New president of Colombia vows to mend relations with neighbours

In his inaugural speech,
Juan Manuel Santos, the new president of Colombia, said that mending relations
with neighbours Ecuador and Venezuela would be one of his government’s main

In response, Venezuelan
President Hugo Chavez said he would like to meet “face-to-face” with Mr.

Mr. Santos also told
Colombia’s left-wing rebel groups the door to dialogue was open, but they would
have to renounce violence first.

‘New dawn’

He promised to tackle the
main problems besetting Colombians, saying his government would aim to lower
unemployment to a single digit figure, fight corruption and reduce poverty.

He said the work of his
predecessor in office, President Alvaro Uribe, had paved the way for “a new
dawn for Colombia”.

Mr Santos, who served as Mr.
Uribe’s defence minister, said the former president had inspired hope in
Colombians and allowed them to move freely in their own country again.He said
it was now time the country moved from Mr. Uribe’s policy of “democratic
security” to one of “democratic prosperity”.

He asked the heads of the
security forces to continue delivering results in their battle against
left-wing rebels and drug traffickers.

But he made it clear to the
rebels, who have been fighting a 46-year insurgency against the Colombian
state, that he did not rule out dialogue completely.

“To the armed illegal
groups, who invoke political reasons and now talk of dialogue and negotiation,
I say my government is open to any kind of conversation which seeks to
eradicate violence and build a more prosperous, equal and just society,” he

He added that a dialogue
would only go ahead if the rebels laid down their arms and stopped their
campaign of kidnapping, intimidation, extortion and drug-dealing.

‘Rebuilding trust’

On foreign policy, he tried
to mend some of the relations which broke down during his predecessor’s tenure.

In a reference to
accusations by Venezuela’s President Chavez that Mr. Uribe had been planning an
attack on Venezuela, President Santos said that the word “war” was not in his
dictionary when he thought of Colombia’s relations with its neighbours.

Mr. Chavez broke off
diplomatic ties with Colombia two weeks ago after Bogota accused him of
harbouring Farc rebels.

The Venezuelan president did
not attend the inauguration, but did send his foreign minister, Nicolas Maduro.

Speaking on live TV after Mr
Santos’ inauguration, Mr. Chavez said he wanted to “turn over the page” in
relations with Colombia.

He would be seeking a
“face-to-face” meeting with Mr. Santos.

The new Colombian president
also appealed to Ecuador, whose president, Rafael Correa, was in the audience.

Ecuador cut its ties with
Bogota after the Colombian military conducted a cross-border bombing raid on a
Farc camp on Ecuadorian territory.

He said that one of his main
priorities would be to rebuild trust between Colombia and its neighbours.

“Every country in our region
has great strength, but together we can be a formidable power,” he added.