University News

Colombian president to students: ‘Go South’

By
Senior Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Colombian president Juan Santos spoke in a packed Salomon 101 last night.

“This is the decade of Latin America,” President Juan Manuel Santos P’12 of Colombia told a packed Salomon 101 last night. In his talk, part of the Stephen A. Ogden ’60  Memorial Lecture series, Santos urged the United States to look to Latin America as a strategic partner in the coming years.

Santos, who was elected president of Colombia in 2010, began his lecture by describing the relations between the United States and Colombia 50 years ago, when President John F. Kennedy told the Latin American Diplomatic Corps that the two countries were the “product of a common struggle” and shared the “quest for dignity and freedom of man.”

“But the tragic assassination of President Kennedy meant the loss of the American leader who best understood the significance of Latin America,” Santos said. When President Richard Nixon took office, Latin America was once again “left at the back corner” while China, Russia and Europe took center stage. Nixon told the then-U.S. permanent representative to NATO Donald Rumsfeld that “people don’t give one damn about Latin America now,” Santos said.

“Today I come to tell you with deep conviction and absolute respect, it is time for the United States to reassess its priorities in international relations and turn its eyes to its own hemisphere,” he said. Santos explained that the United States is special to him because he lived and studied here for many years. But he wants to correct the country’s “hyperopia syndrome” — the United States can “see its distant options well but has terrible problems focusing on what it has close at hand,” he said.

It is in the interest of the United States to consider “the potential that exists south of the border,” he said, adding that failing to do so would be “suicidal.”

Santos elaborated on the importance of Latin America, a region that is larger than the U.S. and China combined and home to 600 million people. The audience erupted in laughter at the inclusion of Shakira and Christina Aguilera in his list of the region’s contributions to the world.

He then presented eight reasons why he believes this is the decade of Latin America. The region’s nations have achieved high rates of economic growth, remained largely unaffected by the financial crisis and embraced globalization and foreign investment, he said. They also remain dedicated to the “democratic tradition,” the improvement of health and education and resolving regional differences. With the region’s abundance of fresh water, oil reserves and arable land, Santos sees Latin America as an important source of natural resources in the future.

“It is time to remind them that the South also exists and not just as a promise for the future, but as a powerful reality for the present,” he said. He recalled a quote by Horace Greeley, editor of the New York Tribune, who in 1865 advised young men to “go West.”

“I would like to give you a new slogan — go South, young women and young men,” Santos said. “Go South and go soon. Don’t miss this train.”

The lecture also touched upon a major issue facing Colombia: the war on drugs.

“In Colombia, we have fought against drug trafficking perhaps more than any other country on the planet,” he said, adding that some of the nation’s best leaders, police officers, judges and journalists have been lost in the “bloody struggle.” He said the government has broken up large cartels, reduced land used for coca plants and decreased the amount of drugs exported.

“As Secretary (of State Hillary) Clinton said recently … Colombia has gone from being a source of danger to becoming a source of inspiration and a crucial partner,” he said. “But we don’t feel victorious, nor has the problem disappeared.”

The atmosphere remained light during the talk as Santos made references to his daughter, Maria Santos ’12,  and mythical Professor of Psychoceramics Josiah Carberry. When a student who asked a question mentioned that he was part of a visiting group from Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Santos quipped that he “couldn’t get into Brown either” to great applause from the audience.

Toward the end of the lecture, Santos turned his attention to other challenges the nation faces, such as income inequality, lack of investment in research and development and lack of productivity in the non-agricultural sector. He reiterated that despite these challenges, the region remains politically and socially stable. In a reference to Colombian author Gabriel Garcia Marquez, he declared Latin America must not “be condemned to live in another hundred years of solitude.”

“If President Kennedy could be here today, I am sure he would be proud to see how Latin America has found its own road to development,” he said.