Pubdate: Thu, 07 Jul 2011
Source: Wall Street Journal (US)
Copyright: 2011 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
Author: Darcy Crowe


President Santos Moves To Build On Security Gains Of His Predecessor
To Address Root Cause Of Conflict: Land Ownership

BOGOTA - President Juan Manuel Santos has surprised friends and foes
alike during his first year in office by distancing himself from his
onetime boss, former President Alvaro Uribe, and setting an ambitious
agenda to try to repair the damages from a long-running civil war.

With approval ratings at over 75% and a solid majority in congress,
Mr. Santos has secured a package of groundbreaking laws, including one
to return nearly 16 million acres of land-equal to West Virginia-taken
from peasants during the war.

In a wide-ranging interview in English, Mr. Santos said that the
reform, linked to a plan to give up to about $20,000 in financial
restitution to victims of the war, is the top challenge for his
administration and a decisive step in dealing with issues surrounding
land ownership, a root cause of Colombia's violence.

Dismantling the country's high levels of land concentration in few
hands has been one of the most persistent demands by leftist
guerrillas since they took up arms in the 1960s. Land that was stolen
by paramilitary death squads and powerful regional bosses who
threatened and sometimes massacred entire rural communities to force
them off their farms over the past two decades only worsened matters.

"We have been a country in conflict for so many years, so many
decades, centuries even, that it's time for us to heal our wounds,"
said Mr. Santos, the 59-year-old scion of one of the nation's most
influential families, which once had the power to make and unmake
presidents through control of El Tiempo, the country's leading
newspaper. The family no longer owns the paper.

The focus on healing the country took many here by surprise coming
from Mr. Santos, who was defense minister in the administration of Mr.
Uribe. The former two-term president transformed the country through a
no-holds barred offensive against the Revolutionary Armed Forces of
Colombia, or the FARC, a decades' old leftist insurgency turned drug
trafficking group that has been pushed deep into the country's jungles.

But Mr. Santos said his focus on healing Colombia is "building on top"
of Mr. Uribe's security achievements. "Once you start to regain
control of the territory, you need to eliminate the objective factors
of violence and this is one of them," said the president, a former
journalist who studied at the University of Kansas and Harvard Kennedy

The president has also kept up pressure on the FARC. In September,
forces killed Victor Suarez, also known as Mono Jojoy, the FARC's
second-in-command. Since then, however, there have few high-profile
strikes. Recent polls also suggest that Colombians sense that the
country's security situation is worsening, giving ammunition to Uribe
loyalists who say that Mr. Santos is lowering his guard.

"In some areas it is true" that violence is up, Mr. Santos said. The
president, however, maintains that renewed attacks by FARC are the
result of the guerrillas being forced out of their traditional havens.

Mr. Santos has changed the tenor of foreign policy in addition to
domestic policy. He has moved quickly to reset relations with Ecuador
and Venezuela, with whom Mr. Uribe had a fraught relationship.

Recently calling the now-ailing Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez "his
new best friend," Mr. Santos has gotten Mr. Chavez to pay back at
least $600 million in money owed by Venezuela to Colombian
businessmen, and arrest and extradite some members of the communist
guerrillas who use Venezuela as a refuge.

Mr. Santos has also re-established relations with Ecuador, which broke
off diplomatic relations with Bogota after the Colombian military
attacked a rebel camp in Ecuadorian territory killing one of the
FARC's top commanders.

The shift is part of a broader move to diversify Colombia from its
dependence on the U.S. Mr. Santos has been courting Chinese
investments more actively than his predecessor and is exploring the
possibility of a joint Colombian-Chinese railroad connecting the
country's Pacific coast to the Caribbean as an alternative to the
Panama Canal.

During the Uribe administration, Bogota was widely seen as the U.S.'s
most dependable ally in the region. But ties have been strained due to
the inability of the White House to deliver on a long-promised
free-trade deal. While Mr. Santos said he was confident the U.S. trade
deal could be approved soon, he warned that if the bill didn't pass
this year "it would be a major setback" because political enthusiasm
for it could wane in the U.S.

"It would be a lose-lose situation," he said. 
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MAP posted-by: Jo-D