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| 1/7/2009 12:00:00 AM

Colombia's Foreign Policy in 2009

Minister of Foreign Relations Jaime Bermúdez tells SEMANA how he plans to redirect the management and scope of Colombia’s foreign policy in 2009.

SEMANA: Let’s cut to the chase: what are the priorities of Colombia’s foreign policy during the last year and a half of the Uribe administration?

Jaime Bermúdez: Let me start off with the two institutional and political challenges we face. The first is that the foreign ministry must be the pillar of the country’s foreign relations. For that, it is fundamental to establish a coordination of foreign policy, to adapt the internal organization to current needs. Increase the entrance requirements and promotional requirements for career diplomats. Elevate the requirements for the naming of discretionary appointments. We should demand of them the same qualities as those career diplomats. We are reviewing the language requirements that are needed.

SEMANA: Are the embassies prepared for this challenge?

J.B.: There are two problems. We are under-represented in some regions. There is a difficulty in the representation of Colombia abroad, in particular in Eastern Europe. Today we only have an embassy in Poland.

SEMANA: But it was a decision of the current government to close embassies…

J.B.: That had to do with fiscal difficulties. By that I do not mean that we are going to open new embassies. In the area of consulates, for example, we have to see how we make more consulates mobile and make procedures available electronically.

SEMANA: You speak about the importance that appointed diplomats should have some minimum requirements in order to represent the country. During the last few months, one ambassador resigned because of paramilitary links and a consul resigned because of controversial statements in Venezuela. What will you do so that those scandals aren’t repeated?

J.B.: Have a lot of criteria in the selection of these people. Recently there have been some important designations. For example, Angelino Garzón (a trade unionist and former governor from Valle department) has been named ambassador in Geneva. We have also named a career diplomat in Honduras. Someone with recognized prestige was named in Argentina. The new ambassador in the World Trade Organization is Vice-Minister of Trade Eduardo Muñoz. We have to seek out the best people for those positions.

SEMANA: And what is the political challenge?

J.B.: I think that Colombia is experiencing a good moment in terms of its international reputation and credibility. I am not just being rhetorical. Historically the country has suffered a lot. The problems of drug trafficking, terrorism, poverty- forced the country to have a defensive foreign policy, to have to permanently explain what its problems are. Some even called Colombia a failed state.
 
The perception of Colombia has visibly improved. It is now judged on objective facts. Colombia is, after Mexico and Brazil, the third country in receiving foreign investment. We grew from 500,000 to 1,200,000 tourists per year. It is reflected in the recognition that Colombia today receives in the world press. For example, President Uribe was the only leader from a non-member state to be invited to the APEC meeting in Lima. The Japanese minister of Foreign Affairs will come to Colombia after a ten year absence. The Russian minister after 18 years.

SEMANA: You say that Colombia’s foreign affaris aren’t defensive, but recently in Geneva Vice-President Santos asked the world for forgiveness because of the false positives scandal…

J.B.: In certain areas we have difficulties. But in human rights we are also making some headway. The Vice-president even went to Geneva on his own accord. And all the countries that participated highlighted the advances that we have achieved. The other great challenge is developing a bolder foreign policy and one without inferiority complexes. A fundamental objective is to have closer relations to Asian economies.

SEMANA: What role will the experts’ mission (a recently appointed advisory body) on this new direction in foreign policy have?

J.B.: It will be a mission with a set time of six months. It is comprised of national and international experts like the vice dean from Harvard, Jorge Domínguez, and the former foreign relations minister from Brazil, Luiz Felipe Lampreia. The key objective is to formulate some recommendations that will become public. They will make an analysis about where the world is going and how Colombia can and should have a part in that scenario.
 
Similarly, I hope that the mission will help to elevate the foreign policy discussion in the country. And despite what some think, it will not displace the foreign relations advisory committee (a body which includes former presidents).

SEMANA: You speak of the importance of being bold and having a greater presence in the world. Given the relevance of South Africa, do you believe that Colombia has giving it such an importance with Moreno de Caro (a politician from Bogotá) as ambassador?

J.B.: I was reviewing the report from Ambassador Moreno de Caro. I believe that he has done some important things. It is good to recognize that. I am convinced that the new ambassador, Édgar Perea (a former sports commentator) can succeed with the ministry’s support.

SEMANA: Let’s talk about our neighbors. How will we be able to return to the relations that we had with Ecuador ten years ago, when they saw us as the good neighbor in the north?

J.B.: In the last few months, Colombia has worked with prudence and discretion, without ceding the fundamental issues. It has participated in the OAS (Organization of American States) and with the Carter Center. I even met with the Ecuadorian foreign relations minister to look for solutions. But it has not been possible to make advances. I met with the Ecuadorian media in the last couple of days. I told them that Colombia and Ecuador have to make an efforts as countries. Let me explain: I believe that the Ecuadorians do not sufficiently known Colombia and neither do the Colombians know Ecuador.

Two basic conditions must be met in order to advance with the Ecuadorian government. One, prudence and discretion in public statements and two, establish going forward an effective mechanism for the coordination in the fight against drug trafficking and terrorism, especially along the border.

SEMANA: Apparently President Rafael Correa does not feel the same way about the discretion. He attacked you a few days ago.

J.B.: Our differences shouldn’t be translated into personal offenses. I would like to take this opportunity to wish the best for the Ecuadorian people in 2009.

SEMANA: How is the “Cold War” with Venezuela?

J.B.: With Venezuela our relations are good. The presidents have had a lot of contact with each other. We have several pending items on the agenda. We have to seek a bilateral mechanism that will allow a framework for protecting trade between the two countries.

One thing: when you ask about our neighbors, you are always asking about the problems. You don’t ask about Brazil, Peru or Panama- countries with which we have excellent relations.

SEMANA: With the United States during the last two years, the Free Trade Agreement (FTA) has become an obsession. But despite the efforts of the embassy and the government, the reality is that the objective has not been attained. Is it not time to shelve the FTA and start from zero?

J.B.: If starting from scratch implies shelving the FTA, I am not in agreement with that. But if you are talking about managing a much broader agenda with the United States, I am in favor of that. We have been working with the president, our ambassador to the United States and with the Ministry of Trade in the definition of such a strategy.

There is one thing that is very important to mention. Colombia has never before received such support from the American press. During one month there were more than 25 editorials from the mainstream media in favor of Colombia.

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