BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) — A former Colombian president stripped of his U.S. visa two decades ago for taking payments from the nation's biggest drug cartel is making a political comeback as a promoter of South American unity.
Ernesto Samper was sworn in Thursday at a ceremony in Venezuela's capital of Caracas as secretary general of the 12-member Union of South American Nations.
Analysts say Samper's traction among leftist, anti-American governments will bolster the group and help bridge the region's ideological divide.
In recent interviews he said his goals as head of Unasur include jumpstarting stalled dialogue between Venezuela's socialist government and the opposition following deadly protests earlier this year. President Nicolas Maduro's opponents walked away from Unasur-sponsored talks earlier this year, saying the government wasn't prepared to grant a political or economic opening.
He also said he wants to help Colombia successfully conclude two-year-old peace talks taking place in Cuba between Colombia and the FARC.
The former U.S. ambassador to Colombia who revoked Samper's visa in 1996, Myles Frechette, recognized Samper's shrewd political skills but said they aren't enough to breathe life into a regional group that has accomplished little in six years of existence and shown no teeth in dealing with Venezuela's political crisis.
"In some way Samper is the perfect answer to Unasur, a group the does nothing and sees nothing," said Frechette.
Samper as president regularly sparred with the Frechette, who maintains Samper knew about the more than $6 million in payments to his 1994 campaign from the now-defunct Cali cartel, then the world's biggest cocaine trafficking organization.
But the 64-year-old Bogota native has always claimed his innocence, saying he was betrayed by aides, including his former campaign manager, who spoke out against him. Lawmakers, many of them on the cartel's payroll, exonerated him of the drug-money charges.
While Colombians initially rallied around Samper in his fight with Washington they quickly grew weary of the poisoning influence of drug money on politics. In 1996, authorities found four kilograms of heroin on the plane Samper was set to use for a trip to New York to attend the United Nations General Assembly.
The U.S. took advantage of the president's weakness and lack of credibility to push through an extradition treaty that previous governments in Colombia had long resisted. And by the time he left office in 1998, Colombians were desperate for U.S. assistance, which allowed successive governments to curb the violence associated with the drug trade and push back Marxist rebels who had been closing in on major cities.
"Ironically, Samper's disastrous term in office is what made Colombia's turnaround possible," said Frechette.
Out of office, Samper regained influence as a political commentator and would-be peace facilitator with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia.
From Unasur's headquarters in Quito, Ecuador, he'll now be charged with helping integrate countries that have yet to live up to ambitious goals of integration such as creating a Bank of the South they hope will ease dependence on lending from Washington-based multilateral organizations.
"He's a resilient figure," said Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington. "He clearly hasn't taken this job to relax in Quito."
AP Writer Frank Bajak contributed to this report from Lima, Peru
Joshua Goodman on Twitter: @APjoshgoodman