Colombian President: Proud to Be Called 'The Israel of Latin America'

In Jerusalem, Juan Manuel Santos speaks to Haaretz about the relationship between the two countries, the war on drugs, and why he took it as a compliment when Hugo Chavez compared Colombia to Israel.

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Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos is cautiously optimistic about what is happening in his country. On the one hand, his government is engaging in historic peace talks with the rebels after a civil war that has gone on for nearly 50 years. The economy is growing, and Colombia is making progress in its war against the drug cartels that were so closely identified with it. On the other hand, tensions between Colombia, which is traditionally on the right of the political spectrum, and left-wing neighbors such as Venezuela, have cast a pall over internal and regional reconciliation. This year, the economy experienced slower growth than in the previous year, and drugs in the cities and plantations are far from being eradicated.

“Leadership is defined in many ways,” the 62-year-old leader told Haaretz. “One of them is the ability to seize the moment and take risks.” Indeed, Santos, who served as defense minister under former president Alvaro Uribe and is part of a hawkish political clan, took quite a risk by launching peace talks with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).

The largest rebel organization in Colombia, the FARC is a Marxist-Leninist guerrilla movement that declares itself as the champion of the poor. Over a quarter of a million people have been killed in half a century of fighting between the FARC and Colombia’s various governments.

Santos, who became president roughly three years ago, visited Israel this week to sign a treaty concluding free-trade talks between Israel and Colombia. “With the Israeli experience and your technology and our resources we can create enormous synergy,” he says. The conversation moved right away to a central aspect of the relations between the two countries: defense cooperation and trade. In the past, this facet made headlines for less complimentary reasons, including claims that the Colombian army used Israeli arms and consulting services to put down dissidents, as well as in brutal fighting against guerrilla groups.

Another example is the reckless adventures of Israeli arms dealers such as Yair Klein, who was convicted in Colombia of collaborating with the drug cartels and training mercenary soldiers.

 “We are clients of the Israeli industries in defense equipment. So this is an important element of our relations, but it’s not the only one,” Santos says. Regarding criticism of former Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, who called Colombia “the Israel of Latin America,” partly because of its defense cooperation with Israel, he says, “If somebody called my country the Israel of Latin America, I would be very proud. I admire the Israelis, and I would consider that as a compliment.”

Besides being a loyal customer of Israeli defense exports, Colombia is also a partner of Israel in the geopolitical axis against Iran, particularly when it comes to the increasing closeness of its neighbor Venezuela with Tehran. Earlier this month, Argentine chief prosecutor Alberto Nisman published a report stating that Iran was building a terrorist network in Latin America, including in Colombia. But Santos contents himself with a declaration that Israel, the United States and Colombia are cooperating in the war on terror. When pressed on whether he knows about any terrorist groups in his country, he says, “I have no concrete data [about Islamic terrorism in Latin America] to say this is happening, but I have heard many stories around this issue and I of course don't discard them.”

Could legalization be on the horizon?

In 2010, Colombia’s previous foreign minister, Jaime Bermudez, told Haaretz his country was in the process of freeing itself from terrorism and drug trafficking. Three years later, it looks as though the new administration is trying to fulfill that promise, with considerable success. In October 2012, the government began peace talks with the FARC in Cuba. On the agenda were topics such as economic development, disarmament and political rights. Although the only agreement reached was on land reform, one of the reasons Santos was elected was his promise to end the conflict. The target date he set for signing a peace treaty was November 2013.

Santos tone was also conciliatory when asked about Venezuela’s threat to stop mediating between the rebels and the Colombian government (following what it described as political interference by Bogota in its internal affairs). “My policy is to have good relations with all our neighbors," he said. "That's why I made peace with Mr. Chavez.... And I hope to have the same relations with his successor, Mr. Maduro.”

But Santos’s most surprising stance may have to do with the war on drugs, which is as blood-drenched as the fight against the rebels and has affected every fragment of modern Colombia. Santos has expressed his support for the legalization of marijuana several times, though he is quick to cool any enthusiasm. “If the world decided that legalization is the right way, I will support it wholeheartedly,” he says.

Last week, the Organization of American States met in Guatemala to discuss ways to fight the war on drugs in the Western hemisphere. While legalizing drugs in Latin America remains a far-fetched probability, several of Santos’ neighbors in the region, such as Uruguay and Guatemala, have shown openness to legalizing cannabis. Former Mexican president Vicente Fox went even farther, declaring that he would become a marijuana farmer if the drug were made legal.

It seems that the many deaths in the war on drugs have spurred Santos to re-examine his government’s policy. “We lost our best politicians, our best judges, our best policemen in this war against the cartels,” he said, but added, “You have no big cartels in Colombia anymore. All the big drug lords are in jail or dead.”

But Santos admits that victory in the war on drugs is still far off. “I sometimes feel, and I have the moral authority to say it because I fought the cartels with all the success and determination — I feel like I am on a static bicycle — you pedal, you pedal, you pedal, and you achieve results. Get the drug lords, put them in jail — but they're replaced by other organizations and the problem continues. So what I’ve called is for a review of this war on drugs, to analyze if we’re doing what we should be doing or if we’ll maybe consider other alternatives.”

He adds, “Colombia has been probably the most successful country [in the war on drugs], and the country that has suffered the most by fighting this war.”

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos at a press conference with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem, June 16, 2013. Credit: Reuters