Canada was right to sign a free-trade agreement with Colombia. The South American country has made dramatic strides in recent years in improving security and the economy, and has emerged as a successful regional leader. Foreign capital is pouring in, and the economy is growing by 4 per cent. Old clichés about being home only to drug barons and coca fields no longer apply.
The guerrilla fighters known as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) have effectively been incapacitated, their force cut in half. Kidnappings have been reduced by 88 per cent in the last six years.
President Juan Manuel Santos, who took office last year, deserves credit for carrying on the fight against the FARC – and for addressing the impunity and corruption that plagued the former government, even as it successfully fought the rebels. The country’s spy agency has been under investigation for wiretapping judges and opposition politicians, and for its links to paramilitary groups.
The President has passed an anti-corruption law and a land restitution law and has amplified a program to protect human rights defenders. He has also mended fences with Venezuela’s mercurial President Hugo Chavez. “Since assuming the presidency, the President has changed the direction and tone of Colombia, and tackled many of its underlying economic and social problems,” said Ken Frankel, chair of the Canadian Council for the Americas. Mr. Santos is flying into Toronto on Thursday to receive the CCA’s statesman-of-the-year award.
Of course, reforms don’t come without a political price. Mr. Santos has lost the support of the enormously popular man who helped him get elected: former president Alvaro Uribe, a self-described street fighter who disagrees with him on Twitter and in public. Analysts say this shows a healthy independence. “Colombia’s capacity to generate internal reforms is impressive,” notes Prof. Max Cameron of the University of British Columbia.
Mr. Santos still faces many challenges, including criminal gangs, internally displaced people and FARC’s hit-and-run attacks on government patrol units.
But as he charts a new course for Colombia, the President has shown that his government is dedicated not just to security and economic growth, but to respecting the human rights of all.