Colombia's new president, Juan Manuel Santos, surprised many by reaching out to Venezuela's Hugo Chávez after coming to office in August. He discusses the FARC, Venezuela and his country's future with The Post's Lally Weymouth. Excerpts:
Q. How will your presidency differ from that of your predecessor, President Álvaro Uribe?
A. When Uribe came into power, circumstances forced him to concentrate on security issues. He launched a very successful program called "democratic security" -- security for every Colombian within the law and the constitution. In the last eight years, this has transformed the country. I come into power with a different set of circumstances . . . [and have to] concentrate on social issues -- the fight against poverty and unemployment.
What do you plan to do to finish off the FARC [Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia]?
It is a concept we call "consolidation of the territory." We come into a certain territory with the armed forces, we clean up, then we come in with the presence of the state -- with teachers and doctors to get to a point where if the FARC wanted to come back, they would be rejected by the population. That has been working very well.
Recently you met with Venezuelan President Chavez. . . . How do you see working with Chavez? Do you trust him?
When the problems with Chávez started and he shut down trade, it had a very dramatic cost to our economy. So when I came into power, I said there is nothing worse than what is happening at this moment: no diplomatic relations, no dialogue, no trade and the apparent presence of the FARC in Venezuela. Even though I have had deep differences with Mr. Chávez, I have a responsibility to try to achieve at least normal relations with Venezuela. So I made an approach . . . [and] we had a meeting.
First of all, we said let's respect each other. We can think very differently, but if we respect our differences, [and] have good relations, our people will benefit. Things are going extremely well. Chávez called me two days ago and said that he had captured a very important drug trafficker. He asked if I wanted him, and I said [the United States had asked for him], so I said send him to them because that is what we are going to do. And he did that [Tuesday]. Trade is starting to flow again. He is starting to pay our exporters, which he had ceased to do. He is starting to help in terms of the security on the border.
So he is starting to stop giving the FARC bases in Venezuela?
I would say he is starting to deliver. He has said vehemently, and he repeated it to me two days ago -- "I will not support the presence of any illegal group in Venezuela."
What are you going to do about improving economic growth in your country?
Growth is going very well. In this year, I think we are going to grow about 5 percent. . . . We are going to concentrate on infrastructure, housing, agricultural business, mining and energy, and innovation.
You have had problems with the free-trade agreement with the U.S.
We have done everything we can. It is in the hands of the U.S. Congress. . . . People in Colombia don't understand [why] if we are strategic allies, other countries have free-trade agreements that are not as strategic or as good allies. I hope that after November the free-trade agreement will be approved.
When the Republicans come to power?
Once you arrange your own internal political difficulties.
Are you trying to diversify your country's trade?
Absolutely, yes. . . . We depend too much on the U.S. and Venezuela.
How can the FARC be disarmed?
The FARC can be taken to what I call the point of no return. They are very close to that. They are desperate.
As minister of defense, were you involved in the hostage rescue in 2008 [when Ingrid Betancourt and three Americans were freed from the FARC]?
Yes, it was called Operation Check, like in checkmate. It was a wonderful experience.
Colombia once enjoyed investment-grade status but no longer does, while other countries around you are investment-grade.
We are very close to investment-grade. The credit-rating agencies have all improved our outlook in the recent past.
Will you tackle your public-sector deficit?
Yes, we will do that gradually because we don't want to choke the economy with a drastic reduction of public expenditure.
What do you think of the American administration?
I hope that the Obama administration understands that in today's Latin America, Colombia can play an extremely important role. We want our relations with the U.S. to evolve into a partnership. We were for many years simply aid receptors. We now call ourselves strategic allies, which sounds very pretty but we don't find the meat.
What should the meat be?
For example, having a free-trade agreement. . . . We can play a very important role in the region. Our success in fighting drugs is pushing the drug traffickers into other areas -- Mexico, Central America, the Caribbean. We can help a lot there.
Is Plan Colombia finished?
In my view, it should evolve. It should not finish because we still have the drug problem. As long as you have yuppies here snorting coke in New York, you have coca production in Colombia.