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Colombian president vows peace, equality, education

Fri., Aug. 8, 2014

BOGOTA – Images of white doves were stenciled on government-issued umbrellas, pinned to the lapels of dignitaries and blown into the air. If there was any doubt about President Juan Manuel Santos’ priority during his next four years in office, the symbolism around his inauguration Thursday likely put them to rest.

“Colombia’s search for peace could be the good news that humanity needs,” he said shortly after donning the presidential sash, “the end of the last remaining conflict in the Western Hemisphere.”

Santos, 62, won a second term in June on the promise that he would broker a peace deal with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. But even as the end of negotiations is within sight, the government needs to address the factors driving the conflict – inequality and lack of education – Santos said.

“It’s one thing to end the conflict and it’s another to build peace,” he said.

The inauguration – rich in drama and protocol – drew representatives from more than 120 nations and the presidents of Mexico, the Dominican Republic, Honduras, Paraguay, Ecuador, Panama, Peru, Guatemala and Guyana.

Thomas Shannon, the counselor to the State Department, led the U.S. delegation.

After almost a half-century of conflict that has left at least 220,000 dead by some estimates, Colombia began seeking a negotiated solution with the FARC in 2012 and hopes the smaller National Liberation Army, or ELN, will join soon. It was that stance that helped Santos clinch a tight election.

But on Thursday, he went beyond his usual stump speech to address some of the root causes of the conflict, particularly deep inequality concentrated among rural farmers, indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities.

“We’re proud of our diversity,” Santos said, “but it’s also a country that is too unequal, we need to close the gap.”

He said the administration would continue offering free homes to the poorest, create 2.5 million additional jobs and give more money to state and local governments to tackle their needs.

Santos said education would be the third pillar of his term, vowing to make Colombia “Latin America’s most educated country” by 2025. Santos asked congress to allocate more money to education than to the military in next year’s budget.

“That’s never happened before,” he said. “And it should be that way from now on.”

He also said he would seek to extend hours at public schools and increase pay and training for teachers.