BOGOTA – Juan Manuel Santos begins the last of his eight years as president of Colombia confident that he will bequeath to his successor a better country than the one he took charge of in 2010, thanks to peace with FARC rebels and economic gains.
“I believe that without a doubt, all the indicators show that Colombia is much better today than it was seven years ago,” he said in an interview with EFE.
“We are leaving for the next government a country with the lowest indices of homicide, of kidnapping, of terrorist attacks, of land piracy, in the last 40 years, and – what is most important – we are leaving a country at peace with the FARC,” he said.
Santos also cited progress in easing social and economic distress.
“Today, we are the champions of Latin America in the reduction of extreme poverty, in job creation,” he said, while touting an economic growth rate that is above the regional average.
At the same, Santos acknowledged “frustrations” over the persistence of high unemployment, currently 8.7 percent, despite the creation of 3.8 million jobs.
“Regarding infrastructure, we have advanced a great deal, but this country was so far behind that we still have a long way to go,” the president said.
And while the demobilization of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) has reduced the levels of violence, “there is still a lot to do” to improve public safety, as well-armed criminal gangs and members of the smaller ELN insurgency “are doing damage,” he said.
“We still have problems of insecurity, but we are going to have a great opportunity and it is that we have not reduced our army, our police – quite the opposite, we have strengthened them and we can all those resources” against remaining threats, Santos said.
He said he was optimistic that Pope Francis’ planned Sept. 6-10 visit to Colombia would aid in the process of national reconciliation and give impetus to the negotiations with the ELN now taking place in Quito.
“This visit fills us with pride because it’s an honor that he’s giving Colombia; he’s only coming to Colombia; he comes as if to say, ‘Colombians, you have taken an important step, now the next one is reconciliation,’” the president said.
On a more somber note, Santos expressed concern about the situation in neighboring Venezuela, with which Colombia shares a border of 2,219 kilometers (1,378 miles).
Thousands of Venezuelans pour across the border every day, some in search of necessities they can’t find at home, others to seek political asylum.
Santos describes the present regime in Venezuela as a dictatorship.
“What’s happening in Venezuela, unfortunately, is a destruction of democratic institutions,” the Colombian leader said, denouncing the National Constituent Assembly that was installed last week in Caracas as “an all-powerful authority that has no respect for the separation of powers or for democratic institutions and that is called dictatorship.”
The president said that he still hoped for “some peaceful solution” in Venezuela.
Asked about his plans after leaving office, the 2016 Nobel Peace Prize recipient was emphatic that he wouldn’t seek to undercut Colombia’s next president, something that many believe his predecessor, Alvaro Uribe, has done to Santos.
“The first thing to which I’m totally committed is that I’m not going to bother my successor, I’m not going to put sticks in the wheels and I’m not going to undermine,” Santos said.
“And I wish him or her the best of successes and if he or she needs me for anything, I will be there,” he added.
Santos said that he will remain in his homeland and create a foundation with a mission to aid the victims of the armed conflict, to promote reconciliation and to share Colombia’s peace-making experience with other nations.