Ladies and Gentlemen:
I would like to begin by thanking your editors (publisher? specific names?) for the chance to speak here today. As you know, this is a time when Colombia has become front-page news, not just across the United States, but especially here in southern Florida.
Miami -and by extension this newspaper- trains its eye on Latin America like no other part of this vast country. This has to do as much with geography and trade as it does with the high concentration of Latin Americans who call Miami home. Here, Spanish is more than a second language, and the idea of a hemisphere more united than ever is fast becoming a reality. And it is redefining our future.
Colombia is also in a unique position with respect to our hemisphere. We are both Caribbean and Andean. We border Central America and the Pacific Ocean. And we are an integral part of the incomparable eco-system of the Amazon.
Our position has also been critical to the growth of the one phenomenon that threatens our entire region -which is, of course, narco-trafficking-. My government, along with the United States, recognizes that only an international response can successfully address this global threat, a fact that has also been endorsed by Colombia’s neighbors.
But before talking about our efforts in this regard, I would like to address the dangerous problem of misinformation regarding Colombia. As journalists, you know better than anyone how, in this era of instant information, it can be hard to distinguish impression from truth, and the headline of one news cycle from the cycle of history.
I am regularly surprised and sometimes stunned by what I read in the foreign press. When you see your country’s name continually misspelled -even in the most respected newspapers- you naturally worry about the rest of the reporting. And even when a wire service isn’t saying that the United States is being drawn into a guerrilla war, some editorial board here is predicting myy government’s imminent collapse. A ripple can too easily be mistaken for a wave; the limelight on one event can obscure the complicated interplay of underlying events.
The problem is not one of intentions. As a former journalist myself, I know the need to capture and convey drama in a headline or in a news story. Still, try to imagine what it is like when one of our newspapers or TV news reports a skirmish between a guerrilla unit and an army platoon several hundred miles outside Bogota, and the headline in the United States reads: «Colombia’s capital under siege». For us, every single casualty is cause for national concern, but it is not a signal of national collapse.
To understand Colombia, we must look beyond the incidents and see the conditions for what they are or in this case, as they are NOT. For starters, Colombia is not in the midst of a civil war, despite what is continually said in the international media. Colombians have never referred to this conflict as a civil war, for the simple reason that it isn´t one.
A civil war occurs in a divided nation, torn apart into armed camps of more or less the same size. Ireland, the former Yugoslavia and the Congo, these are examples of the recent civil wars.
Colombia’s case is dramatically different. There are approximately 35,000 well-armed and well-financed insurgents, both guerrilla and paramilitary, operating mainly in the remote countryside. They have inflicted enormous suffering, killing civilians, driving others from their homes and villages, and blocking development and progress.
But the insurgents make up barely one tenth of one percent of the total population. Militarily, their tactics are classic guerrilla hit and run, strike and retreat. Every time they have faced the Colombian Armed Forces out in the open, they have been defeated. And unlike guerrilla movements in other places, they have failed to convince Colombians that they provide a sound alternative to our tested democracy, and our free market economy. The guerrillas can claim little more than three or four percent popular support.
The guerrillas’ loss of support reflects more than the end of Cold War confrontation. Colombia today is a much more modern, urban and just society than it was a half century ago. Ladies and gentlemen, this is not a civil war; and even though billions of dollars generated by drug-trafficking sustain the violence, the guerrillas cannot overthrow our democracy and no one knows this better than they do.
Yet the talk, so common here in the United States of a Colombian government under siege, has given rise to another false assumption namely, that Colombia is somehow another Vietnam.
Comparing Colombia to Vietnam is historically inaccurate, and for many reasons. While Vietnam was a divided country and a Cold War ideological battlefield, Colombia is a unified nation with a strong national identity, internationally recognized borders, and country where 95 percent and more of our citizens believe in democracy, freedom of the press, and an open economy.
While Vietnam had been a colony under foreign domination for over a century, Colombia has been an independent nation since defeating the Spanish Empire in 1819. The Vietcong enjoyed significant popular support, while the Colombian insurgents are almost entirely without political support or sympathy. Equally important is the fact that while Vietnam was a distant Asian country, Colombia is an integral part of this hemisphere. Colombia is your neighbor, where a flight from Miami to Bogota takes about the same time as one from Miami to New York.
What must be understood is how drug-trafficking and its obscene profits have changed the very nature of our conflict. My own opinion -one shared by most Colombians- is that we would already be a nation at peace, were it not for the violence and corruption fueled by the illegal drug trade.
Which is why my government has devised a strategy to meet the changing nature of drug-trafficking, particularly in terms of how it has undermined our integrity as South America’s oldest democracy. This strategy, called Plan Colombia, has earned the strong bipartisan support of the United States government, as demonstrated by the recent visit to Cartagena by President Clinton and a congressional delegation led by Dennis Hastert, Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives, and Democratic Senator Joseph Biden.
Yet the extent of such support has likewise led to distortion in the media, something I would like to correct now.
First of all, Plan Colombia is a Colombian plan that has the support of the United States, and not the other way around. It is a Colombian plan that will be implemented and financed largely by us. It is a three-year, 7.5 billion dollar program, with Colombia providing 4.5 billion dollars. U.S. assistance for the next two years is 1.3 billion dollars. We have received additional pledges from other nations, and credits and loans from the international financial institutions.
Both the Colombian and the U.S. governments believe that the rest of the world -especially the European Union- should do more. Strengthening Colombia’s democracy, in the face of a truly global problem like drug-trafficking, requires global burden-sharing.
At the same time, too much emphasis has been placed on the military component of the plan. Plan Colombia is about a lot more than helicopters. Seventy-five percent of Plan Colombia is social and political in nature, not military. It is a plan for peace, prosperity and the strengthening of the State. It is a plan for alternative development for subsistence farmers, modernizing and reforming our judicial system, protecting our environment, and protecting human rights.
I would also remind you that while the majority of U.S. assistance is earmarked for hardware and training of the Colombian Armed Forces, there is also a critical social component to the U.S. assistance package. While much of the U.S. media has focused on the helicopters, the United States is increasing by ten times its funding for social programs. A total of 240 million dollars is going to support these efforts, as well as to help the internally displaced.
For the first time, the U.S. understands that what is at stake here is the strength of our institutions. This requires an approach beyond the scope of drug eradication programs. It is a mistake to see Plan Colombia as a blueprint for war. Yes, our efforts are anti-drug, but they are also pro-peace.
On the night before his visit to Colombia, a taped message by President Clinton was broadcast to the Colombian people. His goal was to allay concerns about U.S. intentions. He made the similar point that this is about fighting drugs, not waging a war. Both of us emphasized this in the strongest possible terms at our joint press conference, and I am glad to be able to do so again here today.
Central to our success is how we approach these issues as a region. As was made clear to me at my meetings with South America leaders in Brasilia two weeks ago, there is concern among Colombia’s neighbors that a stepping up of our counter-narcotics operations will cause a spill-over effect into neighboring territories.
Both the United States and Colombia are committed to working with our neighbors, not only to offset any short-term problems, but to construct a more regional approach to what is a global crisis.
While in Cartagena, President Clinton assured Colombia´s neighbors that the United States has the resources and the willingness to meet any problems that may occur, as we push to re-establish state control throughout southern Colombia. He also made it clear that it is wrong that one country shoulder the entire burden of the drug war. I made a similar argument in Brasilia -as I have for two years now- and I will continue to push for greater regional solidarity.
This was reinforced by the Brasilia communiqué, which advocated support for the Colombian peace process and a regional approach for the Colombian peace process and a regional approach to fighting narco-trafficking. Clearly, a stable Colombia, at peace, is in everyone’s interest in the hemisphere. There is no room for illegal armies in a democratic and economically integrated South America.
Equally important, as outlined in the Brasilia communiqué, is our understanding that drug-trafficking and related crimes threaten the integrity of the political, economic and social structures of all South American countries. Our communiqué calls for the shared responsibility among producing, transit and consuming nations. Just as globalization is leading us rapidly towards greater integration and economic opportunity, the increasingly international nature of drug-trafficking stands as our hemisphere’s greatest obstacle to development, prosperity and peace.
our success is dependent on continued U.S. leadership and partnership, both regionally and bilaterally. Our cooperative effort over the last two years has enabled us to pass the first hurdle -that is, devising a strategy and securing its support. But now, as President Clinton prepares to step down and a new President and a new Congress are only months away, it is important to make my government’s intentions clear as we approach the second hurdle- implementation of Plan Colombia.
Given the strong social dimension to Plan Colombia, I am determined to put this into place ahead of the more military component of our counter-narcotics operations. This is particularly true of our push into the Putumayo region -the region that has witnessed the recent increase in coca and poppy cultivation. While the training of our three counter- narcotics battalions are underway, my government will reach out to the subsistence farmers in this region, and offer them sustainable options for alternative development.
We have a window of opportunity here, to demonstrate the sincerity of our plan and to restore confidence in the Colombian government in a region where our presence has been little felt. Furthermore, my government is committed to seeing that the funds allocated by the international community are implemented properly, and in a transparent manner.
President Clinton’s visit also afforded us the chance to address the economic side of our bilateral relationship. The U.S. government recognizes that support for Plan Colombia is but one aspect of a broader bilateral agenda. No equation is complete if it does not include trade liberalization and foreign investment.
It si no secret that the region’s most dynamic economy -the United States- is also an important engine for growth and development. Without greater integration with the U.S. market, our progress elsewhere will be limited.
We made it clear that my government is ready to expand and deepen Colombia’s economic relationship with our largest trading partner. After all, 48 percent of Colombia’s total exports go the United States, while 40 percent of our imports are of U.S. origin. In total, this accounted for 9.8 billion dollars in bilateral trade last year.
Expanding bilateral trade and investment is of particular importance here in Florida. Many of Colombia’s exports arrive in Miami and other ports in Florida -including much of our fresh flowers and apparel products- ando from here are distributed to other U.S. markets. In turn, Florida exports more than $1 billion annually to Colombia. Clearly, a strong and prosperous Colombian economy is in the best interests of this state, especially in greater Miami.
In fact, the potential here is enormous. florida alone could become Colombia’s second largest trading partner, surpassing Venezuela, and generating new employment in both markets.
Before closing, there is one other issue which I would like to raise. This has to do with Colombian citizens seeking temporary protection status -or TPS- in the United States, most of them here in southern Florida. While my government does not oppose the U.S. granting TPS to Colombians who have emigrated to the United States, I want to be clear that their immigration status is a matter of the United States government to determine, and the U.S. government alone. I cannot emphasize our position strongly enough.
Our goal for the two remaining years of my presidency is to build on my work up till now. We have been able to restore confidence in Colombia’s economy and our financial institutions. We have left the recession of 1999 behind us. As spelled out in Plan Colombia, we are working to build a stronger government that will better safeguard our citizens, and to create the kind of society -peaceful and prosperous- that it is within our reach. Only then will Colombians from all walks of life wish to remain or return home.
Finally, let me again thank all of you for the opportunity to speak here today, at the very heart of the most dynamic and varied Latin America community in the United states. I hope I have been able to clear up some of the misperceptions that have plagued Colombia, and to give you a clear and concise account of where we are as a nation, and with our relations with the United States and our increasingly united hemisphere.
Thank you. I would be happy to take some of your questions.