Colombia's right-of-center President Juan Manuel Santos may have been kidding when he recently said that radical leftist Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez is his ``new best friend,'' but few in Washington are laughing.
There is a growing feeling in the U.S. capital -- especially in Congress -- that Santos is moving closer to Chávez, and shifting away from Colombia's close alliance with the United States over the past eight years.
Since Santos took office in August, he has taken several steps to distance himself from former president Alvaro Uribe's policies. Consider:
Santos' first official trip as president was to Brazil. Since then, he has toured several Latin American countries, but has yet to set foot on Washington, D.C.
Santos has met several times with Chávez, and both have vowed to dramatically improve Colombian-Venezuelan ties. Relations were openly hostile under Uribe, in part because the former Colombian president repeatedly condemned Venezuela's clandestine support for Colombia's FARC guerrillas.
Complying with Chávez's wishes, the Colombian president recently announced that he will extradite suspected Venezuelan drug kingpin Walid Makled to Venezuela, rather than to the United States. Both Venezuela and the United States had requested Makled, who has testified that top Venezuelan government officials were protecting his drug trafficking operations. Chávez wants Makled at home, to keep him silent, or press him to recant his testimony.
The Santos government has no immediate plans to submit to the Colombian Congress a new bill authorizing the presence of U.S. troops in several Colombian military bases, Colombian officials say. A much publicized 2009 U.S.-Colombian military agreement to that effect was recently invalidated by a Colombian court.
Santos is scheduled to launch free trade agreements with Canada and the European Union in coming months. The 2004 U.S.-Colombia free trade agreement has yet to be ratified by the U.S. Congress.
Carl Meacham, a senior staffer for Senate Foreign Relations Committee ranking member Richard Lugar, says that the U.S. failure to ratify the trade deal ``has led Colombia to look at other options. They are definitely drifting away: their orientation is not as weighted toward the United States as it was before.''
Rep. Connie Mack, a conservative Republican who is scheduled to become chair of the House Western Hemisphere subcommittee next year, conceded to me that ``there are a lot of concerns'' about Colombia in Congress, but added that ``I'm not ready to say that he is drifting away from the United States.''
Curious about what's in Santos' mind, I talked with several Colombians who are very close to the new president.
Most told me that, indeed, there is a deliberate foreign policy shift in Colombia. It was prompted by the U.S. failure to deliver on its trade deal with Colombia despite major diplomatic overtures from Colombia.
In recent years, Colombia has accepted U.S. troops in Colombian military bases, has sent Colombian police officers and anti-drug agents to Afghanistan in support of U.S. troops, and has voted with the United States on most issues at the United Nations.
Despite these and other gestures, there has been no positive response on the free-trade deal from Washington. President Barack Obama's close ties with anti-free trade U.S. labor unions has kept him from pushing more aggressively for ratification of the trade deal, they said.
``Colombians are somewhat disillusioned with the United States,'' says Enrique Santos Calderon, until recently managing editor and columnist of El Tiempo, Colombia's most influential newspaper, and the president's brother. ``There is a feeling that we need to take some distance, and stop making unilateral favors that are not reciprocated.''
My opinion: The new Colombian president is moving closer to Chávez mainly for economic reasons. Venezuela is one of Colombia's biggest export markets, and previous tensions between the two countries had hurt Colombian exports badly.
In addition, Santos is also using his temporary honeymoon with Chávez as a negotiating strategy to move Washington into action on the free-trade deal. Since the previous policy didn't work, he's trying something else.
I've known Santos for many years, and I always keep in mind that one of his favorite hobbies is playing poker. As a good poker player, he is keeping everybody guessing, including his friends in the U.S. capital.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Andres Oppenheimer is a Miami Herald syndicated columnist and a member of The Miami Herald team that won the 1987 Pulitzer Prize. He also won the 1999 Maria Moors Cabot Award, the 2001 King of Spain prize, and the 2005 Emmy Suncoast award. He is the author of Castro's Final Hour; Bordering on Chaos, on Mexico's crisis; Cronicas de heroes y bandidos, Ojos vendados, Cuentos Chinos and most recently of Saving the Americas. E-mail Andres at firstname.lastname@example.org. Live chat with Oppenheimer every Thursday at 1 p.m. at The Miami Herald.