Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos came well-prepared for the job: Previously, he had served as his country's finance minister, foreign trade minister, and, most recently, defense minister under his predecessor, Álvaro Uribe. But while Uribe centered Colombia's foreign policy around an alliance with the United States, Santos has maintained good relations with Washington yet also kept some distance, becoming more of an independent player in Latin America. Santos, who has been in office slightly more than a year and who enjoys a strong domestic approval rating at 71 percent, sat down last week with Washington Post senior associate editor Lally Weymouth in Bogota. Excerpts of their conversation:
L.W.: It is said that you are repositioning Colombia, that President Uribe focused only on America and that you are repositioning your country and making it much more [of] a force in your own hemisphere. Is that so?
J.M.S.: Yes, it is a correct analysis but I want to be very clear: It is with the U.S. I personally have always been a good friend of the U.S. I am and will continue to be. I was educated there and for me, having strategic good relations with the U.S. is of the utmost importance. But I think they are not mutually exclusive, to have good relations with your neighbors and with the U.S.
L.W.: You have warmed up relations with Venezuela, which were almost at an end under President Uribe.
J.M.S.: Yes, they were not almost at an end—they were at an end. We had no diplomatic relations, no trade. The only discussions we had were through the media, and we were talking about war, which is inconceivable. So I decided to have cordial and cooperative relations not just with Venezuela, but also with Ecuador, a country with which we also had no relations. What we decided is that it is in our interest to have a region that is not on the verge of war.
L.W.: Venezuela was Colombia's No. 2 trading partner before relations broke off, but that trade level hasn't been restored, correct?
J.M.S.: No, it will never go back with the regime that we have in Venezuela. They don't believe in free trade; it's as simple as that. I negotiated the free-trade agreement 20 years ago with Venezuela. The trade went from $300 million to $7 billion, and then it went back to zero, because we had no trade. We are restoring it, but on a different basis, because they don't trade freely.
L.W.: There have been allegations that under President Uribe, the Department of Administrative Services was wiretapping Supreme Court members, reporters, and union leaders. What did you know about the DAS when you were minister of defense under Uribe?
J.M.S.: My answer is very clear and very simple: I had no knowledge about the DAS making illegal tapping, and I never received from President Uribe even a suggestion [of] our intelligence [being] used for political purposes like the ones that the DAS was allegedly making.
L.W.: The Washington Post reported this week that some U.S. assistance to Colombia may haven been diverted from fighting the FARC to conducting this wiretapping.
When I heard for the first time about this scandal … I was in Washington about two years ago at the CIA. My point here is that never did U.S. officials or U.S. intelligence agencies ever have any participation in this illegal tapping that I know of. I am sure that if they had known that, they would have denounced it. That was my experience with U.S. officials and U.S. intelligence agencies.
They were involved with the DAS in the sense that the CIA has always helped the DAS, but that does not mean they have helped them to do illegal things. The intelligence agencies in the U.S. have helped all our intelligence services, but that in no way means that they are accomplices in anything illegal.
L.W.: The Post storyindicated that because Colombia received U.S. intelligence resources, they were able to do the tapping more effectively. Then the sense of the story is completely different. Because we were trained by the U.S. and some of the people decided to use that knowledge to tap illegally, you cannot conclude that the U.S. aid has been used for illegal purposes.
Then the sense of the story is completely different. Because we were trained by the U.S. and some of the people decided to use that knowledge to tap illegally, you cannot conclude that the U.S. aid has been used for illegal purposes.
With all due respect to the Washington Post, which I admire very much, I think this story is not an objective story. To say that the aid instead of going to the FARC went to illegal tapping is a tremendous injustice and not true.
L.W.: Is President Uribe under investigation?
J.M.S.: No. He is not under investigation.
L.W.: How is the financial crisis in the U.S. and in Europe affecting your country?
J.M.S.: Fortunately, the financial crisis of 2008 did not hit us as hard as other countries. Since 10 years ago—when we had our big crisis—we started to develop ways to protect ourselves from the international financial crises. Our financial system was very strong in 2008 and today is even stronger. We are protecting ourselves with monetary measures and by strengthening our financial system and by starting to speak to the region to see how we can confront this crisis multilaterally.
L.W.: And what have you decided?
J.M.S.: The ministers of finance of the region got together and decided to strengthen the regional financial institutions, like the Corporación Andina de Fomento [the Andean Development Corporation ]. They also decided to strengthen the regional reserve funds and to start talking to each other and the central banks to see what type of additional measures could be taken to protect the region, which is growing—in contrast to the U.S. and Europe. We are exploring if we can increase intraregional trade, because we are afraid that demand from the traditional consuming countries, like Europe and the U.S., might come down.
I hope we don't have a double dip.
L.W.: Do you think you will?
J.M.S.: I hope we don't. And I certainly hope that politics does not interfere in the rational decisions that the U.S. and Europe should take in order to get out of this situation.
L.W.: So you are talking about the EU financial crisis and the recent U.S. debt-ceiling crisis? And Republicans and Democrats fighting?
J.M.S.: Yes, this is something that is contributing to the uncertainty of the financial centers and markets. In many ways, it is more than an economic crisis—it is a political crisis. The polarization that the world has seen in the U.S. Congress is causing a lot of uncertainty.
L.W.: What will your growth rate be this year?
J.M.S.: If the outside situation doesn't worsen this year, we should grow over 5 percent.
L.W.: How do you see your future with China?
J.M.S.: Right now it is our No. 2 trading partner. But we don't want to depend too much on China.
L.W.: The U.S. is your No. 1 trading partner?