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.
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?
J.M.S.: Yes, and I hope you will continue to be. That’s why I am so interested in the approval of the free-trade agreement.
L.W.: What do you think of the prospect of the agreement passing?
J.M.S.: I have my fingers crossed. The U.S. has been our most important trade partner and our most important investor. It is not only in the interest of Colombia—it is in the interest of the U.S. that Colombia has free trade. We are a source of growth for the U.S. We are 46 million Colombians. We are growing at a relatively high rate; we are taking millions of Colombians out of poverty. We want to lower the poverty rate by at least 7 or 8 percent.
L.W.: How are you doing with the FARC and violence? Is the security situation under control?
J.M.S.: Yes, the security situation is under control. We still have security problems, because we still have an interior conflict. But the FARC is weakened; they are politically defeated, but they still have enough muscle to commit acts of terrorism, and that’s what they have been doing.
L.W.: Is Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez still giving them sanctuary?
J.M.S.: He has made a commitment to me that he will not allow the FARC to use his territory as a sanctuary.
L.W.: Do you believe him?
J.M.S.: So far he has given me no grounds to say he is not complying. There probably are guerrillas in Venezuela, but he says it is without his say-so and that if I pinpoint where they are, he will go and get them. On two different occasions, I have pinpointed, and he has delivered.
L.W.: Has the drug trade diminished so it is not one of your major problems?
J.M.S.: It is a big problem, but it is not a major problem. We were able to defeat the major cartels. We now have mini cartels. But as long as we have consumption in Washington, Paris, or London—there will be a supply and the business will continue.
L.W.: Why did you create the fiscal rule?
J.M.S.: We introduced into our constitution the criteria of fiscal sustainability in order to oblige not only this government but future governments to be fiscally responsible.
L.W.: The fiscal rule would call for a deficit of only 1 percent of the GDP?
J.M.S.: Our aim is to lower deficits to a maximum of 1 percent, and we have the plans as to how we will arrive at that figure.
L.W.: What do you think of President [Barack] Obama?
J.M.S.: I hope he does well. If the U.S. does well, the world does well.
L.W.: What do you think of the Republicans?
J.M.S.: I have good friends on the Republican side. I want to continue having good relations with both parties.
L.W.: It has been reported that you are going to abolish the DAS.
J.M.S.: I am going to abolish the DAS in the next three or four months. I want to create a new and completely different intelligence agency. By abolishing DAS, we can take away the bad culture that it has developed. I want to take away some of the functions that the DAS had and transfer them to other entities. For instance, they were in charge of immigration.
L.W.: President Uribe picked you out and promoted you for president and has now emerged as one of your main opponents.
J.M.S.: I can assure you that I have great respect for President Uribe. I understand that he might not like some of the things I am doing. …
He doesn’t like my foreign relations strategy. Every president has his own way of doing things. He has criticized this government for unveiling a lot of corruption; he thinks it is an attack on his government. But I have said no, it is not an attack on his government, it is an attack on the corrupt people and I will continue to do that.
L.W.: When you talk of attacking corruption, are you talking about the attorney general or other parts of your government?
J.M.S.: We have a crusade with the attorney general, the prosecutor general, the police, and the controller general to identify cases of corruption, put people in jail, and start cleaning up this country. So far we have done it. We have saved a lot of money for the state that was going to corruption. For example, people were stealing money from the health system. The mafia was in the system, manipulating the computers and presenting false claims. With the sales tax system, they were inventing fictitious exports and claiming the tax refunds for millions of pesos and people are now in jail. We will continue fighting those mafias. We are attacking corruption and every corrupt person—no matter how important he is—will go to jail.