Stephanie Miller sat down on June 23 with Mr. Jaime Bermúdez, minister of foreign relations of Colombia, in the offices of Colombia’s Foreign Ministry in Bogotá for a conversation about Colombia’s strategic role in the Western Hemisphere and its close relationship with the United States. The discussion took place in anticipation of Colombian President Álvaro Uribe’s upcoming meeting with President Obama in Washington on June 29. This marks the first and exclusive bilateral forum between the two heads of state who will likely discuss issues such as Plan Colombia―a U.S.-funded bilateral counternarcotics program signed in 1999—the bilateral free trade agreement, regional affairs, and programs for commercial and social cooperation.
Bermúdez assumed his current post in July 2008 after serving as Colombia’s ambassador to Argentina for two years. A lawyer by training, Bermúdez also earned a Ph.D in political science with a focus on public opinion from Oxford University.
Stephanie Miller: Colombia is often described as the United States’ staunchest ally in Latin America. In your view, what are the major pillars of the bilateral relationship and how has the relationship benefitted both countries?
Jaime Bermúdez: Colombia and the United States have what we call a state-to-state relationship, which would mean a very strong, stable relationship. We have a very comprehensive agenda including issues related to the fight against drug trafficking activities, but also related to corporations, clean energies, education, some social programs, and obviously the trade issue, as well as the regional affairs that concern us both. So I would say that we have a very wide and comprehensive agenda.
We find in the United States a very strong ally because the United States has effectively worked hand in hand with Colombia in certain areas, for example in the fight against drugs [in which the United States] has been extremely supportive, but also because the United States is our most important trade partner. So I would say that the two countries have a very strong and stable relationship and we need to develop [the relationship] further.
SM: How do you see Colombia’s role in Latin America and the Caribbean, and in a larger scope, the Western Hemisphere?
JB: During the last few years Colombia has become one of the main hotspots in the region regarding, for example, foreign direct investment. Today, after Brazil and Mexico, Colombia is ranked third in the region in terms of receiving foreign direct investment. And we have mastered and improved conditions in the country regarding security laws as well as the economic performance and institutional framework. And I would say with all candor that Colombia is a very strong democracy and a very respectful country in the region.
I think that Colombia has a very important role to play in the entire continent, and also in the Caribbean. For example this year we are running and heading the Association of Caribbean States, and because of that we are implementing a very strong and comprehensive cooperation program. To give you an example we are developing programs in vocational training, programs in prevention and management of natural disasters, programs in bilingualism, and so on. So we are very active now in the Caribbean because of this commitment.
We are also working hard in all the regional multilateral organizations, for example the Organization of American States, but also Union of South American Nations, or UNASUR, and others in the region. And I believe that Colombia’s voice is now becoming perhaps a more respected one in the international context, and we would like to work more on that.
SM: Presidents Uribe and Obama are going to meet for their first bilateral meeting in the Oval Office on June 29. What do you anticipate will be the main items for discussion? What issues in particular are important for President Uribe to highlight during the meeting?
JB: As I said previously the U.S.-Colombia relationship is a very strong and comprehensive one and all the items and subjects of the agenda are open, so it’s up to [the presidents] what they would like to discuss. But broadly speaking we have several issues to talk over, for example drugs, terrorism, trade, cooperation, environmental and energy issues, as well as specific regional issues. So I think we should develop this agenda in a very effective way.
SM: How has Colombia been impacted by decisions made by the Obama administration in its first five months in office?
JB: We have found a very open attitude from the administration. President Uribe has talked with President Obama on several occasions. I personally have had the chance to meet the U.S. secretary of state on several occasions. We have also been in touch with the national security advisor and his team. Our minister of trade has been in touch with the U.S. trade representative and some others as well. So we have found a very open attitude and we are working hand in hand with the administration, and we see a clear sign that we have a very good relationship [with this administration] as we have had [with others] in the past.
SM: How do you view the Obama administration’s recent steps toward strengthening border security between the United States and Mexico? Does the U.S.-Mexico Merida Initiative complement Plan Colombia, and if so, how?
JB: I think that the fight against drugs is a very important issue for all of us to address in a serious manner. Colombia has suffered a lot from drugs and terrorist activities in the last 20 years. And it is important for us, as it is for many other countries and any country that actually suffers from this illegal activity, to fight with very strong support from the international community. So every effort in which we can work together in the fight against drugs is a very important one and we welcome that very much.
For example we are working very closely with Mexico, Guatemala, Panama, and many other countries in the region, as well as with Afghanistan. Since Afghanistan is suffering a very difficult situation regarding drugs and terrorist activities linked together, as it is the case in Colombia, we are via NATO sending some people to Afghanistan to help with the demining process, and we would like to cooperate with Afghanistan in this regard as we are doing with Haiti as well.
SM: Regarding Plan Colombia, there has been talk about a reduction in funds in the future and a sort of "Colombianization" of the plan so that Colombia assumes increasingly more financial responsibility of the plan’s programs. Where do you see Plan Colombia going in 2010 and beyond, assuming that in the upcoming 2010 Colombian presidential elections a candidate is elected who views Plan Colombia favorably?
JB: First of all, I would say that Plan Colombia has been extremely important for the two countries and extremely important for Colombia. It has been very successful because Colombia has managed, because of the plan, to improve the current situation regarding drugs and terrorist activities. But we also understand that we need to consolidate the results, so we need to go further. From the very beginning it was understood that somehow the plan would [eventually] fade, and that is the case and we understand that. But we still need to get more funds and work hard because the challenges that we face still remain and we need to consolidate [what we have achieved]. And we hope that this program is going to continue for the sake and good of the two countries.
SM: Moving on to Colombia’s relations with its neighbors. Diplomatic relations between Colombia and Ecuador remain broken after the March 2008 bombing of a FARC camp in Ecuadorian territory, which led to the death of the FARC’s second-highest commander, Raul Reyes. Where do talks between Colombia and Ecuador stand today? Can we expect a resumption of diplomatic relations anytime soon?
JB: I think that the best contribution that Colombia can bring to the table in order to improve the situation is for Colombia to be prudent and discreet in whatever statement we provide. We are working discreetly regarding the possibility of resuming diplomatic relations, but I would say that is all for now.
SM: What role, if any, do you see the United States playing in helping bridge the diplomatic tension between Colombia and Ecuador?
JB: It is important for the two countries [Colombia and Ecuador] to try to clarify the current situation on their own. There are certain institutions that are helping us with discretion, such as The Carter Center and the Organization of American States, and I think for the time being we are trying to give them room to find a positive result or outcome.
SM: How has Colombia’s relationship with Venezuela evolved in the aftermath of the March 2008 attack on Ecuadorian territory? What is Colombia’s policy toward Venezuela?
JB: First of all, we have now a very proactive relationship with Venezuela. We’ve been developing several issues that were not on the table just a few months ago. They appointed a new ambassador which hasn’t been the case during the last two years. Our ministers talk to each other, whereas that was not the case a few months ago. And the two presidents have met recently on a couple of occasions.
We have certain programs that involve the two countries. For example, we have five or four tables regarding energy issues. We also have a fund to improve and promote micro- and medium-size companies from both sides. So I would say we have a very active agenda regarding infrastructure and border lands, and we have a very respectful and positive relationship with Venezuela. Obviously we both face certain difficulties and we have to work with candor and frankness regarding those difficulties.
SM: In recent years and months Colombia has been diversifying its foreign policy priorities with other countries, such as Brazil, China, and the countries of the European Union. What motivates this diversification and how will it impact, if at all, Colombia’s relationship with the United States?
JB: We don’t see our foreign policy as a policy that excludes all other countries when we improve our relationship with one specific country. That’s how we understand our relationship with the United States. We have a very close alliance with the United States, but this does not contradict the possibility for Colombia to improve its relationship with the European Union, with regional countries, with Asia, or even the Arab world. So I would say we are very practical and pragmatic in our foreign policy.
Whatever new opportunities we find for Colombia we go after them, so we have a very proactive diplomatic policy, but also commercial and trade policy. That’s why we have signed more than nine free trade agreements in the last two years—five years ago we had only two. We are also developing a very aggressive strategy to sign agreements to protect investment in Colombia and to avoid double taxation for example. So we are working hard to find new opportunities for Colombia all over the place.
SM: You already briefly mentioned Colombia’s activities in Afghanistan. Are there any other plans for cooperation besides Colombia helping Afghanistan clear landmines? Are there any plans for cooperating in counterguerrilla tactics and training?
JB: Demining activities would be the first step. Let’s move forward with this first step, and then later we can perhaps think about some other issues, which could possibly include counternarcotics cooperation. For now we have no plans for cooperating in counterguerrilla tactics and training.
SM: Where do you see the U.S.-Colombia relationship heading in the future? What would you like to see be the principal programs of cooperation or items on the U.S.-Colombia agenda in five years?
JB: We should keep on moving regarding the main issues we’ve had in the past and some others that we need to develop. First of all we need to keep working on the fight against drugs and terrorism which is still a serious challenge for the region and the country, as well as for the sake of the United States. We need to move forward in terms of trade, especially regarding the free trade agreement. I think the free trade agreement is very important for both countries not only in economic terms, which is obviously the case in terms of bringing more employment opportunities, investment, and tourism to Colombia and the United States. But also in political terms because every inch we open to trade and investment is an inch we take away from drugs and terrorism, which has a significant political relevance.
But we still need to move ahead regarding, for example, energy issues. We signed with the U.S. administration last year a Memorandum of Understanding to promote clean and sustainable energies, and I believe there is [a] huge potential for the two countries to go further regarding this specific issue. And there are other issues in which we should work harder together, such as education and vocational training, so we need to move ahead in these and other areas.
Stephanie Miller is currently a consultant on U.S.-Latin America relations and was formerly the Research Associate for the Americas Project at the Center.