A Discussion with His Excellency Angelino Garzón, Vice President of the Republic of Colombia
The Santos administration has made economic growth a key priority, he said, something that requires Colombia to improve competitiveness and open its economy to markets around the world. The economy grew 4.2-4.4 percent in 2010, and the Santos administration hopes to exceed 5 percent growth in 2011. Garzón described Colombia's ambitious drive to conclude free trade agreements (FTAs) with countries around the world, citing the ratification of agreements or ongoing negotiations with the EU, Chile, and Central America, as well as Panama, Canada, Brazil, Mexico, South Korea, Japan, and China. He indicated that even as Colombia is expanding its global partnerships, the FTA signed by the United States and Colombia in 2006 has yet to be ratified by the U.S. Congress. Garzón emphasized that economic openness will not come at the expense of Colombia's respect for human, labor, and environmental rights. Rights have been globalized, not just economies, he said, citing the centrality of economic growth to the enactment of social policies to address long-standing problems of poverty. The Santos administration has set a goal of creating three million new jobs with decent wages, Garzón said, in order to lower the country's unemployment rate, one of the highest in South America.
Garzón pledged that the Santos administration would continue the Democratic Security policy which was the centerpiece of his predecessor, President Álvaro Uribe. The government would fight equally all groups—guerrillas, criminals, narcotraffickers, and members of so-called ‘emerging criminal bands'—that use violence to threaten the constitutionally-guaranteed right of Colombian citizens to live in peace. Essential in this effort is the fight against corruption, which, along with impunity, is the "principal ally" of illegal armed groups. Garzón referred to impunity as "one of the most serious problems" Colombia has faced and called on all public officials to enact a state policy guaranteeing human and labor rights, international humanitarian law, and the rights of groups such as women, children and Afro-Colombians. The government's policy was one of "zero tolerance" for violations of human rights. "Illegality," he insisted, "is fought with the Constitution in one hand and respect for human rights" in the other.
In sharp contrast to the previous administration, Garzón insisted that civil society organizations and opposition groups had "all the right" to criticize the government; he stated emphatically that such criticism did not mean that they were identified with illegal armed groups, and that the government had no right characterize their criticism as such. Similarly, he called for greater solidarity with victims of the armed conflict, saying that in the past, victims had been more suspect than victimizers. Garzón referred to Santos' support of a Victim's Law aimed at providing reparations and assistance to the more than 3.5 million Colombians affected by the armed conflict. He also underscored the significance of the government's initiative to provide restitution and restore stolen property to those violently forced off their lands as a result of the conflict. He said that the land had been taken by narcotraffickers, paramilitaries, and, in some cases, guerrillas. Addressing the question of peace negotiations with the guerrillas, Garzón emphasized the Santos administration's willingness to enter into talks on the basis of publicly-stated conditions. These included the freeing of all kidnap victims and the end of kidnapping and other terrorist activities, including the use of land-mines.
Turning to foreign policy, Garzón emphasized the government's efforts to improve the relationship between Colombia and its neighbors. He pointed especially to closer security cooperation with Venezuela and noted that Colombia was one of the first to denounce an attempted coup in 2010 against Ecuadoran President Rafael Correa, even before the two countries had restored relations.
The vice president concluded his remarks by describing at length the importance of the U.S.-Colombia bilateral relationship. Garzón's visit to Washington took place scarcely one month after floods devastated more than 80 percent of country's territory, inflicting an estimated $6 billion in damages. Garzón called on the U.S. Congress to extend trade preferences under the Andean Trade Promotion and Drug Eradication Act (APTDEA) by another year and a half as "the best message of solidarity with the Colombian people."
The second purpose of his visit, he said, was to convince the administration and congress to approve the FTA in 2011. Ratifying the agreement signed five years ago was not a "unilateral favor" to Colombians, but rather, a "win-win" proposition that would promote economic growth and create jobs in the United States and the same time that it would help consolidate a democratic Colombia. If the FTA were not approved, Garzón argued, U.S-Colombian strategic cooperation and friendship would continue. But he predicted that trade relations would deteriorate over the next several years as Colombia moved forward with trade agreements with Canada, the EU, China, Japan, as well as other countries. Colombia's trade patterns have already begun to shift, he said. Venezuela used to be the country's second largest trading partner (after the United States), a position now held by China. Similarly, trade with Ecuador, in third place, was now almost overtaken by Chile, Brazil, and Mexico. The uncertainty about the U.S.-Colombia FTA had already affected trade patterns, he said. Garzón expressed the belief that there is sufficient support in the Congress to approve the FTA, but that support from the administration was also needed. He called on the Congress to decide one way or another on the FTA in 2011, rather than allow the current uncertainty to continue indefinitely.