WELCOME REMARKS, COUNCIL OF AMERICAN AMBASSADORS
Welcome to the Embassy and thank you for attending this briefing about Colombia.
• Some of you are familiar with Colombia, but some of you aren’t. So, in order to help you to take advantage of your next trip to my country I would like to introduce to you a few things about Colombia that it is worthy to remember or you might not know yet.
• Colombia produces the richest coffee in the world, a product that is symbol of our country everywhere.
• Colombia is the second country in the world in biodiversity, after Brazil, and the first in native species.
• Colombia is the second flower exporter in the world, after the Netherlands, and the main U.S. supplier. Over half of the flowers sold in the United States come from Colombia.
• Colombia has the biggest export-oriented steam coal mine in the world, “El Cerrejón North Zone”, an open pit mine capable of producing 15 million metric tons of coal per year, and has abundant oil and natural gas reserves.
• Colombia is the major world source of emeralds and an important producer of platinum, gold and silver.
• Colombia is the world’s third largest banana producer.
• Colombia ranks fourth in the world in palm oil production, drinking water supplies and nickel.
• We are also proud of our people. Let me talk about a few of them out of 44 million laborious and charming Colombian people.
• Colombian Nobel prize laureate Gabriel García Márquez, the renowned author of “One Hundred of Solitude”, is the most read novelist in the world.
• Colombian pop-singer Shakira is one of the most popular Latin American artists in the world and has won several Grammy awards.
• Another pop-singer, Juanes, attended last week an invitation at the European Parliament and made all the European congressmen dance and sing with his music. He also spoke about his social message against the minefields in the world.
• NASA neuroscience director is a Colombian scientist called Rodolfo Llinás.
• Colombian baseball players Edgar Rentería and Orlando Cabrera play in the most important US teams.
• Colombian painter and sculptor, Fernando Botero, has exhibited his works at the Champs Elysées in Paris, Central Park in New York, St. Mark’s square in Venice and the Paseo de Recoletos in Madrid.
• Colombian designer Silvia Tcherassi sells her creations in Paris, New York, Miami and Saudi Arabia and dresses important personalities around the world.
• And the list is even longer as you can imagine…
COLOMBIA IS ALSO:
• A gateway to Latin America, only three hours from Miami
• Home to a diverse geography and environment. Colombia is the only country in South America to have both a Pacific and Caribbean coast.
• A diverse ethnic population. The country has 85 different ethnic groups, and 66 dialects creating a true melting pot of European, Indigenous and Afro-Caribbean communities.
• Colombia, as I’ll explain more extensively later, is Latin America’s oldest and most stable democracy and a strong and stable economy.
• And despite the natural, cultural and historical strengths we have, we are still in the midst of an internal conflict that has been developed for four decades. It is the only conflict of its kind left in the hemisphere, despite many bold efforts to achieve peace.
• Our conflict is not, and has never been, a civil war: It is a terrorists’ war AGAINST civil society! Furthermore, our society is not divided over this confrontation. On the contrary, Colombians are unified about finding an end to it. The nation’s sovereignty remains intact. The illegal armed actors do not have the support of even 1% of the population.
• The guerrilla’s activity is unfortunately fueled by the narcotraffic business, a world problem that affects my country.
• When I took office as President of Colombia in 1998, I applied an integral strategy to attack the root of the problem: both a search for peace and a fight against drug trafficking. That strategy was called Plan Colombia.
• Plan Colombia, which has been enthusiastically continued by President Uribe, included an international effort to talk to the world about the concept of joint responsibility in the war against drugs.
• Its most significant component was a commitment to institutional strengthening; this meant creating a strong and professional armed forces and national police, an effective justice system, complemented by essential social improvement programs and sound economic management.
• On 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. It was clear to us that Colombia could not, and cannot resolve this conflict without strong international support.
• As a result, Colombia has received not only the support of the international community but a growing acceptance from other countries that they, too, share responsibility in the fight against drugs and the violence resulting from the drug trade.
• Colombia is still struggling against drugs and violence but – I emphasize this – Colombia IS BACK to the path of progress and peace.
• 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, more than a half of which were Colombian resources. Many people are not aware of this, but 75% of the Plan was dedicated to social development in the country’s most remote regions.
• Today we can say, proudly, that almost 90% of our children, grades “K” through 10th, are currently attending classes in schools.
• We have 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 improved their air mobility to achieve a military presence across Colombia’s vast territory. We improved our intelligence capabilities, and largely 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. The armed forces are now the most highly regarded institution in Colombia and the population increasingly shows signs of feeling better protected.
• At the same time as we professionalized and improved our Armed Forces, we looked for a political solution with guerillas through negotiations. During my term, we were able to bring to the negotiating table the leadership of the FARC and ELN. Unfortunately, after three years of talks, the terrorist and drug trafficking factions within the guerrillas showed that they were more powerful than the handful of remaining politically and ideologically motivated members of these groups.
• It was not possible to reach an agreement and the process was interrupted in 2002, after a series of deadly bombings by the FARC. Drug profits were more important to them than peace.
• The desired goal was not reached, but we advanced the path of peace, demonstrating with it the strength of our democracy.
• On the other hand, since 2003, President Uribe has leaded a successful peace process with the “paramilitary forces”. Today, after the demobilization of more than 20 thousand people, we can happily say that there are no more paramilitaries in Colombia.
• Right now we are facing the problem of the reinsertion of the former combatants to the society, the punishment of their leaders and the reparation of their victims. It is a difficult task in which we are trying to reach an appropriated balance between justice and peace. We are all working to get it ahead.
• The security indicators are now very positive. In 2005 homicides decreased by 10 percent, kidnappings were down by 51 percent and overall terrorist attacks decreased by 16 percent. People are living in a safer environment and domestic and international tourists are rediscovering Colombia.
• As I have told before and you must know, 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 developed democratic institutions and elected its Presidents through popular election for almost 200 years.
• In Colombia, despite terrorist violence and problems derived from drug trafficking, we live and maintain one of the strongest democracies in the world. The fact that democracy prevails despite these challenges confirms this point.
• Next month, Presidential elections will be held and, for the first time in our recent history, the President himself will run for a second consecutive term.
• It’s interesting to see that many former guerrillas have been demobilized and today contribute to public life as members of Congress and Mayors. They have even reached high positions such 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 or labor unions.
• The press is absolutely free in Colombia, without censorship of any kind. Any coercion it suffers comes from the illegal groups, not by the government.
• 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.
• Colombia also 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 –1999. 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 that one is Colombia. I have always said: “We don’t need aid, but trade”. Last February, the United States and Colombia, after almost 2 years of negotiations, reached a consensus about a Free Trade Agreement. I hope this Agreement will be approved by 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.
• Finally, my dear American Ambassadors, you are going to visit Bogotá, the Colombian capital, and my native city.
• I was its first elected Major in 1988. Then we began a process that has turned Bogotá into one of the most interesting and modern cities in Latin America.
• Bogotá has an excellent public transportation system which is a model in the world, distinctive brick architecture framed by green and impressive mountains and, particularly, a rich cultural life. I hope you enjoy your visit and bring back to the US the passion of Colombia and the passion for Colombia.
Now I am open to your questions and comments.