Main menu

Remarks: Juan Manuel Santos, President of Colombia

September 23, 2010






September 23, 2010

JOHN NEGROPONTE: Hello, again. Good evening and welcome to this very important dinner in honor of the new president of Colombia, Juan Manuel Santos. While, Mr. President, you have joined us many times in your previous roles, it is, for us, a great privilege to welcome you this evening as president of Colombia.

I would like to thank the Colombian American Association and Café de Colombia for their partnership in hosting this evening’s dinner. I would also like to thank our lead sponsors, Citi, Barrick (sp), Chevron, Microsoft, AES and Telefónica, and our corporate sponsors, Mizuho, Diageo, NEC and Quadrant.

Juan Manuel Santos really needs no introduction. He is well-known to us all. President Santos has an ambitious economic agenda, from boosting productivity for agriculture, improving infrastructure, implementing a program for low-income housing, boosting growth in the mining sector and focusing more on innovation. He is a staunch supporter of entrepreneurs, and has vowed to provide more access to Colombians to reach their full potential.

And of course, your security agenda, Mr. President, I would like to congratulate you and your administration on your continued fight against the FARC and your recent military success with the death of Jorge – (applause). Mr. President, we have every confidence in your success. Finally, as you know, everyone here tonight is a great friend of Colombia.

And we at the Council of the Americas will continue to tirelessly push for approval of the free trade agreement in Washington. (Applause.) Not only does it have huge strategic importance, but it will create jobs in the United States, as well as in Colombia. So President Santos, we reiterate our commitment to be there for you and for Colombia. Again, it is with great honor that I welcome President Juan Manuel Santos. Thank you so much for being here. (Applause.)

PRESIDENT JUAN MANUEL SANTOS: Thank you, John, for this very nice introduction. I want to thank you all. I’m very happy to see so many familiar and friendly faces. I thank Susan Segal, thank you, John, Christian (sp), the sponsors of this marvelous dinner and the institutions that organized it – the Council of the Americas, the Americas Society. I’ve been a member of its board of advisors for many, many years and I feel at home in every event that the council or the Americas Society organizes, and I feel at home today.

Also, the Colombian Coffee Federation, as Juan Esteban (ph), in his introduction, mentioned, I had my first job with the Coffee Federation. It was not in London. It was back near Manizales. Freeze-dried coffee factory – that was my first job. And since then, even though I have not single coffee tree, I’ve been a friend of the coffee growers for 43 years. That was 43 year back, when I had my first job with the Coffee Federation.

I remember very well an experience I had here in New York. Our best ambassador that we have ever had in the Colombian history has been Juan Valdez. (Laughter.) He turned 50 this year. We celebrated his 50th birthday some weeks ago, back in Colombia. But 43 years ago, I came to New York and, at that time, the person who had Juan Esteban’s post, his name was Andres Uribe.

I said, I want to meet the person who invented Juan Valdez. And he took me to Madison Avenue where, at that time, all the ad agencies were there, to an agency called Doyle, Dane and Bernbach. And he signaled somebody – a young guy – and he said, this is the guy who invented Juan Valdez. And he’s been very successful as our best ambassador. Thank you, Juan Esteban, for organizing, also, this event. And speaking about ambassadors, I want to take advantage of this opportunity and thank Claudia Blum and Carolina Barco, who has been our ambassador in Washington and in the U.N. (Applause.)

They have been as good ambassadors as Juan Valdez, much prettier than Juan Valdez. (Laughter.) They have done a tremendous job in my name and in the name of the Colombian people. Both are now leaving their posts. But the work you have done, Carolina and Claudia, has been remarkable. I thank you and congratulate you. (Applause.)

And today’s a special day because, really, what happened back home in Colombia with this military success we had last night – 24 hours ago – it really is something that is going to change our history. We have been a country that has been signaled (ph) by violence for many, many years. And we have been fighting the headlines and the cover stories of the magazines and newspapers in our foreign policy, trying to defend ourselves from an image, which was true.

Colombia went through very, very difficult times with the problems of drug trafficking and with the problems of a guerrilla that became drug traffickers themselves, and terrorists, and mainly the FARC, which is, today, the world’s oldest guerrilla movement, probably one of the most vicious, and one that has caused tremendous harm to the Colombian people during four decades.

For those of you who are not familiar with Colombia and the FARC, what happened 24 hours ago with this so-called, “Mono Jojoy” – he’s the military commander of the FARC – it would be comparable, or even better for us, to make an analogy, as if I came here and told the New Yorkers that Osama bin Laden had been struck down. That is the degree of – the importance that this guy had. (Applause.)

But not only that: We discovered 14 computers and 60 – six-oh – USBs. It was a camp with concrete bunkers, where this guy was hiding. You cannot imagine the importance of the information we discovered when we struck down Raúl Reyes and we found three computers and around 11 USBs. With the information that we are going – we are receiving – 14 computers and 60 USBs – this, I am certain, is the beginning of the end of 40 years of war in Colombia. (Applause.)

And this takes me to the main theme of my words today, to try to project to you and to the investment community that Colombia is going through a very peculiar and positive set of circumstances that, as I said in my inauguration speech, Colombia’s time has come. Latin American time has come. We are living in a world where Latin America is offering what the world is seeking. The world needs energy and our hemisphere has a lot of energy. The world is seeking water and we have 30 percent of the water of the world.

Climate change is probably the most important discussion worldwide, and we are the lung of the world, in terms of tropical forests and in terms of biodiversity. The world is seeking food because of the increasing demand for food, and Latin America has the biggest potential for food production and to supply this need for food around the world. And within Latin America, Colombia has some very, very important and unique opportunities, also. And that’s why I say that the time that Colombia has – the opportunity that Colombia has at this moment has not been present in our 200 years of history as an independent republic.

And we have to take advantage of that. President Uribe, when he came into power eight years ago, he applied a very simple, but very important concept that the Romans invented when they invented the republic. They said, security – you need security. Security must be the first law of the republic; otherwise, the other laws will not operate effectively. And with this simple concept, he won elections. He was re-elected. And he applied it with effectiveness.

And that changed our country. And what we are seeing today, this strike against the FARC, is part of what he called democratic security policy – democratic meaning security for every Colombian and security using and under the guide of our laws and our constitution, respecting human rights. And the change in Colombia – most of you have seen it – from a failed state, when President Clinton – we were discussing that yesterday – he went in the year 2000; I was minister of finance – to launch Plan Colombia 10 years ago.

The difference between Colombia 10 years ago and Colombia today is a difference of 180 degrees. We were a failed state. The state controlled – the Colombian state controlled only one-third of the territory. The other two-thirds were in the hands of the guerrillas and the paramilitaries. Today, the state controls every single centimeter of the Colombian territory, and that has made a tremendous change. (Applause.)

This has been achieved thanks, in an important part, to the U.S. help, Plan Colombia. And I was telling President Clinton – after President Clinton, President Bush – that the American help has been a determinant in our progress. And that’s why we can say – (inaudible) – that Plan Colombia that you have supported so strongly – and we appreciate that – has been the most successful bipartisan foreign policy initiative that the U.S. has launched in recent history. (Applause.)

But now all these circumstances, in terms of security, gives us the opportunity to change our agenda to have other priorities. No longer are we sitting down with the presidents of many countries – tomorrow, with President Obama, who I’m going to meet, I’ll thank him very much that he chose Colombia in his very tight agenda as the only Latin American country he will see tomorrow. (Applause.)

But we don’t have to discuss, again, drug trafficking and violence and kidnappings and the traditional topics that we were used to. Now we’re sitting down, as I did with the European countries, with the rest of Latin America, talking about social development, human rights, the environment and how to grow at a high rate, how to give our people a better wellbeing.

This is a tremendous change, and that’s what we’re going through in Colombia. Today, you cannot imagine the enthusiasm that the Colombian people have. For the first time in many years, they are thinking – and this is very important when you have a society that has suffered so much – that the future is going to be much better; that their kids are going to live in a much better country than where we’re living today.

This is what drives an economy, what drives a country into progress. That’s what we plan to do in the next four years. That’s why I’ve said – and I’ve said it in my campaign – we’re going to jump from democratic security to democratic prosperity to bring to the Colombian people a better future. And we have a good team. We’ve chosen a great cabinet. And we’re putting in place a plan to achieve social progress in the next four years as we have never seen before.

We have, fortunately, the support of the people, and we have the support in congress. I, in the campaign, asked for a national unity government, and that’s the support of the major political parties. They all responded positively. Right now, we have 85 percent of the members of congress supporting the government policies. This is a very unique – we have never had this before.

And this will hopefully allow us to introduce and to have major reforms approved in Congress that we have been trying to approve for many, many decades and we have not been able to, to modernize our state; to make Colombia for investors, predictable; to have rules of the game that are state-of-the-art for investors. Because that’s what we want – we want the investment because without investment, we don’t have economic growth, we don’t have production, and therefore, we won’t have jobs, or we can’t – which is my number one priority – we can’t take the people out of poverty.

We have a plan to take 7 million Colombians, in the next four years, out of poverty, 4 million out of extreme poverty. We have specific plans how to do it combining growth and focalized social policies that we think will work effectively. And so we have a very, very unique situation. That’s why I say that we are going through some circumstances that we have not gone through before.

When you find a situation like that, well, you have a big responsibility. And we have a big responsibility to deliver. One of the problems we have right now is, the expectations are very high. And they are high because the circumstances show us that we have reasons to raise expectations. And the Colombian people see that there can be a tremendous opportunity in the next years. So our responsibility is to deliver – to deliver to the Colombian people what they are now wanting and the expectations that people have raised.

There, we need the international community. We need the world to also change the perception that they have had for many years about Colombia. Fortunately, that is happening. Probably the most effective way to change the perception about Colombia – we’ve used it with the U.S. Congress. And you know – (inaudible) – what the effect of Ambassador Barco and, before, Ambassador Moreno taking the members of Congress to Colombia to see for themselves what our reality really is. That changed the perception of many of the members of Congress, and it’s changing the perception of many investors.

We still have to do a tremendous effort to show and project to the world the real Colombia. And that is part of our foreign policy with our new minister of foreign relations, that we are going – (applause) – one of the first things we did in order to change that perception was to improve relations with our neighbors. What investor or what international community would be interested in Colombia if we were talking about war with our neighbors, war which is inconceivable between two countries in Latin America at this moment in time.

So that’s why immediately, even during the campaign, I reached out to our neighbors and said, listen, we might think differently. We’re like water and oil. We’ll never be mixed. But if we respect our differences, we can have good relations. And that’s how we changed the situation with our neighbors, and particularly with Venezuela. It’s going in the right direction. I met with President Chavez two days after my inauguration.

We were very frank with each other saying, I’m not going to convince you to think like I do; you’re not going to convince me to think like you do, but let’s respect our differences and the people in Venezuela and the people in Colombia will benefit. And they are now starting to benefit because the relation is going in the correct direction. We are now re-establishing trade. We’re now re-establishing help in the border. They’re paying our exporters. And the best thing that could happen to both countries is to have good relations. (Applause.)

The same is happening with Ecuador, the same is happening with Ecuador, and we’re about to exchange ambassadors again and have normal relations. And that, for the whole region, is going to be extremely positive. Because I’ve said many times, each country in South America has a potential, by itself.

Each country has particular richness and a certain set of circumstances that make them viable and important. But if we unite as a region, the potential will multiply. It will be a synergy. And that’s what I want, for us to have that synergy in the region, which will benefit everybody, including the U.S. And so that’s the type of foreign policy that we are putting in place. (Applause.)

And with the U.S., well, I’ve been educated here. When President Obama called me to congratulate me on my election, he had some of his advisors said, listen, this guy went to Kansas. He’s a Jayhawk. (Laughter.) And he made a joke, said, oh, he said to me, listen, next time that the Jayhawks are going to play – the basketball team – let me know, because I bet they were going to win and they lost. So give me some information before they play. (Laughter.)

I was a bit surprised how he knew that I went to the University of Kansas in my undergraduate. I went to Harvard in my graduate school, so I said, now that you mentioned the Jayhawks, you know what the Republicans say about me going to Kansas and then to Harvard? And he said, no, no, what do they say? And I said, that I got educated in Kansas and corrupted in Harvard. (Laughter, applause.)

Anyway, I will see him tomorrow, and what I’m going to tell President Obama is very simple and straightforward objectives that we have in our very good relations with the U.S. We consider ourselves, as we have mentioned very many times, a strategic ally. We want this to become a reality. It’s now a very nice word, but we need the free trade agreement for that to be a reality. But not only that, I think we can play an important role in the region.

Central America and the Caribbean Islands are having the problems we had before with the drug trafficking. We can help there tremendously. We can lead on the discussions on the environment. We are the richest country in the world, in terms of square kilometer and biodiversity. We want to play a role there.

Latin America is going to play a role there and we can join forces and have solutions to this very important problem. We want our relations to evolve from aid, which was the, sort of, relation that we had for many years. Now we have an alliance, but we need to be a real partnership. And that’s what I’m going to say to President Obama, and I think we will achieve that. (Applause.)

So to conclude these short remarks, I want to just tell you that we are very optimistic about our future. We’re very enthusiastic about working for a better future. But we need the international community. We need the investment. Most of you have some relations with Colombia; otherwise, you wouldn’t be here. I encourage you to increase your commitment, your interest in Colombia.

I think it’s the time of Colombia. I sincerely hope that you think it is the time of Colombia, also. I’ll tell you that we have a good government – not because I’m president – but we have a good government that has been – what Esteban was saying, I have a foundation called the Good Government Foundation. I’m trying to apply those principles with the government that is going to run the country the next four years. And we’re starting to have good results, as the one we had this morning. So I hope we will continue giving those results for the benefit of Colombians, the region and the whole world. Thank you very much. (Applause.)

MR. NEGROPONTE: The president has kindly agreed to take a few questions, so please, if you have a question, identify yourself and then ask your question.

PRES. SANTOS: Provided they’re not very difficult. (Laughter.)

Q: I promise it’s easy. (Laughter.) My name is Hunter Carter. I am the chair of the New York City Bar Association committee on inter-American affairs. I am also a neighbor. I do the Medellin – (inaudible, background noise). Mr. President, congratulations on your election. We’re all, those of us who are Colombians at heart, as I am a gringo – (inaudible) – very hopeful for your success.

PRES. SANTOS: Thank you.

Q: My colleagues at the New York City Bar have asked me to ask you about one of the socially transformative projects about which you just spoke a moment ago that is so important in Colombia: the extinción de dominio – (inaudible) – tierras, reparaciones – (inaudible). Could you please tell us a little bit about how your administration will bring a new energy and sense of urgency to this important task? And more importantly, how can we, the members of the New York City Bar Association, assist in the resolution of these disputes?

PRES. SANTOS: Thank you, thank you. You mentioned a very important problem, or very important situation that we’re going through, and one of our major objectives. It has to do with a law that we’re presenting to congress that will allow the government to restore to the thousands of peasants that were displaced by violent groups to give them back the land that they used to own.

Much of this land was untitled. We want to bring them back and give them a title. One of the objectives that we want not only in the agricultural sector – the rural areas – but overall, is to formalize the economy, which is one of the problems that we have. It’s an informal economy – a very strong, very high percentage of the economy is informal.

So what we’re trying to achieve is a judicial process that will allow the government to, very fast – sort of a fast-track procedure – to take away the land that was illegally either purchased or taken by the violent groups, which is a lot of land, and give them back to the peasants and at the same time, create the environment for agro-businessmen to go to these regions and make a deal with the peasants to have them as partners or as contractors to supply the raw material for agribusiness. This is the idea that we have.

But this will accelerate, also, the peace that we have been seeking for so long. Because part of the problems and part of the violence had to do with what happened in the rural areas. And when you restore to the peasants and give them the opportunity to have a decent income, then they will become defenders of the system.

I was talking to John about the coffee areas in Colombia, that we have 500,000 coffee growers. They’re all small landowners. And I did my thesis in the university trying to prove why Colombia’s democracy had been more stable than any other country in Latin America, and it was because of the property of the coffee region.

So what we want to do is to – and that has been part of my campaign – make every peasant in Colombia a prosperous Juan Valdez. And this is the objective of this very audacious – and I know it’s going to be difficult to implement, but then, we have very effective armed forces. Because I know that some of the drug traffickers or the former parliamentarians will defend – they took advantage of their power and took the most fertile lands in the whole of Colombia. Well, we’re going to take it away from them and give it back to their rightful owners.

Q: Let us know how we can help you.

PRES. SANTOS: You can help us in many ways, for example in advising us how the legal procedure could be as agile as possible because speed, here, is of the essence.

MR. NEGROPONTE: The gentleman in the back and then the lady in front will be the last question.

Q: Michael Scholl (sp) of Scholl & Cerna (ph), a Colombian-American company. Mr. President, there’s a growing consensus in Washington that no country in the last 50 years has better used, more efficiently, U.S. military and economic assistance than Colombia, with the possible exception of Israel, but Colombia comes up on top. How do you react to that, and are you ready to partner with the U.S. in giving assistance of this kind to countries like Mexico, for example?

PRES. SANTOS: Of course we are. We have learned this process very much, how to use – make the best use of the resources the U.S. has provided us. And in many respects, we have outdone our teachers. For example, our special forces – I’m proud to say that, because I was former minister of defense – there’s some Olympics of the armed forces – they compete – Canada, U.S. and all of the American special forces. The U.S. used to win every time. Now, in the last four years, Colombia has won. (Laughter, applause.)

But this experience that we have acquired in fighting the drug traffickers and fighting the cartels, it’s been a very costly experience. We have lost most of our best leaders, our best judges, our best journalists, our best policemen, soldiers. It’s been a very costly experience, but now that we have acquired that experience and we have been successful, there’s something in Colombia which people don’t realize.

If you go back to Colombia and ask a Colombian, who is a powerful drug lord today, who are you going after, people in Colombia don’t identify anybody. We got rid of the big cartels and that are not giving so much trouble to Felipe Calderon in Mexico, for example, and who are trying to take over countries in Central America and in the Caribbean.

So we are more than willing – and that’s another thing that we’re going to tell President Obama tomorrow – we’re more than willing to use our experience to help our region. We are doing it already. We are helping, in some ways, Mexico; we’re helping Guatemala; we’re helping some of the Caribbeans; we’re helping Costa Rica. But much more has to be done because we’re having an increasing problem in the region with respect to that particular challenge.


Q: Good evening, Mr. President. And I’m very happy that you have been elected.

MR. NEGROPONTE: Here comes the microphone. One moment.

Q: I’m Luz Leguizamo and I lived here for 40 years and I stopped going to Colombia for 50 years because I was afraid. But my son, John Leguizamo, the actor, went four years ago to Cartagena and he said, mom, come back to Colombia. Colombia is a new one! So he bought a house in Cartagena and we did restore that house and so now I go to Colombia three times a year. And I just came back from a vacation in Boyacá in Santander. And I have discovered the most beautiful parts of Colombia.

But the reason that I want to talk to you and ask you is if you know about the Rio Dagua in Valle del Cauca that has been destroyed because of mining done by companies and by individuals, and supervised. But it’s not only that river; there are other rivers that have been destroyed. And you have said that Colombia has rich natural resources, and I want to ask you if you are going to protect and help that these rivers are recovered? Thank you. (Applause.)

PRES. SANTOS: Thank you. And thank you for producing such a great son, like John Leguizamo. We feel proud that he is Colombian. And what you say confirms what our export campaign or national campaign that you’ve probably seen in CNN – the only risk of going to Colombia is wanting to stay. (Laughter.) But you mention a difficult problem that we are going to go after these illegal mining ventures with all the force.

As a matter of fact, a week ago, we started this campaign and we went after – because these are not small miners; these are big miners, illegal groups that have taken advantage and they’re destroying the ecosystems and they’re really destroying the rivers. So we are going after them. Twenty-one (21) of these big machines – I don’t know how you call it in English –retroescabadoras y dragas – the dredges – 21 dredges, 45 people just a week ago.

And we’re going to go after them one by one. And we’re going to try for the investors in mining so that the formal mining companies sort of adopt the small, illegal miner and formalize him and mine with environmental responsibility. Because you have mentioned, it’s a big problem and this has been growing. They have been protected by the illegal groups. The FARC has been very much active in those illegal ventures. But yes, we’re going after them because we know of the big cost, not only in the environment, but in many other aspects that this illegal activity has.

Q: Thank you.

MR. NEGROPONTE: Mr. President, I know I speak for everyone in this room when I thank you for your appearance before us this evening. The story of Colombia, particularly during this past many years, has been a dramatic one. And I think the outcome, which I think now is truly in sight, has been an inspiration to all of us. And as you embark on your mandate as president of Colombia, we all wish you the greatest of success. Thank you very much.

PRES. SANTOS: Thank you, John. Thank you. (Applause.)