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Rebuilding of Colombia puts president Juan Manuel Santos at odds with former president

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos Calderon is photographed at the Ritz Carlton in Toronto Sep. 22, 2011.

Moe Doiron/The Globe and Mail

It has all the makings of an epic Latin soap opera, or lucha libre wrestling match: Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos versus his onetime-supporter-turned-adversary, former president Alvaro Uribe.

In Twitter posts, speeches and newspaper interviews, Mr. Uribe cannot stop picking fights with Mr. Santos, criticizing him for everything from his decision to restore relations with Venezuela, to the country's security situation, and his offer to initiate peace talks with guerrilla fighters.

Mr. Santos, who took office 14 months ago, is so far handling his antagonist in stride, refusing to pick up the gloves.

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"I have a mantra and I meditate every day, 'Don't fight with Uribe,' " he said, laughing, in an interview. "I have great admiration for him. I was his minister of defence … I understand that sometimes he doesn't like what I'm doing. But it's my turn and that's the way politics play."

In Toronto this week to receive a "statesman of the year" award from the Canadian Council for the Americas, Mr. Santos took the opportunity to sell his country as an attractive place to do business, with lucrative opportunities in oil, mining and infrastructure, in spite of the security challenges that remain.

"We still have problems. We're not paradise," he said. "We have changed the mood of the country and the vision the international community has of us. We are living in a new era."

Foreign investment is pouring into Colombia and the economy has grown by 4 per cent. The country has a free-trade agreement with Canada, and is in negotiations with Korea, Japan, the European Union and the United States.

While Mr. Santos was defence minister, the former Uribe government was credited with crushing the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, and seizing back one-third of the country that had been under the control of the Marxist fighters for years. The FARC has been effectively incapacitated, and kidnappings have decreased by 88 per cent.

Mr. Uribe's feud with the President may appear to be about ego and political showmanship. However, the underlying causes for their dispute are more serious, and suggest that Mr. Santos may be a more pragmatic operator than Mr. Uribe, his volatile mentor.

While Mr. Santos is carrying on the fight against the rebels, who remain a threat in some rural areas, he has also begun a new campaign aimed at cleaning up the human-rights record of the past government.

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The intelligence agency has been accused of links to the paramilitaries and of illegally tapping the phones of judges, journalists and political opponents. Some members of the military are alleged to have killed civilians and dressed them up to appear to be FARC fighters, in a scheme known as the "false positive" scandal.

"I have supported the judicial process and investigations," said Mr. Santos, who has passed an anti-corruption law, as well as victims' reparation and land restitution laws. "I am going to liquidate the intelligence agency and build a new one. We are coming out of a very violent and troublesome era."

The only problem is that many of those caught up in the net are high-ranking former government officials and allies of Mr. Uribe, including his former chief of staff. This has only increased the ire of the former president, whose father was killed by the FARC, and who continues to oppose relations with Venezuela, and peace talks of any kind with the guerrillas.

Mr. Santos, an affable Harvard-educated former journalist with perfect English, appears unfazed. Polls show his support is at 80 per cent (even higher than Mr. Uribe's) – though some analysts wonder whether the spat between the country's two most powerful politicians could end up polarizing the electorate.

For now though, Mr. Uribe's outbursts and Twitter feuds aren't throwing Mr. Santos off course, as he pursues his reform agenda and charts a new course for Colombia.


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Colombia's population: 46 million

Second-largest country in South America

President: Juan Manuel Santos, 60.

World's 35th-largest economy.

Undergoing boom in foreign investment

Currency gained 4.4% this year – second of 25 emerging market currencies tracked by Bloomberg.

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