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Q&A with Colombian Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos

Soon after President-elect Barack Obama’s inauguration, Colombian Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos will fly to Washington to lobby for continuance of Plan Colombia, the largest U.S. foreign aid program outside the Middle East and Afghanistan.

Colombian leaders face a steep challenge: persuading the new administration to maintain $556 million a year in military and economic aid as it braces for an era of trillion-dollar deficits. Santos will have to fend off critics who say Plan Colombia has fallen short of its coca eradication goals and that the military’s battlefield gains against leftist rebels have been stained by human rights abuses, including “false positives” -- the killing of innocent civilians passed off as battle casualties.

But Santos, the Harvard-educated scion of a family that operates and partly owns his country’s biggest newspaper, El Tiempo, argues that dramatic battlefield successes against the left-wing Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia guerrillas, known as the FARC, and Colombia’s importance as a U.S. ally in an often unfriendly region are reason for Obama to not “pull the rug out from under us.”

Santos was interviewed Thursday by The Times in Bogota.

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This is not an ideal time to be going to Washington to look for money.

The way we see it, the cost of support for Colombia is small in relation to the $1-trillion deficit, but that the usefulness of this help is huge and at minimal cost compared to Iraq, for example.

When it started in 2000, Colombia was not in the hands of the state but in those of paramilitaries and the guerrillas. I remember in 2000, when President Clinton came to Cartagena just before Plan Colombia started, the country was on the verge of becoming a failed state. Today, we are one of the most solid democracies, where institutions are working, where the scandals such as false positives have come to light because of those functioning institutions.

We are winning, but we haven’t won yet. This could backfire very rapidly. [The end of Plan Colombia] is what the rebels want.

How has Plan Colombia helped Colombia achieve this?

Military training, intelligence, strengthening of institutions and, of course, the added military capacity that has resulted from things like [Black Hawk] helicopters that we have received through Plan Colombia. It’s the quality of the help we get that matters. The quality of training, of the intelligence, for example, which doesn’t cost the United States anything but which we can’t produce ourselves.

And 2008 was a good year?

Last year was the best year for the Colombian armed forces in all its history. First, there was political progress in that people mobilized as never before to demonstrate against the FARC. Secondly, the number of demobilized rebels rose to 3,480, the highest level in history. Thirdly, after 44 years of our military not being able to touch the FARC leadership -- the seven-member secretariat -- three of them fell in 2008. Fourth, the spectacular rescue in July [of three U.S. defense contractors, former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt and 11 others] was so extraordinary that it created a euphoria and self-confidence in our military, and among all Colombians.

A General Accounting Office report said Plan Colombia has fallen short of its goal to reduce coca crops by 50%. After years of spraying and manual eradication, crops haven’t shrunk much.

I think the United Nations report [on which the GAO based its findings] contains an underlying error in the number of hectares it says are still cultivated with coca. But look at the other links of our policy: how all the cartels are dismantled, all the capos who were on the FBI most-wanted list have been jailed, look at all the cocaine laboratories destroyed, how the tons of cocaine seized by the police almost doubled in 2008. Why? Because we are retaking control of our territory.

And there was the “false positives” scandal in which soldiers looking for promotions killed possibly hundreds of civilians who were then claimed as guerrillas killed in action.

We have taken action, with a set of policies to guarantee justice, and have told our soldiers that demobilizations, not killings, of rebels are what count. We fired 45 officers and soldiers for sins of commission and omission. I have no doubt that the Colombian army is receiving more human rights training than any on Earth.

President-elect Obama is not known as an aficionado of Latin America, and has never visited here. Does that worry you?

No, because Obama has a Cabinet that has many people who know Latin America. Vice President-elect Joseph Biden was one of the fathers of Plan Colombia.

How will you persuade Obama that Colombia deserves the aid?

I want to say: Listen, we’re a success story here, asking for minimal financial commitment compared with your other problems, so don’t sacrifice something that’s much more important than the value of the dollars you have invested. It’s in the interest of the U.S. to maintain a strong democracy in Colombia. And Plan Colombia is one of the determinants.

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chris.kraul@latimes.com


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