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FOCAL Views: Canada and Colombia: Building on progress

The 59th president of Colombia, Juan Manuel Santos, took office last month. This is both good news for the region and a validation of Canada’s support and faith in that country and its institutions. 

Canada and Colombia sealed a free trade agreement in June 2010. This deal advances the Harper government’s bilateral trade goals set out in its Americas Strategy, goals that now seem prescient when one contrasts the U.S. economic slump with the growth seen in Latin America.

Earlier this year, the Colombian Supreme Court ruled against an attempt by outgoing former president Álvaro Uribe to change the constitution to allow him to run for a third consecutive term. In a country still technically in the midst of a civil war and listed on this year’s Foreign Policy’s failed states index as one “in danger,” it is notable that the ruling was accepted without national protests or threats to stability. The election of Santos symbolizes the strength of Colombia’s democratic institutions, warranting Canada’s closer involvement.

President Santos has demonstrated his intention to lead a clean and competent government by appointing an overwhelmingly technocratic cabinet, which also includes opposition figures. The new foreign and agricultural ministers are good examples in this regard.

Yet only a month ago, some analysts considered Colombia on the verge of war. Renewed charges from Uribe that Venezuela was harbouring and actively supporting the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) led his counterpart Hugo Chávez to cut diplomatic ties with the country and deploy the air force and infantry along the border. Countries in the hemisphere fled into well-worn positions and took sides, but mostly avoided becoming entangled in the fracas.

Flash forward to changes brought about this past August. Astonishingly, Chávez has re-established diplomatic ties with Colombia, and the Aug. 22 meeting of ministers of foreign relations set up bilateral commissions on security, trade and border control to normalize and strengthen relations. In another promising development, the recent Aug. 17 Colombia Supreme Court ruling required Congress to approve a controversial treaty that allowed for greater U.S. presence on military bases. Most analysts believe that this heralds the demise of the agreement. Similarly, Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa launched discussions to renew diplomatic relations and even attended Santos’s inauguration. This comes two years after bilateral ties were breached following the controversial 2008 raiding of a FARC camp in Ecuador by the Colombian military, which resulted in the death of paramilitary leader Raul Reyes and seizure of his computers. These computers are believed to contain evidence of Chávez’s support for the FARC; shortly after taking office, Santos turned this material over to the Ecuadorian government. The Ecuadorian arrest warrant for Santos that had been issued in relation to his implication in the raid was revoked in late August.

Talks with FARC will be more challenging for Santos. Though FARC has offered to negotiate with the new government, there is no sign of change in its position to reflect the fact that it has been crippled militarily and weakened politically. As a defence minister in the Uribe administration, Santos is well aware of this state of affairs and will not easily bargain away recent gains. He also had experience in making concessions to the FARC under former president Andrés Pastrana when he helped create a demilitarized zone in a failed attempt to facilitate peace negotiations. Yet, Uribe who left office with approval ratings nearing 75 per cent could have the power to scuttle any deal he disagrees on.

On the broader hemispheric stage, the warm welcome for the new government is both a validation of Canada’s commitment to the country and a good boost to its engagement in the region. Canada will be working closely with Colombia as it prepares to host the 2012 Summit of the Americas. Colombia has also emerged as a much sought after source of technical assistance on security issues in Haiti, importantly, but also in Guatemala and Mexico.

As Canada seeks to accomplish more for security in the hemisphere this could become a new area for co-operation with Colombia. blue square

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