The Americas Project at the Center for American Progress yesterday hosted an event with Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, “Colombia & the United States at a Crossroads: A Conversation with President Alvaro Uribe.” The event focused on the range of complex issues that define the relationship between the United States and Colombia, two of the most interconnected countries in the Americas.
Before joining the scheduled event, President Uribe made a surprise appearance outside the offices of the Center for American Progress, where protestors had gathered to draw attention to their concerns regarding the human rights situation in Colombia and the U.S.-Colombia Trade Promotion Agreement pending before the U.S. Congress. President Uribe had a spirited discussion with the protestors before continuing the dialogue inside at the event.
John Podesta, American Progress President and CEO, formally welcomed President Uribe to the Center noting the strategic importance of Colombia for the United States. Podesta recognized that much progress has been made in making Colombia more stable and secure, but noted that “much more work remains to examine the past, stabilize the present, and build a future of lasting peace, reconciliation, and justice.”
Following the introductory remarks, President Uribe engaged in an extended Q&A session moderated by Dan Restrepo, Director of The Americas Project.
Restrepo opened by asking President Uribe about his response that he has committed no crimes, but has made mistakes when confronted with allegations that he had connections to Colombia’s paramilitary organizations. President Uribe explained that someone who has been in public service as long as he has been certainly has made mistakes in the course of their career and again denied connection to the paramilitaries.
Noting the Center’s advocacy for the use of Integrated Power in the conduct of U.S. foreign policy, Restrepo next asked President Uribe about the one-sided nature of U.S. assistance under Plan Colombia and its failure to live up to original conception of bringing resources to bear in an integrated fashion to address Colombia’s many challenges.
“We do not fail,” the president said. “We have not won yet, but we are winning. You have to ask yourself this question: What would happen to Colombia without Plan Colombia?” The president said that since Plan Colombia was initiated, employment has increased, political kidnappings have decreased, and drug crop production has decreased.
The president continued by focusing on the social development progress made by his administration. Noting a drop in unemployment and poverty since the beginning of his presidency, he stated “[b]y the year 2010, we are working to reduce poverty to be not over 35%.” He also spoke of goals for social programs such as education and economic goals to make Colombia more attractive to foreign investors.
Restrepo also asked about the president’s controversial rhetoric in which he has referred to some of his opponents as terrorists. Noting that his was the first government in Colombia to go after the country’s paramilitaries, President Uribe stated that “[t]he only way I have to confront my opponents is by facts,” he said. He went on to discuss the efforts his government has undertaken to demobilize the paramilitaries and noted that “[f]or the first time, Colombia has a law of peace.”
“I do not promote hate,” Uribe said. “I have no hatred. I discuss. I like to live in debate, but I do not promote hatred.”
“We are looking for peace,” Uribe continued, “but in a balance between peace, justice, and reparation.” He also noted the importance of setting the proper standard moving forward to ensure that the same measures are applied to demobilized illegal armed movement regardless of their origins.
The Q&A session was then opened up to the audience, and representatives from a variety of organizations were given an opportunity to contribute to the dialogue. Mark Schneider with the International Crisis Group asked about the Justice and Peace Law and the prosecution of paramilitary leaders. Uribe responded by comparing the initial text of the law with the new law. He said that the new law takes into consideration “truth, the need for reparations, and no amnesty, no pardon, for atrocities.” He also acknowledged the need for additional resources to be dedicated to the paramilitary-related investigations and prosecutions under the Justice and Peace Law.
The next question came from one of the protestors, Heather Hanson from the U.S. Office on Colombia. Seeking to engage the president in a dialogue on human rights, Hansen said, “Abuses by the Colombian Security forces are actually on the increase, and this includes during your first admin, 756 cases of extrajudicial executions that have been registered. The Inter-American Commission says that the pressure placed on the armed forces to produce high body counts to show results in the war is contributing to these abuses against the civilian population…” She asked President Uribe, “What steps is your administration willing to take to end these extrajudicial executions and to ensure that these cases…do not remain in impunity…?”
In response, the president talked about protections in place for journalists, union leaders, and mayors, as well as the decline of kidnappings. He noted that no journalists had been killed this year in contrast with the more years in which 15 were killed prior to his presidency.
Noting that his government was strict in enforcing human rights within the ranks of the Colombian army, President Uribe also declared that his government could not allow the army to be destroyed.
“I have supported the police and the army the most I can,” President Uribe explained. “I could have made alliances with illicit groups to combat other illicit groups, but that is not the way I chose. The way I have chosen is the institutional one, for democratic convictions, for our constitution, for my principals of Christianity, and for the new generation of Colombians.”
He said that any time members of the police or armed forces needed to be removed, they were, but he placed much emphasis on having a strong army and police force. “I went to the public university, and one of the main tools used by terrorists is to discredit the army, is to discredit the police,” said Uribe. “And I cannot be abided by this trick and I disagree with the number [cited by Ms. Hanson], but fortunately Colombia is a country open to international scrutiny…We are ready to move forward in human rights respect, but we cannot destroy our army. What we need is to strengthen our army and our police…The more we enlarge the army, the more military operation are undertaken by our army, the less the blames for human rights abuses.”
Another audience member asked about the issue of U.S. multinationals financially backing paramilitaries. “Former…guerillas converted to terrorist groups were the cause for paramilitaries. Don’t forget FARC is still alive…We defend in every case the right to get Colombia rid of terrorist groups. I want to dedicate my life till the final days of my life to that cause,” said the president.
The event concluded with CAP’s Restrepo turning the discussion toward the topic of trade. Noting that prior trade agreements in the Americas have had unintended negative consequences on rural economies, he asked what steps the Uribe government was taking to protect those who would be left behind by the proposed U.S.-Colombia trade agreement. “From a pure economic view, the trade agreement is an opportunity for Colombia to balance [trade and political goals]” the president said. Although the free trade agreement is very important, he said, it is not all that Colombia—and the Andean region as a whole—needs. He discussed hopes of signing an agreement with Chile, Peru, and Panama, and hopes of negotiations with Europe and with Asian countries.
Uribe also talked about the importance of agrobusiness. He talked about focusing on both short term and long term crops. Furthermore, he said that biofuels production could prove to be a boon to people living in the countryside. He concluded by saying that “Colombia has products and needs free trade agreements to put these products in the international market.”