While the story of Colombia’s resurgence has become old news, it has not become any less remarkable. A country where violence once seemed uncontrollable is now a darling of global investors and one of the most promising emerging-market economies in the world.
About a week before George W. Bush took office in January 2001, a San Antonio Express-Newsdispatch from Bogotá described Colombia as a nation “engulfed on all sides by violence and war.” Eight years later, when Bush was about to leave the White House, things in Colombia had improved so dramatically that he awarded then-President Álvaro Uribe with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, praising him as someone who had “reawakened the hopes of his countrymen and shown a model of leadership to a watching world.”
Uribe’s successor in the Casa de Nariño, Juan Manuel Santos, served as defense minister from 2006 to 2009, during which time Colombia scored a number of major victories in its battle against leftist narco-guerrillas, including the dramatic rescue of French-Colombian politician Íngrid Betancourt and 14 other hostages (three of them Americans) as part of Operation Checkmate in July 2008. The following December, Colombia’s most influential magazine (Semana) named Santos person of the year, declaring that he “may be remembered as the best minister of defense the country has had.”
After Santos became president in 2010, he surprised many Colombians by seeking to improve relations with the late Venezuelan autocrat Hugo Chávez, who had previously denounced Santos as a dangerous warmonger. (During the 2010 Colombian presidential campaign, Chávez had warned that Santos “could cause a war in this part of the world, upon instructions from the Yankees.”) Santos also sought a rapprochement with Ecuador, whose president, Rafael Correa, a quasi-authoritarian Chávez disciple, had clashed with Uribe.
If you want to see both the potential and the peril in Latin America, you could not do better than to visit Honduras and Colombia, as I did in mid-May: The former is Exhibit A for all that is wrong with the region, from drug trafficking and violence to governmental corruption; the latter a showcase of what can be done to bring even the most embattled country back from the brink.
Vice President Joe Biden is in Latin America meeting with foreign leaders. His first stop was in Colombia, where he landed yesterday and met with Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos.
The vice president was diplomatic. "We understand that some real progress appears to have been made yesterday on the agrarian front. We applaud every advance -- every advance -- that gets Colombians closer to the peace they so richly deserve. And we look forward to the day when Colombia can fully enjoy a genuine peace dividend."
On October 21, President Obama signed into law the U.S.-Colombia free trade agreement (FTA), thereby giving American exporters greater access to one of South America’s fastest growing markets. The long, tiring debate over the FTA—which began five years ago, when the agreement was first completed—showed that popular perceptions of Colombia are stuck in a time warp. Not only has the country become a much safer and less violent place than it was in the 1980s, 1990s, and early 2000s, it has also become one of the most promising economies in the Western Hemisphere.
The Obama administration finally announced earlier this week an agreement on the Colombia Free Trade Agreement, paving the way for its ratification. The Colombia FTA is long overdue, and President Obama’s change of heart is a welcome step for America and Colombia alike. As the White House notes, American workers will immediately benefit from the agreement:
It is, in a way, unsurprising that the president gave Bogota a brief nod during his State of the Union address. After all, In 2010 State of the Union address, the president claimed, “we will strengthen our trade relations in Asia and with key partners like South Korea and Panama and Colombia.” And, in 2009, President Obama told Colombian president Alvaro Uribe that he was “confident that ultimately we can strike a deal that is good for the people of Colombia and good for the people of the United States.” Yet, no such deal has been struck.
Speaking to reporters at the G-20 summit in Toronto, President Obama declared his intention to complete the U.S.–South Korea free-trade agreement, which was signed by the Bush administration three years ago. “I want to make sure that everything is lined up properly by the time I visit Korea in November, and in the few months that follow that, I intend to present it to Congress,” Obama said. “It is the right thing to do for our country, it is the right thing to do for Korea.”
Dr. Antanas Mockus is a bit of an oddity in Latin American. He has a Lithuanian name, an Amish-looking beard, walks around wearing sunflowers, and gives rambling, professorial answers when you ask him a question. He's a stark contrast to the "machismo" we've come to expect from Latin American politicians, but in a few months Colombians will likely be calling him "El Presidente." Perhaps more importantly, he will enter the history books as the first world leader ever elected as a member of a Green Party.
Last week, U.S. and Brazilian officials signed a defense pact that will significantly enhance bilateral military ties. “This agreement will lead to a deepening of U.S.-Brazil defense cooperation at all levels,” Defense Secretary Robert Gates declared. While the agreement does not explicitly discuss U.S. access to Brazilian bases, it does mention naval visits. I would not be surprised if it eventually led to some form of U.S. military presence in Brazil.
Ever since I read George Plimpton’s Paper Lion in high school, I’ve been a huge fan of “stunt journalism.” This is the type of feisty reportage where a writer tries out for a professional football team, or takes a crack at conducting a symphony orchestra, and then writes a lighthearted article about his experiences.