Andres Oppenheimer

Keep an eye on Colombia! After Sunday's landslide victory of president-elect Juan Manuel Santos, Colombia could follow the steps of Brazil, Chile and Peru, and become South America's next economic success story.

Granted, many things can go wrong, including a resurgence of Marxist guerrilla violence and a new round of tensions with neighboring Venezuela and Ecuador. But well-placed Colombia watchers cite four major reasons why Colombia could take off under Santos.

First, Santos, who most recently served as outgoing President Alvaro Uribe's minister of defense, won with nearly 70 percent of the vote, and 2 million votes more than what Uribe got in his last election. That will give Santos a solid majority in Congress, which will allow him to woo investments with guarantees of economic continuity and embark on ambitious energy, health and education reforms.

Colombia is already the fourth-largest recipient of foreign investment in Latin America -- after Brazil, Chile and Mexico, according to a recent United Nations report. Many economists think Santos may be able to meet his campaign vow to achieve a 6 percent growth rate within two years because his focus will be on the economy.

Unlike Uribe, a lawyer by profession, Santos is an economist who graduated from the University of Kansas and the London School of Economics. He started his government career as minister of foreign trade and was later finance minister. Not surprisingly, his first appointment was that of his finance minister-designate, Juan Carlos Echeverry.

Second, Santos may have a better chance than Uribe of getting the U.S. Congress to ratify the free trade agreement that was signed by former President George W. Bush and Uribe in 2006. Democrats in the U.S. Congress have refused to ratify the deal because of concerns over human rights violations against trade unionists in Colombia.

"Santos will get along better with the Democrats because he doesn't have a history (of tensions) with Obama and Clinton," former Colombian President Cesar Gaviria told me this week. But U.S. congressional sources caution that the Democratic majority in Congress will not submit the treaty to a vote before November's U.S. congressional elections, and what happens thereafter may depend on the outcome of the vote.


Third, Santos has a less confrontational personality than Uribe, and may be more likely to ease tensions both at home and with Colombia's neighbors, many observers say.

"There is already a new climate of less polarization in the country," Gaviria said. "People feel that the new government won't be constantly fighting with non-government organizations like human rights groups, like Uribe did. And Santos will not allow himself to be isolated internationally, like Uribe did."

Fourth, Santos vowed in his victory speech to fight impunity of human rights abusers, and to improve presidential ties with the justice system, which may improve Colombia's human rights situation.


Jose Miguel Vivanco, head of Latin American affairs of the Human Rights Watch monitoring group and one of the most prominent critics of Uribe's human rights record, told me that "Santos is a pragmatist, which means that if he gets the right signals from the international community on the human rights issue, he is more likely to respond positively than the outgoing president."

Vivanco added, however, that there are concerns in the human rights community over Santos' campaign vows to allow the military to prosecute its members on human rights violations, and to subordinate the attorney general's office to the presidential office.

My opinion: I'm not buying the conventional wisdom in Colombia that Santos will be able to improve ties with Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez.

The Venezuelan president needs a permanent confrontation with Colombia in order to divert attention from worsening economic problems at home, and to justify his increasingly authoritarian rule. Also, Santos told me in a recent interview that he and Chávez "are like water and oil," and these two elements don't mix no matter how hard you try to bring them together.

But I think there is an at least even chance that Santos may take Colombia to the next level, taking advantage of the economic stability he inherited, his huge mandate in the polls, and his focus on the economy. If he does reasonably well, Colombia may be the next rising star in the region.


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