On the eve of the 7th Summit of the Americas, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos agreed to answer a series of questions in writing about the hemispheric meeting, the crisis in Venezuela, why he’s having trouble connecting with Colombians in Miami and why the peace process in Colombia won’t produce an overnight “miracle.”
What are Colombia’s goals for the Summit of the Americas?
A: At the past summit, which we hosted in Cartagena, we put forth the argument that it was necessary to evaluate the methods and results of the global war on drugs. This initiative resulted in an OAS report and a common position in the region around this issue. This time around, we will propose the creation of an Inter-American Education System, meaning an inter-American institution that supports member states in adopting public policy initiatives that improve education significantly and that increase investments in knowledge, science and technology. I am convinced that education is the best tool for transformation and social mobility and the fight against inequality and poverty; for this reason, we will promote it at the hemispheric level.
Colombia is a member of the UNASUR and CELAC [regional organizations], which have grown in importance and influence in recent years. Given that, are these OAS summits, which seem to producer fewer and fewer tangible results, still important? Why?
A: All these various forums can coexist and complement each other without a problem. What is important is to establish dialogue and cooperation mechanisms between the different regional and subregional instances so that they are more effective.
What should be the OAS’s role in a region that is increasingly strong and independent?
A: The OAS continues to be the only forum for political dialogue in the hemisphere with participation by most countries in the Americas, including the United States and Canada. As such, its existence is essential to resolve hemispheric problems or to maintain an inter-American system that can be relevant on key issues such as education, as we are proposing. With the arrival of former Uruguayan foreign minister Luis Almagro as Secretary General, we expect a renovated boost in the organization.
One of the issues at the summit (although it is not part of the official agenda) will be the regional reaction to the U.S. sanctions against Venezuela. Will Colombia back any efforts to have those sanctions repealed or modified?
A: History has demonstrated that unilateral sanctions are counterproductive in the long run. For this reason, on principle, we have rejected them.
What is Colombia’s view of those sanctions? Are they a violation of Venezuela’s sovereignty [as Venezuela contends]?
A: It is not my role to comment on the sanctions. In addition, these are sanctions against people, not against the country. What I do believe and I have expressed it repeatedly, is that the only way out of the crisis in Venezuela must come from a constructive dialogue between the Venezuelan government and opposition forces. Colombia has been promoting this dialogue actively and decisively, but also with respect for their autonomy. We want Venezuela to do well because anything that happens there also affects the Colombian people.
In a sense, Colombia played a role in the ongoing U.S.-Cuba rapprochement. Do you believe Colombia could play a similar role between the U.S. and Venezuela? Do you believe the summit could provide a venue for some sort of reconciliation between the two nations despite the current tensions?
A: I am hopeful that the summit will serve as a scenario conducive to rapprochement or a lessening of tensions between Venezuela and the United States. That is part of the logic at these meetings. With regard to direct actions on our part, I do not foresee them if we are not asked.
What would your advice to President Barack Obama in terms of building better U.S.-Latin American relations?
A: It is not my place to give advice to President Obama or any other of my colleagues in the hemisphere. Simply an opinion: the best path is usually dialogue and consultations, exactly the way he demonstrated with Cuba and more recently, with Iran.
I imagine that regional support of the Colombian peace process with the FARC has to be part of your agenda at the summit. At this point, the talks are quite far along and seem to enjoy widespread support. What is the largest obstacle that remains to an agreement?
A: We have made a lot of progress but there are still two difficult issues remaining: recognizing victims’ rights, which includes the right to a transitional justice, and the termination of the conflict itself, which includes disarmament and the reintegration of former combatants to civilian life. We are working arduously at the table but with the awareness that we must be creative and prudent in order to achieve a final agreement.
Do you foresee a full-fledged bilateral ceasefire before a final peace agreement is signed?
A: At the beginning of this year I gave instructions to the negotiators to begin discussions on a serious, bilateral and definitive cease-fire and cease of hostilities. Normally, this should occur as a result of a final agreement, but if conditions are right, it could come before. Moreover I say “serious” because we will not pact an improvised and poorly designed bilateral ceasefire, without a strong and credible verification system. For this reason, we have active service military and police officers in Havana who are advising us on the manner and timing in which we can do this.
The peace process will obviously bring many benefits, but it could also be costly. Do you think that Colombia’s economic de-acceleration might make portions of the peace deal not viable?
A: We are working responsibly so that the effects of the international situation or the drop in oil prices in particular do not impact our economy significantly. Because of a responsible fiscal policy, we have good reserves; we have also been taking austerity measures and we have been strengthening anti-cyclical sectors, such as infrastructure and housing, which have helped us increase internal demand. In addition, the peace dividends, in terms of increased investments and tourism, will help mitigate its costs.
Do you worry about the high expectations surrounding the peace deal? That is, if violence is not dramatically reduced in the wake of a deal, do you think the process could face a political backlash?
A: We understand that the end of the conflict should lead to greater security because there will be greater resources and manpower to combat organized crime and other ordinary crimes. Nevertheless, part of our communications around peace and the post-conflict is to be clear with the Colombian people that there are no miracles. The morning after signing an accord does not mean we will find themselves in paradise, but rather in a country with still many problems that can only be solved by working together.
The peace process enjoys widespread national and international support, but one group does not seem convinced yet: Colombians living abroad, in particular those in the United States. Why has it been so hard to reach that group? Does the government have any strategies or plans to try to reach out to them?
A: Many Colombians living abroad want peace because they understand the conflict is the reason for leaving in the first place or because they are thinking about their loved ones in Colombia. There will always be those who disagree with the process, maybe because there is a lot of disinformation around what we are negotiating or because there are falsehoods that there will be total impunity, which is certainly not the case. I am confident that as the process advances and people understand what was agreed upon, we will all come together around a peaceful future instead of clinging to a violent past.
What do you hope to do after the presidency? What is your dream job?
A: I would love to be a professor and share a lifetime of experiences in journalism, public service and peace building with the new generations.