COLOMBIA: ACHIEVEMENTS AND CHALLENGES. Center for Latin American Issues -CLAI-George Washington University School of Business.
I’d like to start by thanking the Center for Latin American Issues of George Washington University School of Business, and their director, my good friend Jim Ferrer, for the kind invitation to share with you some reflections about the recent Colombian electoral process and the challenges for the government that will begin -I mean, will continue- on August 7th.
Doctor Ferrer has also invited me to join the CLAI Advisory Board, an honor that I have proudly accepted. So, this occasion has a doubly special meaning for me since it will be my first speech in this important center where I am now an Advisory Board Member.
It is a both a pleasure and a challenge for me to be in the company of Philip McLean, a real expert on Colombia and the Andean countries, who will make this discussion even more interesting.
As many of you know, Philip published an interesting article three months ago in the Foreign Service Journal under the suggestive title “Colombia is complicated”. According to him, that sentence is the usual answer that Colombians give to the foreigner’s question: Why is your country so violent?
I have to agree with Philip. That is a common answer. But it is also true that we find it difficult to explain what happens in Colombia because we are often faced with a lot of miscommunication, and many misconceptions, about our country.
Let me give you some examples to illustrate this point. Let’s start with the very basic: the name and the location. How can you try to understand a country if you don’t even know its name or where it is?
Since I arrived here in the States as Ambassador I have witnessed many people -students, politicians, even journalists- call my country “Columbia” and not Colombia. Additionally, they frequently don’t know where Colombia is located and think we have borders with Mexico or Argentina, to say the least.
I know these are just typical mistakes, but they are not justifiable when we are talking about a big country that is in the same hemisphere, only two hours by plane from Miami. This confusion is not reasonable when we are talking about a country that has been a constant ally of the United States in the struggle against drugs and terrorism.
Let me share with you two more usual misconceptions: some people think that Colombia has been under the rule of dictatorial or military governments for decades and that we are, like other neighboring countries, rebuilding a wounded democracy; others believe that the country’s wealth is in the hands of a dozen families and justify, on that basis, the alleged “social insurrection” of the guerrillas.
I have to explain, again and again, that the reality is different. I am not going to deny our problems, but I have to clarify that Colombia, a nation with more than 41 million people, is a modern country with a long standing democratic tradition, a strong middle class, and a commitment to achieving progress and peace.
Colombia is the oldest and historically the most stable democracy in Latin America. Except for a short period of military dictatorship between 1953 and 1957, the country has established and maintained democratic institutions and elected its Presidents through popular election for almost two centuries.
Think of this: Peru, the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua and Paraguay lived under military dictatorships for more than 40 years in the last century. Brazil, Ecuador, Bolivia and Argentina did so for more than 20 years, and Chile, Uruguay and Mexico for more than 10. The interruption of democracy in Colombia during the twentieth century didn’t even last 5 years.
We also have had a tradition of stability in our legal system. While Venezuela has had 19 Constitutions since 1880, Ecuador 9 and Brazil 8, we have had only 2 Constitutions in more than 120 years. The current one was drafted in 1991 by the National Constituent Assembly and it is a model of pluralism and balance of power that has been recognized around the world.
There were many people – fortunately fewer now – who used to justify the existence of guerrillas in Colombia with the excuse that our democracy was weak or inoperative, and that there was no democratic “space” for alternative political expression.
Nothing is further from the truth. In Colombia, despite terrorist violence and the prevailing drug trafficking problem, the fact that democracy prevails despite these challenges demonstrates our commitment to this way of government.
In Colombia, we elect the President, Senators, Representatives, Deputies to the Department Assemblies and Municipal Council members by popular vote. Since the eighties and early nineties, we also elect our Mayors and Governors.
A month and a half ago, presidential elections were held in my country and the current President, Alvaro Uribe, was reelected, obtaining more than sixty percent of the vote. It was a real triumph for our democracy in which close to 13 million citizens voted to elect our President for the next four years, choosing among different candidates, with different tendencies and proposals.
President Uribe won the Presidency for a new term running as an independent candidate, but with the support of the Conservative Party and new movements and parties, founded by former liberals who are supporting his policies, like “Partido de la U” and “Cambio Radical” among others.
In second place finished Carlos Gaviria, a former Justice, who led a campaign supported by several leftist parties, who obtained significant support. In third place, Horacio Serpa from the official Liberal Party had a small percentage of the votes.
It was the first time in recent Colombian history in which neither of the top two candidates ran for the Presidency under the official label of Liberal or Conservative. This time, the election was driven by issues rather than by partisan loyalty. The main issue seemed to be if Colombians wanted to continue advancing in the direction proposed by President, or to make a U-turn and test new recipes to achieve peace, security, development and social justice. It was clear that the majority of Colombians preferred to continue the existing path.
I’d like to highlight another characteristic of governments in recent history: a consistent policy of inclusion. Many former guerrillas have been demobilized and today contribute to public life as members of Congress and as Mayors. They have even reached high positions as Ministers and Presidents of the National Constituent Assembly.
As other examples of this trend, the current Mayor of Bogotá and the current Governor of Valle del Cauca, one of the largest states in Colombia, are the former heads of labor unions.
Ours is, without a doubt, an open and active democracy. It is not, of course, a perfect one. We have to strengthen and defend it every day. But it is not a weak democracy, nor is it a new one.
Many times I have been questioned, in media interviews or social meetings, why I, as a former President of Colombia, accepted the honorable mission of representing my country to the United States of America. It’s almost a tradition in Colombia that our Embassy in Washington has been the launching pad for presidential candidates. In my case, it worked the opposite way, having been president and now ambassador.
The answer is very simple. In 1998, when I assumed the Presidency of the Republic, we began a work based on responsibility and commitment for the future of Colombia that is worthwhile to continue. I have been in public service for many years now, and this is just another way of serving my country.
During my government we designed and implemented Plan Colombia, an integral strategy to combat drug trafficking, to increase the effectiveness of our Armed Forces and to strengthen our institutions, taking the presence of the State to every corner of the national territory. This Plan has been enthusiastically continued by President Uribe.
In the international field, our goals were precise: Normalize our relationships with other countries, achieve international involvement and “burden sharing” in the fight against drugs, and motivate others toward helping Colombia without internationalizing the conflict. It’s been clear to us that Colombia cannot resolve this conflict without strong international support.
With these ambitious goals in mind, I personally led a diplomatic international effort. As a result, Colombia received not only the support of the international community but a growing acceptance from other countries that they, too, shared responsibility in the fight against drugs and the violence resulting from the drug trade.
With regard to security, we made a firm commitment to strengthen our Armed Forces. Our goal was to professionalize our military and provide it with better training and equipment. We sought improved air mobility to achieve a military presence across Colombia’s vast territory. We improved our intelligence capabilities, and increased our troops. Today, our army has 133 percent more combat-ready soldiers than 7 years ago! They have increased from 82,000 soldiers in 1998 to 191,000 in December of 2005.
In addition, we reinforced our commitment to improving the military’s human rights performance, so that the armed forces would gain the respect of both domestic and international audiences. In this area of human rights it is clear that, as the military gains strength and presence with professionalization, their respect for human rights also improves.
The professionalization of both the military and the police forces, built public support and confidence in our security forces. When I became President, only 34% of the population believed they could defeat the guerrillas. By the end of my term, more than 65% of the population believed our Military Forces had the capacity to successfully face this conflict. Today the armed forces are one of the most highly regarded institutions in Colombia and the population increasingly shows signs of feeling better protected.
The security indicators are now very positive. In 2005 homicides decreased by 13 percent, kidnappings were down by 51 percent, and overall terrorist attacks decreased 21 percent. People are living in a safer environment and domestic and international tourists are rediscovering the marvelous treasures of Colombia.
As Philip McLean, here present, has reported in his article, “the murder rates in Bogotá and Medellín are now lower than in Washington D.C.”. I think this new information will give you food for thought.
We also implemented a constitutionally-mandated transition from an inquisitorial criminal justice system to an accusatorial one. Thanks to this transformation, criminal justice is more efficient and accurate in our country.
As the most significant component of Plan Colombia, we designed a strategy to combat drug trafficking. As I mentioned, we sought to engage the international community to convince them of the need to be part of this effort of interdicting drugs, countering money-laundering and enhancing law enforcement in Colombia.
We also reinforced legal mechanisms, such as drug dealers’ extradition and the seizure of assets. This was important because drug trafficking fuels corruption and terrorism. Since 1998, Colombia has extradited more than 400 individuals to the United States to stand trial. Back then, we used this sentence to describe our actions: “For drug dealers, criminal action; for peasants, social action”.
Our tactics include eradication of illegal coca and poppy plantations, through aerial fumigation, manual eradication and alternative development. Alternative development is key because we have to give poor peasants a lucrative alternative to growing illegal crops, and a means to survive. But it is not sufficient. The best way to persuade peasants to incorporate themselves into the formal economy is by giving them more opportunities to sell legal crops. This is precisely the reason why a fair Trade Promotion Agreement is a crucial step towards achieving peace and eradicating drugs in Colombia.
In 2005 we achieved a new record in eradication of illicit crops: more than 170 thousand hectares! Colombia was also the country that seized the most cocaine in the world, more than 188 tons, and we destroyed almost 2,000 laboratories or plants which process drugs.
We are fighting a war against a global and dangerous enemy. The drug money fuels our conflict and almost all the criminal and terrorists groups around the world. President Uribe is convinced that the main thing to do in order to end the violence and foster development is to get the drug problem out of our land. With the continuous support of the United States we are going to persevere in this battle for our future and our children’s future.
Finally, Plan Colombia also has a social component. We all know that it is absolutely necessary to address social conditions that exacerbate problems in our country. Moving in that direction, Plan Colombia has improved access to government services in areas of the country where these did not exist.
The Plan, in its first stage, involved an investment of more than 7.5 billon dollars, more than half of which were Colombian resources. Well, many people are not aware of this, but 75% of the Plan was dedicated to social development in the country’s most remote regions. This social investment is essential – even if poverty can never justify violence, it is also true that with hunger and poverty it is impossible to achieve peace.
Thanks to Plan Colombia and the sustained efforts of the Colombian government, almost 95% of our children, grades “K” through 10th, are currently attending school. The health coverage for the poorest people in Colombia has doubled from 35% to 70%.
In my government, I attempted a peace process with the guerrillas. Unfortunately, they didn’t respond to the Colombians’ hope and chose terrorism, financed with drug trafficking money. Drug profits were more important to them than peace.
Today, President Uribe’s government is engaged in a peace process with the illegal paramilitary groups that has resulted in the demobilization of more than 20,000 men. Last year the U.S. Congress approved 20 million dollars in funding to support this process.
I remember that, at the beginning, there was a lot of all-around skepticism about Plan Colombia because it was the first time that Colombia, with international support, mainly from the United States, attempted such a large-scale strategy to achieve peace, fight against illicit drugs and improve social and economic conditions -in other words, to build strong institutions.
Some were afraid that the United States was going to be involved in another Vietnam. Others said that the Colombian conflict would be exacerbated. Today we can see that Plan Colombia is a success story with concrete, measurable results that deserves support in its new second stage. The skeptics, as often happens, were wrong this time.
The same is happening now with the peace process that our government is leading with the illegal paramilitary groups. Today there is a certain degree of skepticism, but what critics don’t see is that this peace process is only the continuation of a larger and more integrated effort for peace, that, sooner or later, will have to include all the illegal armed groups in Colombia.
We are trying to achieve the delicate balance between justice and peace, like many other countries in the world have attempted, with varying degrees of success. I am confident that our efforts and commitment will result in a lasting and sustainable peace for Colombia.
I have told you about democracy and about Plan Colombia. Allow me now to talk about economics. Colombia has one of the more stable economies in Latin America. According to the Inter-American Development Bank, Colombia has had a GDP growth rate of 3.2% over the past 75 years, with only a single year of recession. During the last 25 years, Colombia grew at a rate of 3.1%, compared with a 2.5% annual average in Latin America. Last year our GDP grew more than 5%.
We have never defaulted on our international obligations and never experienced the hyperinflation characteristic of other countries in the region.
If there is a country eager and ready for development it is Colombia. I have always said: “We don’t need aid, but trade”. As you know, last February the United States and Colombia, after almost 2 years of negotiations, reached a consensus about a Trade Promotion Agreement.
I hope this Agreement will be approved by the American and Colombian congresses and will help my country to further develop its industry and its agricultural potential to successfully compete in the global marketplace.
With the Trade Promotion Agreement, US-Colombian trade and investment will have a long-term, transparent and predictable framework that will encourage new and profitable investments.
The United States of America is Colombia’s main trading partner, with more than 14 billion dollars in bilateral trade last year. This TPA consolidates our special relationship into a true, mutually beneficial partnership.
I want to emphasize that TPA poses opportunities and challenges for Colombia. Consolidating market access for our exports of goods and services to the biggest market in the world will undoubtedly trigger investment, trade, economic development and growth.
The work we have ahead of us is arduous. We need to make sure that members of Congress, civil society and non governmental organizations understand the great advantages that this agreement brings, both for the United States and for the Colombian population.
Uribe’s government is convinced of the virtues of the Agreement, and would like to have it sent for Congressional consideration as soon as possible. We are working on it.
Now, dear friends, you might be wondering why I have told you about what happened in Colombia in the last 8 years when the title of my conference speaks about the challenges for the second Uribe administration.
Well, I have been talking about stability and continuity to make clear that what is happening now in Colombia and what will happen in the near future is an ongoing process that will undoubtedly continue for the next 4 years.
When President Uribe ran for a second term of the Presidency his campaign’s slogan was “¡Adelante, Presidente!” (Go forward, President!), and that is the path that he will follow. These are the real challenges for the next 4 years:
– Go forward with Democratic Security, strengthening of the Armed Forces and the improvements in safety.
– Go forward with Plan Colombia and the excellent relationship and cooperation with the United States of America.
– Go forward with the Trade Promotion Agreement and a fair insertion of Colombia in the global market.
– Go forward with responsible economic management, including the modernization of the tax system.
– Go forward to successfully complete the peace process with the paramilitary groups and their lasting reinsertion into the society.
Colombia is now on the path of progress and peace. We have a tradition of stability not only in our democracy but in our economy. We are determined to continue that way and our security conditions are steadily improving.
I want to finish by quoting the Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, Nicholas Burns, in an article published less than three months ago:
“As Latin America’s third-largest country, Colombia has a profound impact on the peace and stability of the region. (…) The United States’ investment in Colombia is paying off. Colombia is clearly a better place than it was before we embarked on our joint undertaking to win Colombia back from the criminal gangs that were destroying the country”.
I am glad to yield the floor to Mr. McLean and to answer any questions that you may have. Many thanks.