Colombia`s new president to be sworn in amid tensions

Juan Manuel Santos will be sworn in as Colombia`s new President on Saturday.

Bogota: Juan Manuel Santos will be sworn in as Colombia`s new President on Saturday as his administration prepares to tackle the country`s leftist insurgency and mend relations with neighboring Venezuela.

As the chosen successor of conservative President Alvaro Uribe, who is ending his eight years in office with an 80 percent approval rating, Santos enjoys the backing of many Colombians after a stint as defense minister from 2006 to 2009.

He has been credited with dealing the rebel Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) its worst blow in 40 years of fighting during his time in that post.

An economist and father of three, Santos, 58, has already taken the same hard line as Uribe, refusing to open talks with the FARC until they release all hostages and youth fighters.

But restoring diplomatic relations with Venezuela, broken last month over Uribe`s accusations that 1,500 FARC and other Colombian rebels have set up camps across the border, will be Santos`s first task as president.

Before Caracas withdrew its ambassador to Bogota on June 22, Santos had already taken steps to restore neighborly relations by inviting Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez to his inauguration, saying "when leaders are fighting, their people suffer."

Chavez, who has also been at loggerheads with Uribe over a US-Colombian military base deal signed last year, has sent troops to the border but also voiced hope that relations under Santos can get back on track.

On Friday, Chavez said his foreign minister would travel "at first light" Saturday to Bogota to attend Santos`s swearing in ceremony.

"Let`s hope this is the start of a solution, a real and meaningful one," outgoing Colombian Vice President Francisco Santos told reporters.

Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva was in Caracas on Friday, along with Union of South American Nations (Unasur) chief and former Argentine president Nestor Kirchner, to meet with Chavez on the diplomatic crisis before heading to Bogota.

Chavez said after the meeting he was "very optimistic" the rift could be healed.

Other leaders attending Santos`s inauguration include the presidents of Chile, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Georgia, Mexico, Panama, Peru, and Uruguay.

A consummate politician with a pedigree -- his great uncle Eduardo Santos was president from 1938 to 1942 -- Santos has held several top government positions during his career.

He was minister of foreign trade (1990-94), the treasury (1998-2002), and of defense (2006-2009), and vice president of Congress in 1993.

Like Uribe, he belongs to the Liberal Party and has had a 70 percent approval rating since his crushing runoff victory on June 20 with 69 percent of the vote.

Santos has often expressed admiration for Uribe, but lately has shown he plans to be his own man when he takes office.

He 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.

Santos has promised a transparent and inclusive government.

On the domestic front, he 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.

In 2014, he can stand for reelection for a second, consecutive and final term.

Bureau Report

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