Santos becomes Colombia’s 59th president

Juan Manuel Santos, sworn in Saturday as Colombia’s 59th president, vowed to cement security gains but declared himself open to dialogue with rebels in hopes of ending the Western Hemisphere’s only armed conflict, the Associated Press reports. Although he was invited, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez was not among the 14 Latin American and Caribbean leaders, including Felipe Calderón of Mexico and Inacio Lula da Silva of Brazil, attending Saturday’s ceremony on the carpeted cobblestones of Bogota’s central plaza. Also absent was Chávez’s close ally President Evo Morales of Bolivia. Chavez broke diplomatic ties with neighboring Colombia two weeks ago after outgoing hard-line President Alvaro Uribe’s government presented the Organization of American States with video of alleged Colombian rebel camps in Venezuela.

Chávez did, however, send his foreign minister, Nicolás Maduro, who struck a conciliatory tone. We want to extend our affectionate hand, of friendship and as brothers to all the Colombian people,” he said after arriving. Also attending was President Rafael Correa of Ecuador, which severed ties with Uribe’s government in 2008 after the Colombian military raided a guerrilla camp a mile inside its territory, killing a rebel chief and 25 others.

Those ties have been on the mend, however, and Correa’s foreign minister, Ricardo Patino, said he planned to meet Sunday with his Colombian counterpart “to renew dialogue to establish relations between the two countries.” Santos indicated in his inaugural address that he would be less rigid than Uribe in dealing with Venezuela and other leftist neighbors. “When governments fight, it’s their people who suffer,” he said.

Santos, a 58-year-old economist, also indicated his presidency would take a broader approach to ending Colombia’s nearly half-century conflict — focusing for one on attacking the nation’s deep-seated inequalities at their roots through social programs and job creation. He signaled an unwillingness to talk peace with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, until it frees its hostages, halts “terrorist acts” and stops recruiting child soldiers and planting land mines. “But at the same time I want to reiterate: The door to dialogue is not locked,” Santos said. “It is possible to have a Colombia at peace, a Colombia without guerrillas, and we’re going to prove it! By reason or by force!”

A Cabinet minister in three previous governments and the great grandnephew of a president, Santos held the defense portfolio in 2006-2009 under Uribe, who remains immensely popular among Colombians for sharply diminishing murders and kidnappings and badly battering the rebels. Santos won election with 69 percent of the vote June 20. Before his official inauguration, Santos, his wife, María Clemencia Rodríguez, and three children began the day high in Caribbean coastal mountains at an unorthodox “passing of the baton” ritual presided over by indigenous people from four nations. Dressed entirely in white linen and barefoot, Santos received a wooden staff, a necklace of polished stones and two string bracelets, one for each wrist. The stones represent the earth, water, nature and the government, whose job Santos said later in his inaugural speech is to protect them. The bracelets represent equilibrium.

Colombia is Washington’s staunchest ally in Latin America.

Representing the United States at the afternoon inauguration was Jim Jones, President Barack Obama’s national security adviser, and a congressional delegation led by Rep. Eliot Engel, a Democrat from New York who chairs the House subcommittee on Western Hemisphere affairs.

For the original report

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