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Is Santos Latin America’s new Mr. Right?

When Colombia’s Juan Manuel Santos first won the presidency of Colombia in 2010, his qualities were well known. Scion of a patrician Bogota family, holder of a diploma from the London School of Economics, he meshed smoothly with Colombia’s high and mighty. As defense minister, he helped break the chokehold of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, the dreaded FARC. But everyone knew Santos’ best asset was his political godfather: former president Alvaro Uribe Velez.

Until now. Re-elected last Sunday in a bitter runoff, Santos has garnered one more honorific: political operator. By coming from behind to best right-wing challenger Oscar Ivan Zuluaga, 51 percent to 45 percent, Santos also foiled Latin America’s most powerful kingmaker and cut through a cloud of pessimism that threatened to poison the historic peace talks and end his career.

Political parricide wasn’t Santos’ only heresy. While Uribe made the United States his closest ally, Santos has looked east. Rallying Mexico, Peru and Chile, he co-founded the Pacific Alliance to fire up trade with Asia. If it were a country, the bloc, whose leaders met Thursday in their ninth summit, would boast the world’s eighth economy, with $2.22 trillion. The four core nations outstrip the region in ease of doing business.

With the Brazilians leading from behind in Mercosur, the South American trade bloc that has deteriorated into a political wind chamber, the “Pacific Pumas” are growing at more than 4.5 percent a year, and drawing four in 10 dollars of Latin foreign investment. Colombia’s robust economic growth this quarter puts it at the head of the pack.

If Colombia can win the peace, the Alliance will only grow. Already Santos has emerged as one of the region’s strongest voices. Depending on how he plays his hand, he has a chance of becoming the Latin American statesman of record, a job that has lately gone unfilled.

And no wonder. Leveraging political capital to lead a nation and not just ride the populist swell or lower the jackboot is a vexing and mostly thankless task. Plenty of Latin leaders have had the teeth for the job, and not the stomach. Cuba’s Castros sponsored the most exhilarating evolution in the western hemisphere, then transformed their island idyll into a prison. Venezuela’s charismatic Hugo Chavez ignited millions of imaginations with his Bolivarian revolution, but grabbed all the power he could, divided the nation, and left the wheel in the hands of Nicolas Maduro, a former bus-driver who can neither heal nor steer.

Metalworker-turned-president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva had his shot last decade, when Brazil wasn’t just big but booming. Eyeing a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council, he set out to redraw the global power grid, opening 67 new Brazilian diplomatic posts and offering to referee the fray between atomic scofflaw Iran and the U.N. He ended up collateral damage and an oddball guest at the head table of world power. Lula also dreamed of a trade alliance free of Washington’s shadow, then stood by as Mercosur became a Bolivarian political club where “Chavista” encomiums trumped treaties and trade. His predecessor, Fernando Henrique Cardoso (1995-2002), did far better in many ways, but at 83 is respected as a political elder, not a contender.

The rest of the region has had its pretenders who soared as reformers and economic managers but stunk at politics. So it was in Peru with Alejandro Toledo, Alan Garcia and Ollanta Humala. It was no different in Chile, which elected a financial genius, Sebastian Pinera, for his managerial competence, only to see him buckle when millions of university students rebelled over the scalper’s price of higher education. Pinera demoralized competence. Now his successor, socialist Michele Bachelet, must take care not to demoralize the rebellion.

Enter Santos, who made peace his prize. In October 2012, when he reached out to the FARC, he lost Uribe’s support and, as negotiations languished, nearly that of the whole country as well. Then Santos doubled down. On the eve of the runoff vote and trailing in the polls, he invited yet another rebel group, the ELN, to the peace table.

Santos isn’t in the clear. He earned 1 million fewer votes than in 2010, and 619,000 Colombians cast blank ballots in protest. He must still win the peace and confront Uribe, who controls the Colombian senate’s second largest voting bloc. Santos knows that peace has never been this close – and that every leader before him has stumbled. He could conceivably win a Nobel Prize or a footnote in history. Leadership will make the difference.

Mac Margolis is Brazil bureau chief for Vocativ. He has reported on Latin America for Newsweek and was a frequent contributor to The Economist, The Washington Post and Foreign Policy.

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