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On Wednesday, US Senators Ben Cardin (D-MD) and Roy Blunt (R-MO), co-chairs of the Atlantic Council’s US-Colombia Task Force, presented Colombian President Iván Duque with the task force’s latest report, which provides a blueprint for US-Colombia cooperation in a post-COVID world. Duque listed opportunities for the United States to invest in Colombia and improve economic opportunity in the country—and Cardin and Blunt reiterated the United States’ willingness to continue its two-hundred-year partnership with Colombia, focusing on economic, health, and good-governance goals. Below, edited for length and clarity, is Duque, Cardin, and Blunt’s conversation with Jason Marczak, director of the Atlantic Council’s Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center.
JASON MARCZAK: President Duque, I’ll turn to you for reactions to the report, but first I’ll ask Senator Cardin and Senator Blunt to share some of the topline findings that we are releasing today. These ideas and recommendations, which come just about six months before the United States and Colombia will celebrate two hundred years of bilateral relations, focus on four strategic pillars: accelerating vaccine rollouts; promoting investment and job creation, strengthening Colombia’s social pact; [and] enhancing rule of law, peace agreement implementation, good governance, and human-rights protections.
Senator Cardin, let me start with you. I’d like to ask what you see as the main takeaways of this publication. And why do you believe this report and the ideas being released today, [in] which both you and Senator Blunt played an integral role. Why do you see this as so critical for US interests, especially given the many challenges that we face across the region and across the world?
SENATOR BEN CARDIN: We’ve been on a very positive path on Colombia over a long period of time. We’re now implementing the Peace Colombia Plan, which is for prosperity and peace in the region. Colombia is a critical partner for the United States’ national-security [interests]. They are pivotal in our global fight against drug trafficking, against money laundering, [and] against organized crime. They’re our partner in the region in regard to our security interests and economic prosperity. So it’s in the US interest for us to strengthen that partnership.
It was a challenge to implement the peace plan, and then put on top of that the problems of Venezuela and two million refugees coming into Colombia. That’s a burden that is extremely difficult to manage.
Then comes COVID-19. COVID-19 [has] been devastating to all countries, but [for] Colombia, it affected their economy by a significant reduction in their economic performance, and that’s understandable. We recognize they’ve had a challenge getting people vaccinated [and] getting the virus under control…
We need to help Colombia deal with the extra burdens created by COVID-19. And when you look at the four pillars that this report represents—getting the vaccine rollout, making sure that’s done; getting job creation, which is critically important to the long-term peace and prosperity of the country; more robust social pact—we recognize that the COVID-19 had a particular impact on underserved communities and those that are more vulnerable and made it even worse; and enhancing rule of law, which is a path that Colombia has been on, and we need to make sure that we strengthen that during COVID-19 where, again, it was challenged. So I think it [points] to the four pillars that are critically important to enhance our partnership in the mutual interests of our two countries…
But it’s amazing that next year we’re going to celebrate [the] two hundredth anniversary [of US-Colombia relations]. You cannot take that for granted, and I am really optimistic about our future. And we’re going to make sure that that optimism is well placed.
JASON MARCZAK: Senator Blunt, building off of Senator Cardin’s comments, how do you see these ideas being taken into account in your own deliberations and your own work in the US Senate?
SENATOR ROY BLUNT: A two-hundred-year [US-Colombia] relationship, as my good friend Senator Cardin just said, is no small relationship for us to have had. We’ve been around a while, but we haven’t been around much longer than this relationship has been. And it’s been a relationship of working together, a partnership of hope that our countries could get even closer together. But the long-term commitment to democracy by Colombia in South America is unique in how long they have been committed to these kinds of values. We want to do all we can to continue to make this partnership better and stronger.
You know, in the last twenty years, Senator Cardin and I, working together in the House as well, have been involved in Plan Colombia and then Peace Colombia and then the follow-up that we’re doing right now. And I think about twelve billion dollars have been invested by the United States during that twenty-year period of time in Colombia. It is a different kind of long-term partnership than we have with almost anybody else in the world. It’s one that we value.
I think one of the things coming out of this report is really the importance of looking at where that money has been used most effectively. And we need to talk to our Colombian partners with even more intensity… Let’s look at what we’ve done in twenty years and let’s analyze where we’ve made the most difference. Have we made the most difference in the rule of law? Have we made the most difference when we invested directly in the economy? Have we made investments in non-government organizations and social and community groups? This is a good time to evaluate where we can be the most helpful.
It’s also a good time to evaluate the challenges in our economic relationships. The fact that Colombia had a significant number of projects that were bid [upon] and no American company bid on those infrastructure road projects. I think we ought to be asking why.
What do we need to do to be sure that we’re the principal partner for the people and the government of Colombia as they move forward? What was missing, and what do we need to do to assist in opening that door wider and with more confidence for American companies? The things that happen in the hemisphere really matter… In South America, the partnership with Colombia is the one not only that we have the longest and greatest confidence in, but it also allows us to impact other countries through our partners in Colombia in ways that we can never have directly the same kind of influence or the same kind of advice given as our Colombian partners are able to give.
And so all of those things are things that I think this report focuses on. And I think it’s pretty clear, looking ahead, we need to see where we’ve been the most effective. I think our investment in Colombia this year, almost half a billion dollars, is the biggest investment in a decade. And so, American partners there, our Colombian partners: Who would have thought that President Duque would be dealt this hand, where you have so many challenges. Of Venezuela, of COVID-19, of the reaction to Peace Colombia and the impact that had on the internal workings of the government itself… I look forward to what we can do with this continued partnership.
JASON MARCZAK: President Duque… I’d like to ask you where you see the greatest opportunity to move forward [with the] implementation of some of the ideas, recommendations discussed by both senators, and also given the focus of the report on Colombia’s COVID-19 recovery, how worried are you as well about the new variant and how that could affect Colombia’s recovery trajectory?
PRESIDENT IVÁN DUQUE: … We’re proud and we’re glad that this report is a very significant validator of the policies that we are embracing in Colombia. But if I may react to it point by point, the first thing that has to be said is that the United States has supported Colombia [in facing] the COVID-19 crisis.
We got strong support… [from] President Trump when he supported us when we required ventilators. And we have received amazing support from President Biden and his team because we have received more than six million vaccines to be deployed around the country. And we value that because that has made the United States the biggest donor [in helping] Colombia to face the consequences of COVID-19. And one of the things that I want to highlight is that as of today, our one-shot vaccination rate… has reached levels that are even above the United States and Germany.
And we’ve done that because we have been deploying all the capacities throughout the country. And, yes, we have [surpassed] 73 percent of the Colombian population with one single [dose]. We already [surpassed] 50 percent of the population with full vaccination. And we want to accelerate in the next weeks so that we can have full vaccination for 70 percent of the population, so that that could support us in the path [to] having herd immunity. But I want to also reiterate that we have to keep on expanding our capacity to immunize the population. So that’s why we already started third shots for people above [age eighteen], and pretty soon we’ll get also to youngsters. But I think it’s a great message that Colombia’s doing good, at this moment, in the way that we have managed, integrally, the COVID-19 crisis.
Now, when we look at the economic consequences, I think that when we launched the equivalent of the Colombian New Deal last year, called Compromiso por Colombia, and when we launched all the social responses for the people in need, where we basically [increased] from 3.5 to more than nine million households that are receiving the nonconditional transfers and the conditional transfers, and that we have been able to subside 40 or 50 percent of the payroll for more than four million employers in Colombia, and that we have been able to put together the most ambitious social plan ever in this country, that is also a trigger of reactivation.
And we’re going to end this year with the highest economic growth in this century. And that means we’re going to be above 9 percent. And that is very good news because that demonstrates Colombia’s resilience. So I’m glad that the report highlights that looking at the present and the future, the economic recovery—hand in hand with massive vaccination—is something that is really making a difference.
Now, on the third front, and that’s also very important, is that in order to build a lasting peace in Colombia, we have to… not only [attend to] those municipalities that were historically badly hit by violence, but we have also to expand the services in the rest of the country. And we had the visit of the United Nations secretary-general some days ago. And he acknowledged something that is very important: Colombia has become a reference model on peacebuilding. And it has become a reference model because we have been able to mobilize resources like no other time before to 170 municipalities that were affected by violence, and that now are receiving the highest public investment ever.
But what is interesting is that hand-in-hand, this year we’re going to get to a record high in terms of land titling. And that will mean that by the end of this year my administration will already grant fifty thousand property titles around the country—fifty thousand—which is more than what was done in the eight years before my administration, and also in the eight years between 2002 and 2010.
So that demonstrates the capacity that we have to [have] in the field. We have been also advancing on the national Kadaster that is crucial to [protecting] our land and to have environmental concerns to be addressed. And we’re also very happy to say that in terms of tertiary roads and roads around the country, we are fulfilling the task. And just on four-generation highways, just looking at all the concessions, we’re going to end this administration with the same amount of new kilometers of concessions that Colombia had during the first twenty-five years of first- and second- and third-generation concessions. So that means that the country, it’s moving forward. We’re recovering pre-pandemic employment levels. So I value that the report makes this highlight because, yes, we’re building back better.
And… how are we adapting to the new mutations of this virus?… We have to do something there in order to have global herd immunity, because if most of us do what we have to do, but there are some, that for any reason, can’t do it, that also puts in jeopardy the possibility of having globally head immunity, and that allows mutations. So I think we have to do something stronger there.
And I will finish by saying: Peace with legality. Today Colombia, it’s reaching most of the municipalities that were affected by violence in the last fifty years with a historical investment. The UN, the Kroc Institute, most of the reference validators that we have are saying that Colombia is [becoming] a reference model for peacebuilding around the world. So in a nutshell, all the four items that are considered in the report, the way that the proposals are planned, for me continue the line that the Atlantic Council has had. And we look forward that for the two-hundred-year celebration, we can strengthen all these policies and build what we have already discussed with the Atlantic Council. That is to have a long-term policy between the United States and Colombia that is beyond the political cycles.
JASON MARCZAK: Senator Cardin, let me give you an opportunity to react to some of President Duque’s comments.
SENATOR BEN CARDIN: … Impressive record during this very challenging time. Congratulations on your handling of this crisis as far as COVID-19 is concerned.
You mentioned a lot of the areas where I think this report is really centered on. Yes, we want to complete the vaccine rollout to make sure that everyone gets the vaccine, that [a slow rollout is] not as a result of not having the availability. And secondly, when we look at job creation—which is a critically important part—we have tools in the United States… How we use our development corporation, how we participate in infrastructure projects, what we do with agriculture are all areas where I think we can complement the leadership that you have provided in regards to economic growth.
And in regard to the social compact and the rule of law, this is a continuing struggle. We recognize that. This is not easy. You have detractors that are trying to make it more difficult. So I think we can find partnerships there to help you in that regard.
So I think you’re going to find in the United States Congress a very supportive partner, that we’re going to be looking at how we can creatively use our institutions and resources to really reinforce the plans that you have brought out. And I think when you look at the specific recommendations in this report, it complements very much your strategy for peace and prosperity in your region and dealing with the challenges of COVID-19.
JASON MARCZAK: Senator Blunt.
SENATOR ROY BLUNT: Well, again, the challenges that the government has faced have been significant. They have been unprecedented in many ways…
When I was in the House during the [George W. Bush] administration, I helped start the negotiations for the trade agreement that we were able to finalize when I got to the Senate in 2011. I think immediately that allowed about 80 percent of our industrial products and half of our agricultural products to go in duty-free. We continue to move along that line. By the end of this decade, 2028 or so, there will be free trade across the board in our countries.
Nearsourcing is a real opportunity for us with Colombia as we look for ways to condense our worldwide sourcing issues. Why wouldn’t we want to be close and be close with our friends? I do think for that to work we need to be thinking of ways we can encourage and help the workforce of Colombia become more technically ready for that workforce of the next decade and the decade after that. There’s a real opportunity here. We should make the most of it.
And again, back to Senator Cardin’s comments, the rule of law, the certainty of relationship, the economy that is obvious and above board so that when we make those determinations we understand that everything that was on the table [was what had] to be considered, not the other kinds of things that make it so difficult to do business in some parts of the world. But I think we’ve come through a challenging period here, and I think in many ways we’ve come through that challenging period with our relationship stronger and our interest in looking for partners that are closer to us—so geographically and philosophically and by standards of law—than we might have had in other places. It’s a good time for this relationship, and we need to move forward.
JASON MARCZAK: President Duque, would you like to share any final comments before the senators have to leave?
PRESIDENT IVÁN DUQUE: I believe that what the senators said, it’s crucial. And how do we make this happen immediately?
So my take is that the two-hundred-year celebration shall be the opportunity for us to have [a] Colombia-US long-term comprehensive strategy. And it’s not just about putting resources, but it’s about using all the institutional tools in order to strengthen the relationship.
Let me give you one example. One week ago, we got the approval [to export] mangoes from Colombia to the United States. Last year, we got green peppers. Just on those two projects, and if we started looking at accessibility in a broader way, these can open the opportunities for many people around the country to earn a job and even to turn from illegal crops to legal ones.
The second thing that is very important: We need to strengthen investment. So we’re going to have biddings for fifteen megaprojects in the next eight months. We want to have US companies participating in those bids. We want to bring investments from the United States. We still have to do much work together on the climate agenda. But I think what we did in Glasgow was very important because we’re aligned. So when we talk climate change, trade, investment, security, [and peacebuilding], I think we are [on] the right track.
And on security: I think last year we saw that the consumption of drugs around the world skyrocketed, including the United States, obviously including Colombia. But I think in the co-responsibility procedures that we have to embrace, I think we have to do a lot more in the United States on prevention because we have reached record highs on interdictions. We have destructed cocaine laboratories around the country. We have captured kingpins. We have destroyed structures. But we have to do something very strong, as well, to reduce the demand from the United States, and I think that’s also very important for long-term peace-building.