Colombia`s new leader offers talks to Venezuela, FARC

Last Updated: Sunday, August 8, 2010 - 10:31

Bogota: Juan Manuel Santos was sworn in as Colombia`s new president and immediately offered talks to heal a diplomatic rift with Venezuela, and to end 40 years of FARC rebel warfare provided they first disarm.

Santos, 58, is the chosen successor of conservative President Alvaro Uribe, who leaves office with an 80-percent approval rating after a major crackdown on rebel violence and an adversarial relation with leftist Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

"I prefer a frank and direct dialogue (with Venezuela), hopefully as soon as possible," Santos said after thanking countries who offered mediation in the row with Caracas over Uribe`s accusations that FARC rebels have found safe haven in Venezuela.

And in Caracas, Hugo Chavez said he was ready "to turn the page," and work with Santos. He said he asked his top diplomat to set up a meeting with Santos.

In his swearing in ceremony before a host of world leaders and top officials, including Venezuela`s Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro, Santos said talks with Colombia`s neighbor must evolve "within a framework of mutual respect, cooperation... and a strong stand against crime."

Maduro`s attendance was seen as a sign of Chavez` willingness to repair the diplomatic relations broken off July 22, one week after Colombia leveled its charges.

Santos, a former defense minister under Uribe, said he had only peaceful intentions -- "the word `war` is not in my dictionary," in a clear reference to Chavez`s recent announcement that he had sent troops to the border to repel any Colombian aggression.

Santos also made overtures in his opening speech to the Marist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, the country`s oldest and strongest rebel group who are at the heart of the latest Venezuela-Colombia row and have been fighting the government since the 1960s.

"To all outlawed armed groups that invoke political motivations (for their struggle) and today once again speak of dialogue, I tell them my government is open to any conversation that seeks to eradicate violence," Santos said.

However, he added, any talk must be based "on the unalterable premises of giving up weapons, kidnapping, blackmail, drug trafficking and intimidation."

Santos`s arrival in power was met with hope both in Caracas and among the FARC leadership, who last week proposed peace talks with the new administration.

Uribe had equal optimism for his protege Santos. "We have high hopes" for the Santos administration, he said at a dinner for visiting dignitaries late Friday.

Santos enjoys strong support from Colombians after his 2006-2009 stint as defense minister, when he was credited with dealing FARC its worst blow in 40 years of fighting.

On March 1, 2008 Uribe and Santos ordered the military to attack a clandestine base deep in the jungle in Ecuadoran territory run by Colombian FARC guerrillas. FARC number-two Raul Reyes was killed in the raid, as well as 24 others.

Diplomatic relations with the leftist governments in Quito were severed days later, and have yet to be fully restored.

Santos in his inauguration speech said one of his key objectives was to "rebuild relations with Venezuela and Ecuador and reestablish trust and the preeminence of diplomacy and prudence" in international relations.

In late July Uribe accused Venezuela of harboring some 1,500 leftist Colombian guerrillas in its territory. Caracas responded by withdrawing its ambassador.

Nevertheless Santos invited both Chavez and Ecuadoran President Rafael Correa to his inauguration.

Chavez sent Foreign Minister Maduro. "We want to extend our friendly hand, congratulate the government of president Santos, and tell him that we come with the best attitude looking towards the future," Maduro said on arrival Saturday.

Ecuador`s Correa said in Bogota that Santos "can always count with our total support. We are here to ratify that unbreakable bond between our people."

Early Saturday Santos traveled to northern Colombia to participate in a leadership ritual with representatives of four indigenous communities.

A consummate politician with a pedigree -- his great uncle Eduardo Santos was president 1938-1942 -- Santos has held several top government positions, including foreign trade minister, head of the treasury department, and vice president of Congress.

An economist and father of three, Santos has announced a government of national unity that includes members of centrist and conservative parties. He even appointed his right-wing election rival, German Vargas Lleras, as interior minister over the very public objections of the outgoing vice president.

On the domestic front, Santos will face the daunting task of pulling Colombia out of its economic quagmire, with 12-percent unemployment and a 46-percent poverty rate.

As a first order of business, he has vowed to create 2.5 million new jobs during his four-year term in office.

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First Published: Sunday, August 8, 2010 - 10:31

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