Americas summit host seeks role as regional leader
CARTAGENA, Colombia (AP) — Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos faced a dilemma. He was set to take center stage as host of this weekend's summit of Western Hemisphere leaders in this colonial-era port. But Washington's veto of Cuba as a participant was threatening to torpedo the meeting.
So off he went to Havana, where Cuba's leader graciously told Santos his country had no intention of spoiling the summit by insisting on an invite. Without Barack Obama, there is no summit, Raul Castro jokingly told Santos last month, according to officials with direct knowledge who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk with the press.
Disaster averted, the Colombian leader's reputation as a deft diplomat and budding powerbroker who gets along with just about everybody was enhanced.
"There is little question that Santos has emerged as a regional leader. This was his aspiration from the day he took office," said Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue think tank in Washington.
Since his August 2010 inauguration, Santos has mended frayed relations with Venezuela and Ecuador, brokered the return to Honduras of coup-ousted former President Manuel Zelaya, dispatched counternarcotics experts to train Mexicans and offered similar help to drug crime-besieged Central America.
Santos, 60, has also opened his country to Chinese investment while still remaining Washington's closest Latin American ally.
The president, a University of Kansas graduate and a scion of one of Colombia's most influential families, is widely believed to aspire to fill the regional leadership vacuum left by former Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. Brazil's current leader, Dilma Rousseff, "is far less interested in the limelight and more focused on domestic priorities than her predecessor," said Shifter.
Although he has not yet shuttled among Latin American capitals to put out political fires as Silva did, Santos can boast his share of achievements and is certainly ambitious.
Last weekend, he told the Bogota newspaper El Tiempo, which his family ran until recently, he would like to persuade a re-elected Obama to stop excluding Cuba from such meetings and help the country "seek a new relation."
The statement suggested Santos would like to help end the U.S. embargo on the communist Caribbean nation, which could in turn help him seek peace with Colombia's leftist rebels.
Latin American countries led by Brazil say they won't come to any more regional summits if Cuba is excluded again. Ecuador's Rafael Correa is boycotting this sixth Summit of the Americas because of Cuba's exclusion, but he is the lone president to do so.
Santos tamed Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez well before the Venezuelan discovered he was sick with cancer. Toning down the antagonistic rhetoric of his predecessor, Alvaro Uribe, Santos persuaded Chavez to help him capture and extradite several major Colombian drug traffickers and rebels.
His cordiality with Correa is also notable considering that, as defense minister, Santos sent troops across the border into Ecuador in 2008 to kill a top rebel with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, triggering a regional crisis.
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