the government cannot act with complete disregard for human rights and the environment, even if it wants to. And it seems to me that Santos understands that these things are relatively important.