Since taking office in 2010, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos has sought to fill the regional leadership role left vacant by Brazil’s former President Lula da Silva when the latter left his post in the same year. Many analysts believe that the days of US hemispheric hegemony are over. I would go a step further and venture to say that the US has also lost a substantial amount of its influence over Latin America. Lula was once the most popular president in all of the Americas and aspired to expand Brazil’s influence in regional and global affairs. Since he left office, his successor, Dilma Rousseff, has taken a more domestic focus (in her defense, Brazil has the honor of hosting the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Summer Olympics, and thus some of her attention has been focused on promoting her country in the best possible light). Lula was successful in creating a model for an alternative for US regional leadership, and, in my opinion, Santos seeks to fill the void left by Lula.
Recently, Santos and Colombia had the honor of hosting the Sixth Summit of the Americas, but this summit almost did not take place because Cuba was not invited. US opposition to the inclusion of Cuba in hemispheric affairs puts it at odds with the majority of the other countries in the hemisphere; Canada also favored Cuba’s exclusion. Santos hopped a plane to Havana and returned home with good news: the summit would take place and Cuba did not insist upon attending. According to an Associated Press article, this event enhanced Santos’ “reputation as a deft diplomat and budding powerbroker who gets along with just about everybody.”
This reputation has been built by his involvement in numerous regional issues and his desire to mend and improve Colombia’s relationships with its neighbors. One of Santos’ first steps after taking office was to restore relations with Venezuela, which had soured under his predecessor, Álvaro Uribe, and mend relations with Ecuador. Uribe also brokered an agreement with the United States to expand US access to Colombian bases—a move that sparked a regional crisis. This agreement was opposed by almost all South American countries, and was the subject of outspoken criticism from Lula, among others. As the Associated Press noted, Santos heeded the cries of his neighbors and has “shelved [the] agreement.” This is not the only way in which Santos has gone against the wishes of the United States. His improved relationship with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has helped him capture and extradite major Colombian drug traffickers and rebel leaders. It has also led Santos to extradite “an alleged major Venezuelan drug trafficker back to his homeland even though he was wanted by the United States.” Such defiance from one of the United States’ strongest hemispheric allies shows the decreased level of US influence in the region and underscores Santos’ independence. He has also mentioned a desire to discuss an end to the US embargo on Cuba and the legalization of drugs with other American leaders, two subjects on which the United States seems unwilling to budge. This independence has gained him the respect of fellow Latin American leaders.
Santos has not limited his sphere of influence to South America and the Caribbean. He helped broker the return of former President Manuel Zelaya to Honduras after a coup d’état removed him from power. Santos also sent Colombian counternarcotics experts to Mexico to train Mexican members of the armed forces and law enforcement. He offered similar training and advisors to Central America, which currently faces its own security and narcotics related issues.
Juan Manuel Santos has positioned himself and Colombia as a regional leader by reaching out to his neighbors and distancing himself from the United States. As a friend of the Left and the Right in the hemisphere, Santos has taken a similar centrist track to Lula. His prudent actions and diplomatic nature have made him popular in the hemisphere, although not on the same scale as Lula. In the past, the United States probably would have welcomed a more influential Colombia, especially with the rise of the New Left. However, the traditionally more conservative Colombian government has shifted toward the center and even tilted to the liberal side of certain issues under Santos. The Colombian president has also shown a willingness to challenge the United States on certain issues. In my opinion, Santos’ independent thinking and centrist track are refreshing in a hemisphere that has often been dominated by one voice. However, it might best serve the United States to view Santos’ regional popularity and significant regional involvement as a stern reminder that there have been significant changes in the hemisphere it once dominated.
– Max Rava
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