President Obama will meet with Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos at the White House Tuesday to discuss improved trade relations between the two countries, as well as the Colombian government's efforts to pursue peace talks with rebel groups and expand economic opportunities.
Santos arrived in Florida on Monday and said he was cautiously optimistic about the progress of negotiations with Marxist FARC rebels that began in Cuba last year and are aimed at ending nearly a half-century of conflict.
“I think the conditions are there” for a successful conclusion to the talks, Santos said at the University of Miami, according to a Reuters report. “Things are moving hopefully in the correct direction.”
It will be the Colombian president's second visit to Washington since taking office in 2010. Santos, 62, also just launched his reelection campaign, announcing November 20 that he plans to seek a second term in next May's election.
An administration official said the U.S. proposed the visit before that announcement and it should not be viewed as an endorsement from President Obama.
“We think there is going to be a good and strong election,” said the official, adding that the visit “is not an expression of support for a particular candidate but for the people of Colombia.”
During his speech Monday, Santos touted the year-old peace talks and economic progress in his country. He said Colombia had made great strides over the last decade in fighting the guerrilla insurgency and trying to forge strong business relationships with North America instead of simply relying on U.S. military aid to help fight the FARC.
“We are now being respected internationally,” Santos said.
Instead of focusing on military assistance, he said the meeting with Obama would largely center on education and technology, as well as regional security.
Even though the U.S. and Colombia have strong relations, the relationship between Washington and much of Latin America -- where the influence of left-wing Venezuela often dominates -- are strained.
Santos pointed to President John F. Kennedy’s Alliance for Progress that was aimed at strengthening ties between the U.S. and Latin America. He said he will talk to Obama about pursuing a similar effort, suggesting that it be called the Alliance for Progress and Peace.
The administration official acknowledged that the U.S.-Colombian relationship is transforming from one of U.S.-backed law enforcement assistance to efforts to help bolster human-rights protections and promote economic development.
Since Congress passed the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement in 2012, there has been $41 billion in two-way trade. In the first year after the deal, U.S. exports increased 19 percent and 1,300 Colombian companies exported goods to the U.S. for the first time.