2011: Colombia’s international challenges

After a very positive turn in foreign policy with the change in administration, Colombia enters 2011 with a fresh outlook and many potential activities that will further its interests in the international community. This year will be decisive for Santos’ foreign policy, as it will show if the foreign affairs ministry has truly changed for the better.

First and foremost, Colombia must be more active in international affairs in order to recover its past leadership (and maybe even improve it) and effectively tackle its challenges in 2011, whose leitmotiv is (still) security. For this, it needs a better foreign affairs ministry, with clear goals and strong against clientelism.

Strengthening the neighborhood

The recently established good relations with its neighbors have paved the way for Colombia to accomplish what it must have done decades ago: Strengthen and develop its borders. Strong and guarded borders means a better combat stance against FARC and the other terrorist groups because its member will no longer be able to take refuge abroad. There are signs of cooperation with the neighbors, one of the most important being the capture of a member of ELN in Venezuela.

But securing the borders can’t mean making them too thick or commerce and legal migrations will be hindered, just as it’s happening with the US-Canada border. For this reason, border territories must be greatly developed, thus ensuring the growth in commercial relations and, even better, securing Bogota’s influence in the edges of the territory. Cities like Cucuta (limiting with Venezuela) have usually been more influenced by the neighbor than by the central government, which is a great geopolitical weakness. This means a great investment in infrastructure both in the borders and connecting them with the interior. This can’t be achieved in a year, but it has to start now.

Recovering regional leadership

Since Colombia is being accepted into the Latin American neighbor once again, it’s time to move towards leading it (at least to some extent). It has to play a more aggressive role in the integration of the region in order to gain support for the fight against terrorism and drug trafficking, as well as enabling the growth in commerce and investment within the region. The Caribbean is very important in that matter, as there are many countries with which a partnership can be achieved (Colombia has maritime borders with 8 countries in the Caribbean). Of course, this has limitations, as many Latin American countries can’t offer Colombia a good economic relation (both imports and exports), which is why the US will continue to be a prime partner in the near future.

The best alliances to be forged with Latin Americans are with Mexico, Panama, Peru, Chile and Brazil (although the latter doesn’t seem to care much about Colombia), which are now bearing fruit, especially Peru and Chile.

Reaching out to the world

Having a seat in the UN’s Security Council, Colombia has a great opportunity to play a major role in global security, particularly by furthering its interests like war against terror and drug trafficking. As I have argued in a past column, Colombia’s security is a matter of intermestics and many countries have shared responsibilities in the fight against FARC because of this group’s international links and drug consumers worldwide. It is also a very good opportunity for enhancing Colombia’s public relations and allowing the world to understand the internal situation so as to ensure that no more naive people will support the illegal groups.

Colombia needs to be aggressive in other matters, such as global warming and environmental preservation, topics in which the country holds great richness and potential but hasn’t played a big role yet.

It is also time for diversifying both diplomatic and economic relations globally, as the foreign affairs ministry has promised. Depending on the exports of raw materials and other products with none or little added value is a situation that furthers Colombia’s dependence on world prices for its economic performance, and even they can’t satisfy a great demand because the production is somewhat small. This entails a great internal challenge: Develop the non-traditional sectors of the economy. This in turn requires great investment in infrastructure (lower transport costs) and education (qualified workers), as well as a response from the private sector to create new enterprises.

To do so, one of the best ways is to bring in foreign capital, thus Colombia’s image must invite foreigners to invest in the country, and that should be on of this year’s goals: Achieve an attractive investment grade, even more so because the research possibilities are endless given Colombia’s biodiversity, but it would seem that no serious steps have been taken in that direction.

USA

Colombia’s strategic and traditional partner will continue to be of great importance, even though it has faded a bit. The FTA would be a great achievement and would strengthen the links between the countries. Also, the new strategy for US support to the war against drugs and against terror must be defined. The US can’t forget that Colombia is one of its key allies in the region and it should start planning how to become more involved in Latin America’s development, as the region appears to have been shunned from US politics. This has been one of the greatest errors in the last years because the emphasis in the Middle East has opened the door to new contestants for leadership and many are turning away from the US.

Nevertheless, Colombia must stop depending so much on its exports to the US and diversify its sources of income and international cooperation, as it has started to.

Israel and Palestine

The Colombian government has declared that it will only recognize Palestine if it is the result of the peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. The explanation is quite simple: The Colombo-Israeli relation goes back to the founding of the state of Israel and since then Colombia has been one of its the main partners in Latin America. Such a relation can’t be thrown away so easily, even more so because of the military and technical assistance that Israel gives Colombia.

However, this situation is a great challenge for Colombia because it may be a potential, although not likely, source of conflict with other Latin American states and may attract once again commentaries such as “the empire’s lackey” and other nonsense. Whatever the development of this situation, Colombia’s diplomacy will be tested because it needs to keep its decision away from controversy and avoid a debate about it, as no productive outcome could emerge from it.

Asia-Pacific

The entire world seems to be looking at China in awe; many are rushing to learn Mandarin as if the world’s businesses would only be conducted in that language and the Chinese would just steamroll the world’s economy. But can Colombia really benefit from such a partnership? Up until now, China’s interest in Latin America is merely about obtaining raw materials to keep its economy running. Thus, Colombia is but another source of commodities, staying as an extraction economy. Such a relationship wouldn’t be the most beneficial for Colombia, and other kinds of relations seem very unlikely as Colombia’s productivity is not enough to satisfy not even a very small part of China’s demand.

Also, Colombians forget that, although China is becoming Asia’s giant, it is not short of competitors. Colombia can benefit greatly from other economies, not just the Chinese. Fortunately, some steps have been taken that way with the signing of the FTA with South Korea and private commercial relations being constructed with India in information technologies. The following step (one that Colombia has wanted to take for a long time) is to finally become part of APEC. To do so, it must first strengthen its diplomatic missions in that region and study how each member can be a complement for Colombia’s economy so as to make assertive strategies. Nevertheless, the outlook for entry seems grim (or at least distant).

2011 will be an interesting year for Colombia’s foreign policy. The government’s performance in the international level will be a definite measure of Santos’ success or failure as president and for Holguin as a foreign affairs minister bent on reforming and strengthening her ministry. This year will tell whether hope was well-placed or not.

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