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Colombian president 'optimistic' about peace, to meet Obama Tuesday

Colombia's President Juan Manuel Santos gestures as he addressed a gathering at the University of Miami in Coral Gables, Florida, December 2
Colombia's President Juan Manuel Santos gestures as he addressed a gathering at the University of Miami in Coral Gables, Florida, December 2

By David Adams

MIAMI (Reuters) - Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, bound for Washington on an official visit, said on Monday he remains cautiously optimistic about peace talks with Marxist FARC rebels taking place in Cuba.

"I think the conditions are there" for a successful conclusion to the talks, Santos told an audience of academics, students and diplomats at the University of Miami. "Things are moving hopefully in the correct direction."

But he quoted a Colombian proverb as a cautionary note, saying, "The bread can very well burn right at the door of the oven."

Santos, a Harvard-educated journalist, spoke eloquently in English about his hopes for peace and economic growth in Colombia during a 30-minute speech at the invitation of University of Miami President Donna Shalala, who awarded him the school's President's Medal for service to society.

Santos, on his second official visit to the United States since taking office in 2010, hailed both the year-old peace talks as well as economic progress at home.

"It's a different scenario" when the president of Colombia visits the United States these days, he said, comparing conditions at home to a decade ago when a guerrilla insurgency was raging on the outskirts of the capital Bogota and Washington was pouring in military aid to back the government.

Since then the war had dramatically turned in the government's favor. "We are now being respected internationally," Santos said, noting that his meeting with Obama scheduled for Tuesday would not be focused on military aid but rather on education and technology, as well as regional security.

"Usually when the president came to the United States he would have gone to the Southern Command," he said referring to the U.S. regional military headquarters based in Miami. "Now he will come to the University of Miami. In a way this shows how things have changed."

While the United States and Colombia enjoy close ties, Santos said things could be better between Washington and the rest of Latin America, where left-wing governments led by Venezuela have shunned the United States.

REBUILDING FRAYED RELATIONS

Half a century after President John F. Kennedy started the Alliance for Progress to forge better ties between the United States and Latin America, Santos said he planned to ask Obama to launch something similar to help rebuild frayed relations with the region.

"Maybe it's time to launch another Alliance for Progress," he said, suggesting it be called an Alliance for Progress and Peace.

"The United States should look more south. We are strategic to the United States. In Colombia we are very proud to be such good allies of the United States, but I think the whole region can have much better and closer relations with the United States."

Santos, 62, is making his first foreign trip since he announced November 20 that he plans to seek a second term in next May's presidential election. He will face opposition candidate Oscar Ivan Zuluaga in a campaign likely to focus on the FARC peace process and the future of the country after five decades of rebellion.

In Washington, a senior Obama administration official said Obama's meeting with Santos should not be viewed as an endorsement of the Colombian's re-election bid. In the meeting, Obama will profess his strong support of Colombia's peace process, the official said.

"The message that the president will convey, that the visit will convey, is that the United States is a committed partner and we'll continue to stand by Colombia," the official said.

Obama will raise U.S. concerns that Colombia needs to do more to settle labor issues and address human rights challenges, the official added.

Zuluaga, a one-time senator and provincial mayor, accuses Santos of offering the rebels too many concessions.

Meeting in Havana this week, government mediators are working through a five-point agenda with some three dozen rebel leaders, seeking to stop bloodshed that has killed more than 200,000 people since it began in 1964.

Earlier this month the two sides reached agreement on one of the toughest items on the agenda: FARC political participation. While details of the accord have not yet been revealed, the rebels are expected to be allowed to hold some sort of public office and possibly gain access to Congress.

Both sides are now working on resolving the third leg of the process: drug trafficking. Santos said he hoped the peace process would turn Colombia, once the world's largest producer of cocaine, into a "coca-free country."

(Additional reporting by Helen Murphy in Bogota; Editing by Bill Trott and Philip Barbara)

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