On Aug. 7, Juan Manuel Santos took the oath of office as president of Colombia. Statements by Santos open a slender possibility for peace in this country of 45 million, which has been racked by civil war for over 50 years. It's a country whose relations with neighboring countries such as Venezuela and Ecuador have taken an increasingly hostile turn under the outgoing president, Alvaro Uribe. The double question is now: Can peace actually be achieved within Colombia, and can war between Colombia and its neighbors be averted?
A lot depends on how the Obama administration handles the situation. And this means that we citizens and taxpayers of the United States have a crucial role to play.
At first glance, Santos seems to be an improbable dove. As Uribe's defense minister he was ultimately responsible for some of the more atrocious actions of the regime, including the attack on a camp of the leftist Fuerzas Armadas de la Revolucion Colombiana (FARC) in Ecuador in 2008, and the horrific "false positives" scandal, in which it was found that the Colombian military was randomly murdering innocent young rural men and then dressing them up in FARC uniforms and claiming that they were casualties of military combat.
Uribe, just before leaving power, tried to block possibilities of peaceful solutions with an accusation at a meeting of the OAS (Organization of American States) that Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez was allowing the FARC and another guerrilla army, the ELN, to operate from bases in his country. Unfortunately, the U.S. delegation to the OAS took Uribe's side.
This confrontation pushed tensions in the region to an unprecedented high. But Santos, seemingly distancing himself from Uribe, has been making cautiously conciliatory statements regarding both the Colombian civil war and Colombia's relations with its neighbors.
On his inauguration day, for instance, Santos presented Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa with components of the "magic computer" of former FARC leader Raul Reyes, captured by the Colombians when Reyes was killed in the 2008 raid. This computer has been used to make dubious accusations against a large proportion of the Latin American left of being connected to the FARC.
Other countries in the region moved quickly to try to defuse the crisis between Colombia and Venezuela, and also take advantage of any peace possibilities, however minimal, that might be opened up by the regime change. At the initiative of Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, the foreign ministers of UNASUR, which includes all of the major South American countries, met to try to mediate the dispute, only to be rebuffed by Uribe. But Lula, former Argentine President and present UNASUR Secretary General Nestor Kirchner, Ecuador's Correa and others have not given up. Olive branches are being offered to Santos. President Chavez of Venezuela, who had broken off diplomatic relations with Uribe, made a proffer of friendship while calling on the FARC to seek a peaceful solution and imploring them to release some 60 or 70 hostages they are thought to be holding. And FARC leader Alfonso Cano also said he was ready to talk. At writing, a meeting between Chavez and Santos is being worked out.
There is a sense of real danger, but also of an opportunity not to be missed.
Unfortunately, far from helping the progressive Latin American governments to achieve a peaceful resolution of the civil war in Colombia and current tensions among Latin American nations, the United States has been verbally and materially encouraging the right-wing government in Bogota to dream of military victories. Instead of basing its policy on a close working relationship with moderate regimes like those of Cristina Fernandez of Argentina and Lula of Brazil, it is allying itself with right-wing regimes like those of Colombia and Mexico, refraining from criticizing their human rights abuses while handing over billions of dollars to their military and police, through Plan Colombia and the Merida Initiative.
Progressive Americans should demand that our government contribute to a peaceful solution for Colombia's problems instead of exacerbating them. Santos will move away from Uribe's right-wing policies only if he understands that his U.S backers support change. Strident verbal attacks by U.S. officials on left-wing governments, as well as moves such as taking over seven military bases in Colombia and sending 7,000 U.S. Marines to Costa Rica, contribute nothing.
We need to contact the White House, the State Department and our senators and congresspersons to demand a change in direction, away from war and towards peace in South America.
Photo: Colombia's President Juan Manuel Santos, left, shakes hands with Ecuador's President Rafael Correa at the start of Santos' swearing-in ceremony in Bogota, Colombia, Aug. 7. (AP/Fernando Vergara)