THE REPUBLIC OF COLOMBIA
LUIS GUILLERMO PLATA,
MINISTER OF TRADE, INDUSTRY AND TOURISM,
THE REPUBLIC OF COLOMBIA
PRESIDENT, BOARD OF DIRECTORS,
AMERICAS SOCIETY/COUNCIL OF THE AMERICAS
September 24, 2009
I’d also like to mention that we have an old friend with us here today, Tom Shannon, who is a former assistant secretary for inter-American affairs, who’s always been a staunch supporter of Colombia. As you know, he’s awaiting confirmation to be ambassador to Brazil. So we’ll lose him on countries like Colombia. He will do a great job, not only in Brazil, but working relationships between Brazil and Colombia and obviously the United States.
As always, it’s a great honor for me to introduce this president. Of course, this is a president that really needs no introduction and we’ve already heard the words of my colleague from the Colombian American Association. Christian and Susan had a few words to say at the beginning of our lunch. But I should say something here about our sponsors: Chevron, the Colombian Coffee Federation and Bunge Ltd, Mizuho, Sikorsky and Telefónica Internacional.
As you know, you’re among friends, Mr. President. We have tried, both associations and everyone here, to work tirelessly for the approval of the free trade agreement, which is not only in the interest of Colombia but when you look at the benefits, it’s more in the interest of the U.S. in many ways. And I am very hopeful, and I would ask all of you to pressure, talk with, convince members of Congress, but also, very importantly with your connections in the White House, that we get this treaty approved over the coming months. (Applause.)
And once we get that done we can all put our resources to supporting Colombia in so many other ways, including becoming a member of APEC because Colombia ought to be also a member of APEC with its Pacific Coast and I think this will open up real opportunities for the country in Asia.
When I look at the figures here, of what this president has done, during his period he’s reduced poverty by 20 percent. The amount of inward investment last year, foreign investment, was approximately $11 billion and continues very strong even though we’re going through an economic crisis.
So I think the president has taken a very wise decision as he always does. Instead of him coming up here and talking first about the economy and Colombia, what he really wants to do is answer questions, to take your questions, because we will not then have a session where we run out of time. So I invite the president to come up there – microphones, micrófonos – if you would just raise your hand after the president opens it up for questions and just state your name and who you represent. And I think we can have a very open session, which is what the president wants. So, Señor Presidente, la palabra es suya.
PRESIDENT ÁLVARO URIBE: Thank you, Mr. Rhodes, chairman of the Americas Society and the Council of the Americas. Thank you, Mr. Christian Murrle, chairman of the Colombian American Association. I want to greet all of you. Thank you, distinguished gentlemen and ladies for your presence this afternoon.
The Americas Society, Council of the Americas, and the Colombian American Association and all of you have been very generous with my government, with my colleagues and with me. Last year, I remembered that I left this room without answering many questions. So I have asked Mr. Rhodes and Mr. Murrle to change the format today to give you much more room for your questions. Therefore, I have to fill that role. And this is the right time to give the floor to you. I will make comments at that time. I can answer your questions. Who wants to begin? (Laughter.)
Q: Señor Presidente, ¿Adónde van las relaciones con Venezuela? (Laughter.)
PRES. URIBE: Colombia has clear principles. We believe in the necessity that the international and domestic communities have much more confidence in our country. For we work for security, we work for investment promotion, with social responsibility and we work at the same time for social investment for what we call social cohesion.
In the name of security, we need to defeat the narco-terrorists in Colombia. We are cooperative with every country needing the Colombian cooperation and we ask for the cooperation of all our neighbors. This is one very important point for us.
In the case of investment promotion, of investment confidence, in Colombia we believe in the necessity of the private sector. We consider that a country such as Colombia with 46 million people, many people is still in poverty. We need a great amount of investment year by year in the longest possible time for sustainable high rate of investment as a necessary pillar for my country to overcome poverty and to create a better social fabric – a community with better income distribution.
For us we cannot restrict the private sector. We need that the private sector operates in Colombia with social responsibility, but with freedom, with all the possibilities. Therefore this is a very, very important point, very important principle for our government. The role of the private sector, the role of domestic security may be – have created differences with some of our neighbors. But we have to persevere in looking for security and in looking for investment promotion in our country.
I have said to fellow country citizens that we need, in the name of investment confidence, two very important points: investments and markets. Colombia needs investments and markets and I cannot understand why any one of our neighbors disagrees with Colombia because Colombia needs investors and market access.
But you are going to get dismayed because I have to preserve my prudence referring our neighbors. I have referred to you key principles of our government. Now you have the possibility to make an inquiry to know the principles of the governments you are asking for and you can make the comparison but save me of the temptation to make this comparison. (Laughter.)
Q: Mr. President, Alexander Montoya with AIG, talking about investment and markets: Does Colombia has a plan for attracting outsourcing work such as India did a few years ago, and if so, which are the areas of expertise that Colombia is promoting for educating people into that regard?
PRES. URIBE: When we look at what at our second chapter, investment promotion and at our third chapter, social cohesion, we need education. During our administration, we have done our best to promote what we call a permanent revolution in education. When our government began, Colombia had 78 coverage in basic education. Today we are getting 100 percent. In middle education, we have passed from 58 percent of coverage to 78. In coverage at university level, we have passed from 22 to 35.
In vocational training, without any doubt, Colombia is the leading country in the region. We have one agency; its name is National Service for Apprenticeship. This institution is funded by a tax on the payroll paid by the employers. They pay two points, two percentual (ph) points of the payroll to fund this institution. And this institution is open to all Colombian workers.
In the past, this institution provided vocational training to 1 million Colombians. This year, this institution will provide vocational training to 6 million Colombians. This institution is in charge of teaching English massively as a second language for our fellow country citizens. This year this institution will complete 1 million Colombians as students of English as a second language.
The greatest number of teachers live in San Andres, our beautiful island in the Caribbean. The people who are born in San Andres have two mother languages, Spanish and English. Today the transmission is by satellite, but recently we have assigned a contract to install a cable in order to convert San Andres into a great potential in IT.
A few months ago, congress approved and the government has already enacted a new law of R&D. Colombia is moving forward in the process to pay much more attention to R&D and at the same time, we have enacted a new law on IT.
Minister Plata, the minister of trade, industry and tourism, in coordination with the private sector has chosen the new sectors to which our economy should give all the possibilities. In this moment, I want to hand the microphone to Minister Plata for him to give you, and to all the audience, a brief explanation about the new sectors in our economy his ministry, in cooperation, in consultation with the private sector have chosen.
LUIS GUILLERMO PLATA: Thank you. Thank you, Mr. President, for the opportunity. To address the question regarding BPO, yes, we are working very hard to develop Colombia as a BPO center, regionally and globally. We went to India a few years ago. We went to Bangalore, Mumbai, Delhi, wanted to learn more about BPO and what was happening there. And we were concerned because we thought we arrived late into the BPO industry.
But when we got there we realized that, actually, the challenge with BPO was a bottleneck in supply, not in demand. And even though India was a large player, the market is much larger and keeps on growing.
So we came back to Colombia and we started working with the private sector on how to develop a BPO sector in Colombia. Right now Colombia is exporting about $500 million of BPO services to the rest of the world. And we just began 2 years ago. Most of it, of course, is voice-related BPO in Spanish. Having one of the most neutral spoken Spanish in the region helps attract that sort of service to Colombia. But obviously our strategy is not to stay in the low end service of BPO in the call centers, but move up either to voice applications that have more value aggregation like, for instance, sales or receivables, which we happen to be quite good at. There is some mixture of persistency and politeness in Colombian telesales people. (Laughter.) That’s what I hear. That’s what our customers tell us.
BPO in accounting – we recently changed our accounting laws in Colombia to adapt to U.S. GAAP and international accounting standards and to be able to do BPO in accounting. Design, architecture and engineering are other types of BPO that are growing very fast, especially design and interior design is growing quite fast, even for companies here in New York that have buildings or apartments refurbished in New York, but designed in Colombia.
So these are some ideas of the BPO sector in Colombia. It right now employs over 42,000 people but our goal is, by 2012, to make it 120,000 people employed in BPO.
PRES. URIBE: Luis.
Q: Please would you explain to us the other sectors you have added to the list of new sectors to support in Colombia?
MR. PLATA: Yes, Mr. President. Well, one of the big challenges that we’ve had in the country is evolving in what we produce. We were a country which used to produce basic products – coal, coffee, flowers, bananas, apparel. But we realized that it’s important for us to move into higher-value aggregation-types of products and services. So we did a strong – very, very close cooperation work with the private sector to try to determine how to move forward and develop new sectors in the economy.
And what we’ve done is we’ve selected a few sectors in a first wave of transformation and we’ve built a public-private partnership to make those sectors become the leading sectors of the economy. One I already mentioned; that’s BPO. Another one is software and IT – not every type of application, but we realized that we are very good with financial applications, at least regionally; and handheld applications and also – it’s not software, but it’s related to software and that is animation.
We find a lot of talent in Colombia, a lot of creativity, for 3D and 2D animation, and that is growing very, very fast, becoming a leading provider in the world. Also medical tourism – we discovered that probably as a result of so many years of violence, you have a very strong medical sector, very good doctors, very good clinics. And we realized that people from neighboring countries were coming to Colombia for surgeries, for treatments. And so we decided to make that one of the leading sectors in the country.
Right now we have 11 clinics under a joint commission, international certification. So that means that if you go to a clinic in Colombia, the service should be as good or better than a clinic in New York or anywhere else in the world, for that matter. And for us Colombians, which I see a whole lot in this crowd, let me remind you that every time we get a toothache, we go to the dentist in Colombia, not in the U.S. – (laughter) – and not only is it cheaper, but because the service is good.
Biofuels: We have become the second-largest producer of biofuels in the world after Brazil in only 4 years since we started moving in that direction – for biodiesel out of palm oil and ethanol out of sugar cane. And we are continuing to move in that direction because there is plenty of land, plenty of sunlight and we don’t have to cut down the rainforest to be able to grow in this direction. And as the world is changing, looking more into renewable fuels, well, we see an opportunity here in Colombia.
Tourism: We had no tourism just 5 years ago and, as a result of President Uribe’s leadership, now we have a thriving tourism industry. We went from basically no visitors to Colombia to 2.4 million visitors last year. And this year, in spite of the global downturn, while tourism is going down in the world by 11 percent, it grows by 9.2 percent in Colombia.
So we introduced a tax holiday of 30 years no taxes for new hotels or remodeled hotels. So we’ve seen a lot of investment in this area. As a matter of fact, 14,000 new rooms are being built, have been built in Colombia over the past 4 years since we introduced that incentive.
Cosmetics and personal care products based on natural ingredients, based on our biodiversity, another very popular and growing sector in the world as the population tends to age and we try to look better or look younger. And as men have recently entered this market, you know, nowadays, you go to Bloomingdales or Saks Fifth Avenue and you find that the men’s section is as big as the women’s section in lotions and potions and things.
So these are just to name a few, Mr. President, of the sectors we’re working on as we diversify our industry, our services and we move forward into the 21st century. Sorry for the very fast presentation. (Applause.)
PRES. URIBE: It is important to connect these goals with the advantages our country offers. First, our determination to promote the private sector in clear contrast with other neighbors that restrict the private sector: This is the first advantage you find in Colombia.
We have introduced many structural reforms during these years and we are in the process to continue changing many aspects of our legal institutions of our laws. Minister Plata has introduced many tax incentives in Colombia – not only to promote the sectors he has already referred to, but to promote the investment as a whole.
I want to refer to the special economic zones: For instance, the business process outsourcing for corporations can benefit in Colombia from a new tax institution; its name is special economic zones. Under special economic zone, instead of paying 33 percent that is the ordinary tariff in income corporate tax, they pay only 15 percent. And they do not pay tariff nor value-added tax.
If you have not the benefit of a special economic zone, you have the right to deduct from your taxes 30 percent of the investment you have made in our country. In addition to that, you have the possibility to sign a contract with the government, contract that guarantees that you are going to have stable rules for 20 years. Therefore, the sector, Minister Plata has mentioned this afternoon they have many, many incentives to be developed in our country.
But these benefits are not only for these sectors; these benefits are for the economy, for the investment as a whole in our country. ¿Qué le pasó?
Q: Sorry, Señor Presidente, yo sé que ustedes estaban trabajando con el Ministro Plata en el área que más trabajo da en casi todos los países – incluyendo en este – que es las empresas pequeñas y medianas y como ayudarles a acesar financiación y capital para crecer. En la mayor parte, los países de Latinoamérica – es una área que todavía está virgen. ¿Qué estamos haciendo en Colombia en ese sector?
PRES. URIBE: We have second-floor banks funded by governmental budget. We have (enough ?) guarantees. We have special institutions to advise them, to accompany them in the process of advancing in their enterprises. We work a lot. But let me acknowledge this: The big corporations at this moment in Colombia, they have no problems for financing. We have advanced a lot in the base of the pyramid. During our administration, we have launched a program. Its name is Bank of Opportunities for microlending. So far we have assigned loans to 4,500,000 Colombian microentrepreneurs; 1,200,000 have borrowed money from those institutions, from the formal institutions for the first time. Before, they had to resort to the black market. We have advanced a lot and my government dedicates all the devotion to help microenterprises to get their loans.
Maybe the biggest problem we have to face is the problem of middle-size enterprises. But Minister Plata could refer to BANCOLDEX to the fund of guarantees and to some numbers he has about the progress my country is making in providing these middle-size enterprises with loans. Algo de BANCOLDEX, ministros, sus cifras, ¿no?
MR. PLATA: BANCOLDEX, as President Uribe pointed out, used to be our export-import bank. And it has been transformed to become a bank for helping out SMEs in Colombia. Actually, in 2002, when we started, BANCOLDEX’s total loans at the time were 1.2 billion pesos; that’s about $500 million. And 84 percent of those loans were to the large industries.
Today BANCOLDEX – this year BANCOLDEX should get to 5 billion pesos in loans; that’s about $2.5 billion. So it’s a five-fold increase and only 8 percent of those loans will go to large companies. So it’s really transformed itself into an SME bank.
Second, like President Uribe mentioned, with the program of bank of opportunity we’ve been able to establish what we call non-banking correspondents in the country, meaning that small enterprises, like stores or like bakeries or like pharmacies, actually become bank branches in places where it’s not that profitable to run a banking operation.
And actually, with the help of Citibank, we’ve established those non-banking correspondents where people can go open a savings account, open a checking account, get a little loan for the first time in their lives. And that’s helped us improve or increase the number of people – the number of población bancarizada – I don’t know the word in English – the amount of the population that’s actually having access to banking services – has gone up from 28 percent to 35 percent. So still a long ways to go, but we’re moving in that direction.
PRES. URIBE: La bancarización ha llegado ya al 57.
MR. PLATA: Okay. The president says its 57 and I’m sure he’s right because he’s got a better memory than I do. (Laughter.)
We just created, also a new figure in our legislation called the SAS, which, in Spanish, means sociedad por acciones simplificada, that’s the equivalent of the limited liability corporations that exists in the U.S. We did not have that, and that allows for SMEs to be constituted much easier, but also, much less expensive. And they can grow into larger companies without having to change the figure – the structure – in which they started.
We’ve also introduced a new decree to reduce the initial payments that companies have to make once they’re constituted. The president was explaining that our national apprenticeship center receives a – or lives from a tax on the payroll. So what we’ve done is, we’ve reduced those taxes on payroll so new companies only pay 25 percent of the tax their first year, the pay 50 percent of the tax on the second year, then they pay 75 percent on the third year, and only up until the fourth year will they pay their taxes completely.
That’s been very important, and finally, Mr. President, in doing business, which we have been able to improve our environment for business, this is particularly important for SMEs because the cost of transaction – the cost of red tape for an SME is much more expensive and much more troublesome than for a large company, which has several departments. And Colombia, in 3 years, has been able to move from number 83 amongst 183 countries in the World Bank’s Doing Business report to 37, becoming the best country in Latin America for doing business, according to the World Bank.
PRES. URIBE: One of our goals is to advance in the world rankings in competitiveness. This year, Colombia has made a lot of progress in the international economic forum and in the report of doing business that is released by the World Bank. For the third consecutive year, Minister Plata has obtained this positive mention for Colombia, and now, we have started the new reforms in order to gain the coming year mention from the World Bank to continue advancing in competitiveness.
I want to refer to – to make two final comments, referring to bank of opportunities and the necessity to increase finances for middle-sized enterprises. Bank of opportunities is not one specific bank; it’s a chain. This chain is made up of all the financial institutions operating in Colombia – first, second-floor banks, private/public banks, NGOs – under the coordination of our government, all these institutions are working in improving the possibilities of the poorest people in our country to access to credit, to access to loans in the financial institutions. The national government coordinates, regulates, supervises, provides funds, and at the same time, operates with a fund of guarantees.
The middle-size enterprises have suffered the crisis of exports, especially in the cases of Venezuela and Ecuador. This year, we have to place the utmost emphasis to support these middle-size enterprises, for them to have the possibility to find new markets in order to compensate their losses in Venezuela and in Ecuador.
Q: Colombians have been interacting with American heads of state possibly more than heads of state from any other country. And I wonder if, in all those encounters, you were able to discuss the context in which the economy and the problems of drugs and immigration operate, which is the culture.
And I’m reminded of a dear friend of mine, countryman of yours, German Arciniegas. I always start my classes in Berlin quoting him, saying “América es otra cosa y punto.” If you don’t understand that; if you don’t understand the music; if you don’t understand the culture; if you don’t understand the emotions of the region, you will never be able, if you want to do real business or have a real balanced relationship. Do you ever discuss – in these meetings, does the cultural context ever come into play?
PRES. URIBE: Narcotics have not been a member of our culture; it has been an enemy of our culture. Narcotics have supported terrorists in our country. When I remember to my generation that we have not lived one single day in complete peace, I have to recognize that many generations in Colombia have suffered the same tragedy. In the absence of narcotics, Colombia would have recovered peace long ago.
Therefore, narcotics is an anti-culture element in our country – damaging to our discipline, to our vocation, for honesty, to our determination to work the hardest we can, and with transparency. The only option we have in Colombia is to continue in the task to defeating narco-terrorism. This is the only way.
And the new generation of Colombians, they want to recover the culture of honesty, of hard work, of a lifetime of studying, working, enjoying the life in Colombia. This is not a problem of violence; it’s not a cultural problem. This is an external struggle created by narco-terrorism in our country.
Q: Señor Presidente, Enrique Martinez con Discovery Communications. And organizations such as ours, Discovery, through Discovery Channel and others in our industry have been investing heavily in production in Colombia. In fact, I think it’s recognized that the creative talent and production talent community in Colombia is top-class in Latin America.
And over the course of the past four or 5 years, Colombia is fast becoming one of the most important centers for production for organizations in my industry. We’re very concerned with a potential law that may surface through the Senate and I’m very encouraged by hearing Minister Plata and the initiative he’s talking about.
And I’m curious to know your perspective on how you would encourage us to be able to maintain an open environment where organizations like us that are investing and develop production in Colombia can continue to work in a business that is open to international companies as well as local companies in Colombia.
PRES. URIBE: This sector has an enormous potential in our country because of the people, because of the geographic location, because of the culture, because of the language. There are many, many advantages in our country. In Colombia, you find excellent management, excellent workers, excellent people with whom to create partnerships. So you find labor legislation in equilibrium. You find many positive aspects to invest in this sector in Colombia.
Besides that, this sector enjoys tax incentives – very important tax incentives in Colombia and the possibility to sign with the government a pact guaranteeing stable rules for 20 years. Welcome to Colombia. Vice President Santos and Minister Plata – they have led, with the minister of culture – this sector in Colombia. And they are very optimistic, and I share their optimism about this sector in Colombia. Welcome, and we need you there. (Applause.)
Q: Señor Presidente – (inaudible, off mike) – and also a foundation, Caring for Colombia. I’m also an investor in Medellín and I own an apartment there so we’re almost neighbors. Thanks to you for the great change that you have led in your country in the last few years. I can live there now in some peace.
The United States, I know, has a very special relationship with Colombia, different from many other countries in the world. It’s one of the largest recipients of U.S. foreign aid; we have Plan Colombia. Have you and have your government considered the idea and discussed the idea with the United States government of exchanging special representatives focused on non-security affairs so that the world’s constant focus on the security relationship between our two countries could begin to shift to winning the peace, to enjoying the fruits of security through business and through social investment?
PRES. URIBE: The negotiation of the free trade agreement gave our two countries the possibility to know each other much better. The United States today knows all the potential in every effort in Colombia – all the potential in our economy, in our natural resources, et cetera. We have opened our economy. At the beginning of our administration, Colombia had agreements with the Andean countries and with Mexico. We have, as banks, new agreements, for instance, now, is in full implementation – the agreement between the Andean community and MERCOSUR.
We negotiated the agreement with Chile, with Peru, to go far beyond the limits of the Andean community. We have the agreement with three Central American countries, with Canada. Canada, at this moment, considers our agreement in its parliament. We are in the process of negotiation with Europe. Maybe we are in one of the last rounds in negotiations. Minister Plata has placed all the interest in agreements to drop double taxation.
We have signed many agreements to eliminate double taxation and to promote investment. We have signed agreements for investment promotion with China and we have closed negotiations with India. By the end of our administration, Minister Plata thinks Colombia will be integrated to 45 markets – 46 million people, the total number of people living in Colombia – our people needs investors and markets. These are clear goals of our administration for, we repeat, in every audience, we need confidence in Colombia. We need to do our best to create much more confidence in Colombia.
The free trade agreement with the United States, in the last weeks, we closed negotiations with the United States for one new agreement in security. The agreement for cooperate in security. This agreement is new – it’s a new step in the right direction marked by Plan Colombia. At the end of June, I spoke with President Obama about the free trade agreement. I found him optimistic. At the end of that meeting, I thought that maybe my country was going to have the ratification of our free trade agreement before the end of this year. Now, I am concerned because any delay in the approval of the bill to reform the health-care system could be a new delay for the approval of the free trade agreement with Colombia.
It’s important that you know that we continue working to give no excuses against the free trade agreement. Before our administration, there were years when more than 200 trade unionists were killed. Last year, we had 38 cases. This year, so far, 23. Today, we can say that we have dismantled criminal organizations that used to be systematic enemies – systematic killers – of trade unionists. Such are the case of paramilitaries.
Colombia no longer has paramilitaries. This has been a very good result of our policy of democratic security. In addition to that, we have 10,000 Colombians with individual protection provided by the government to those and other trade unionists. And these protections have been totally effective. No one with these protections has been killed. Under the umbrella of the International Labor Organization, we have created a tripartite agreement – employers, workers and government – to overcome impunity.
Before our administration, there was one rule against killers of trade unionists; now, we have near – close to 200 rules. And now, we have 180 people in jail. We are doing our best to protect trade unionists. We are doing our best to overcome impunity – to take to the jail the killers of the trade unionists. And we have dismantled one of their main enemies – the paramilitaries. We have not one our fight against narco-guerrillas, but we are winning. And if we continue with perseverance, Colombia will recover peace completely. Guerrillas continue being a dangerous enemy of the trade unionists.
I apologize, but at this moment, you don’t find any excuse to neglect to Colombia the approval of the free trade agreement. I want to nominate you as our ambassador for this new stage, because now, we need to make an additional effort to get the approval of the free trade agreement. Every time Ambassador Barco goes to Colombia with a delegation, with a bipartisan congressional delegation of the United States, the vast majority of them convince aloud the merits about the necessity, the bilateral advantages of this agreement.
Q: (Inaudible, off mike.) Besides investment banking, I’m extremely active in social causes throughout the world and one that I support very actively is Nutrir in Barranquilla and the chairperson is sitting at our table right now. I would like to hear from you, what are the plans for social investment in Colombia and what the Colombian government is doing to participate in the region with social causes?
PRES. URIBE: We have a complete program of social investments. I have already referred to education. In child nutrition, when my administration began, our system had five million beneficiaries; today, we have 12 billion. We have gone from five million to 12 million. We are in the process to get full coverage in nutrition for those under six of the poorest families.
We still have problems in the jungle, in rural, remote areas. But in the main cities, we have already reached full coverage. Now, the next step is to provide them with infant education, with full coverage in education for those under six.
In vocational training, I have already referred to you about, that Colombia is the leading country in the region with vocational training. Many countries in the region request for Colombia to implement, in these countries, the program of vocational training. Our institution, the National Service for Apprenticeship, is cooperating with many countries in South America, in the Central American region and in the Caribbean.
We have one program. Its name is la Red Juntos: We are together. In this net, we put all the police in Colombia. The first aim in this net – in this social net – is for 1.5 families in Colombia living in misery to leave misery. How does Juntos operate? We have to choose the poorest families. And we make all of them beneficiaries of all our social tools. Every family – every family in this net – needs to have access for education, for their programs of child nutrition, for their programs of vocational training.
They need to have access to the bank of opportunities. The bank of opportunities is a great tool in our administration in the improvement – in improving the social fabric of the nation. They need to have access to social housing, et cetera. It is very important to highlight this: The entrance to Juntos is one program we call Families in Action. Now, we have 2,840,000 families in action. They are the poorest families in the country. They receive a monthly fee from the national budget and they have two credits every two months that their children are attending the schools.
And this program has shown all the advantages. We think that if Colombia can guarantee to the poorest people all the time for their children to study, to graduate in basic education, in high schools, in universities, Colombia will eliminate poverty and will build a society with better income distribution. As you see, we have placed the same emphasis on security and on social cohesion.
And of course, we need an engine. This engine is investment. Without investment, we wont’ have the resources to support safety, security and to support these programs of social cohesion, for we are introducing a new adjustment in our tax code to prolong for 4 years the tax on wealth, for the wealthiest people in the country to continue paying for security.
One very, very good point I want to reiterate before you is that during these 7 years, Colombia has advanced in security hand-in-hand with social coverages. We have advanced security at the same time in child nutrition, at the same time in families in action, at the same time in bank of opportunities. We have decreased kidnapping and, at the same time, we have advanced in education.
We need to continue collecting the money for my country to be able to funding these programs. This is the reason we have proposed, even in these times of economic crisis, to prolong the tax on the wealthiest people of the country. One more.
Q: Mr. President, great to see you, great to hear you. Thank you for, again, being with us this year. I want to raise a topic – I know it came up in last year’s lunch. You’ve distinguished yourself, these 7 years, as speaking very frankly, very sincerely, very openly, whether it’s in a small town in a departamento of Colombia or whether it’s New York City.
I’d just like to ask you to share the principles that guide you when you think about other countries of the region, as well as your own countries, or when you think about leaders, as you are, or the population at large – the topic of re-election, whether you’re talking about, again, a neighboring country. Recently, we had, of course, an important incident that’s still not resolved in Honduras and you went through a re-election and there are – there’s talk about a possibility of a third term. If you would just share the principles that guide you with us.
PRES. URIBE: Yes. First, I consider my country needs to prolong these three policies – safety, investment promotion with social responsibility and social cohesion. Colombia, since the beginning of the ’40s in the last century, has not lived in peace. For the first time, Colombia has the possibility of having a firm policy on security.
We consider – I consider that my country needs longer, longer time for these policies to produce the results. Of course, by popular initiative, there is a referendum to allow anyone in Colombia to be elected for three times as president. This complexity – this is a very complex decision. It needs the signature of the people after the approval of Congress. These two steps have been gotten.
Second, it needs the approval in the constitutional court. It is pending. And third, it needs the approval of the electorate. If the constitutional court says the steps for the signatures and the steps in Congress have not broken the constitution, therefore it is necessary to submit it to the people. And in accordance with the constitution, the threshold is 25 percent of the total potential voters.
This is one point. The other point – what is my priority? My priority is to prolong, for a longer time, these policies, with adjustments. We cannot stop; we cannot accept rule changes. We need to have clear goals and to introduce adjustments of what can be called permanent improvement within this part without stopping the path and without abandoning it – adjustments, constructive adjustments.
I see good people in our coalition with the possibility to prolong these policies. My personal destiny – it depends on the constitutional court, it depends on the people and it depends on my god. But finally, as a member of a generation that has not lived one single day in peace, I have to fight until the end of my life. This is the only way. Thank you. (Applause.)