PASTO, Colombia -- Fighting falling poll numbers and perceptions that the country’s security gains are slipping, President Juan Manuel Santos has been barnstorming the nation and touting his accomplishments at the half-way point in his presidency.
In the border town of Pasto with Foreign Minister María Angela Holguín on Wednesday, Santos reminded residents that it was his administration that restored diplomatic ties with neighboring Ecuador and Venezuela and helped put the nation back in the middle of the regional spotlight.
“You lived that tragedy,” he said of the broken border ties. “We didn’t have a relationship with Venezuela and we insulted each other on and off; some people even talked of war...We’ve changed that 180 degrees.”
Santos also cited the country’s free trade agreement with the United States, its stint at the head of the Union of South American Nations and its non-permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council, as administration victories.
Half way through his four-year term, Santos has won praise for being a pragmatic bridge builder. While remaining the United States’ most solid ally in the region, he’s also lobbied for Cuba to have a seat at the next Summit of the Americas.
While Santos’ predecessor openly accused Venezuela of harboring Colombian guerrillas — pushing Venezuela to break diplomatic and trade ties in 2010 —Santos has insisted on warm relations with President Hugo Chávez.
On Tuesday, the U.S. State Department revived that debate when it reported that Venezuela was still providing medical aid and shelter to the guerrillas. But Foreign Relations Minister Holguín said Colombia was committed to working with its neighbors.
“What the whole region has learned is that regardless of what you think or what economic or political model each country has, there are ways to work together for the well-being of the people,” she told The Miami Herald. “Obviously the security issue is fundamental with Venezuela but the minister of defense is working on it with his counterpart, and in general, the relationship is very positive.”
The national tour comes as Santos is being battered in the press amid perceptions that Colombia’s almost 50-year-long civil conflict is heating up again. While FARC rebels have seen leaders killed and their forces decimated, they also have been stepping up hit-and-run attacks.
This week the influential Semana Magazine reported that Santos’ approval ratings had hit an all-time low in July of 47 percent – down from 71 percent just a year ago. In addition, 57 percent of those surveyed said they felt “less secure.”
While the country’s long-term track record in combating the drug trade and violence has made it a model for the region, the short-term news has made the administration vulnerable.
Former President Alvaro Uribe, who Santos served as minister of defense, recently announced that he’s building a coalition that will take on his hand-picked successor at the polls. Santos hasn’t said whether he intends to run for reelection in 2014, but Wednesday’s stop had the feel of a campaign rally. As supporters waved flags that read “Thank You President,” Santos pledged millions in aid to the border region and promised to visit the city’s world famous carnival in January.