Colombia

Colombia’s defense minister, ambassador to U.S. to swap jobs

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos delivers a press conference with Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro (out of frame) during a meeting in Cartagena de Indias, Colombia, on August 1, 2014.
Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos delivers a press conference with Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro (out of frame) during a meeting in Cartagena de Indias, Colombia, on August 1, 2014. AFP/Getty Images

Colombia’s ambassador to the United States and the nation’s defense minister will be swapping jobs in coming weeks — two positions that are seen as key to peace talks with the country’s largest guerrilla group.

Rumors had been swirling for weeks that Defense Minister Juan Carlos Pinzón, who has held the post since 2011, was on his way out. However, late Tuesday, President Juan Manuel Santos confirmed the suspicions with the announcement that Luis Carlos Villegas, the current ambassador to the United States, would be taking his spot.

“This will be a normal and easy transition,” Santos said. Villegas will begin the job within weeks, while Pinzón heads to Washington, Santos added.

As government negotiators and members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) meet in Havana to find a solution to end the half-century conflict, the role of the defense minister has been critical. Despite the talks, combat continues, forcing Pinzón to play the tough-talking hawk to Santos’ peacemaker.

During his tenure, Pinzón also led the military’s pivot to take on criminal gangs like the Úsuga and the Rastrojos, which have been growing increasingly powerful.

Pinzón, a U.S. educated economist, was chief of staff and vice-minister of defense before taking the post.

He will be replaced by Villegas, a longtime diplomat who has been deeply involved in peace talks. He’s currently an advisor to the negotiations, which began in 2012, and worked with the Andres Pastrana administration on failed talks from 1999-2002. He also has lived the conflict first hand: the FARC kidnapped Villega’s daughter for a few months in 2000.

Prior to becoming ambassador in 2013, Villegas was the president of the National Business Association of Colombia for 17 years.

The shuffle comes amid perceptions that talks with the guerrillas are dragging.

On Wednesday, Santos announced that Foreign Minister María Ángela Hogluín and businessman Gonzalo Restrepo would be joining the negotiating team in Havana.

“We know it’s not easy to keep believing when we don’t see any visible progress,” Santos said in a televised speech. “But I ask Colombians not to give up.”

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