About the Author: Paloma Gonzalez serves as Political Officer at the U.S. Embassy in Bogota.
The day before the devastating earthquake in Haiti, Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg began a visit to Colombia, a valuable regional partner and a perfect example of how strong, bilateral relationships allow for more effective responses to crises in the hemisphere. Colombian police participate in the UN's mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH), and Colombia was among the first countries to pledge and deliver relief assistance after the disaster.
Steinberg's visit was his first to Latin America since being appointed Deputy Secretary in January 2009. He was accompanied by Deputy Assistant Secretary for Western Hemisphere Chris McMullen and U.S. Ambassador to Colombia William Brownfield.
The trip began January 12 in El Ubérrimo, President Alvaro Uribe’s family ranch in Montería, Córdoba, just minutes from the Caribbean. Reflecting our broad bilateral agenda, the topics discussed with President Uribe and his team included: human rights, justice, trade, security, counternarcotics, climate change, labor, and regional issues. Steinberg’s message was clear: Colombia is a strategic partner of the United States.
Following the meeting, Steinberg and Foreign Minister Jaime Bermudez signed the Action Plan on Racial & Ethnic Equality. This plan focuses on addressing racial discrimination and issues affecting under-represented racial and ethnic minority communities. It establishes a joint Steering Committee to discuss challenges faced by racial and ethnic minorities in a variety of areas: Education, Culture, Housing, Health, Employment, Labor, and Anti-Discrimination Legislation. This is an important step in our efforts to support Afro-descendant and indigenous communities in Colombia who suffer disproportionately due to the internal conflict.
Before bidding farewell, President Uribe provided a demonstration on his graceful paso horses and introduced us to mango acebichado, a refreshing local treat, with the Mayor of Montería.
Next came lunch in bustling Bogotá with human rights and labor representatives who expressed concerns about extrajudicial executions, threats against human rights defenders, displacement, official impunity, and racism. Steinberg then discussed cooperation, human rights and judicial matters with the Prosecutor General and his team. He ended his busy day over dinner with the three leading presidential candidates from opposition parties who hope to succeed President Uribe this year. A successful day one allowed the Deputy Secretary to exchange views first-hand with government leaders, civil society, and the political opposition.
Steinberg’s second day took him to Nariño, Colombia’s southwestern corner, to witness Embassy assistance efforts. Our first stop was the “wild west” town of Llorente (pop. 8,000) near the Ecuadoran border, where 18 Colombian police supported by the USG valiantly work to improve security in a cocaine trafficking region besieged by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and National Liberation Army (ELN), both of which are on the State Department’s Foreign Terrorist Organization list, and other criminal groups.
Colombia, aided by substantial U.S. assistance over 10 years, has made tremendous progress in reestablishing security: while 199 mayors could not work in their municipalities in 2000 for security reasons, since 2008, every mayor in the country works out of his or her office. Significant challenges remain, however, as evidenced by the FARC’s kidnapping and assassination of the Governor of Caquetá just before Christmas. Through our Colombia Strategic Development Initiative (CSDI), we support Colombia’s tireless efforts to consolidate security gains in remote areas through increased civilian state presence, economic alternatives to illicit activities, and strengthened justice.
Next, Steinberg visited a USAID-supported nursery, where beneficiaries receive seedlings and learn to increase the productivity of cacao, a commercially viable alternative to coca. The project benefits 1,070 Afro-Colombian families on communal lands. Steinberg heard the testimonies of numerous participants, all of whom were grateful to have income streams and to have expelled illicit coca cultivation from their lands. Progress in rural areas involves a delicate balancing act between security, creating economic opportunities, and the pressures communities face in shifting to the licit economy and culture of legality. Young cacao farmer Yudi Enríquez said, “with the help of alternative development programs, we’re not only able to pull coca from the ground, but from our hearts.”
Steinberg then had lunch with the Governor of Nariño, the International Organization for Migration (IOM), and two displaced individuals living in a USAID-supported IOM housing project. After a press conference, we flew back to Bogotá, where Steinberg gave an interview to El Tiempo newspaper before departing for Perú.
Deputy Secretary Steinberg left Colombia with first-hand knowledge of the complex realities this diverse country faces. His visit gave us the opportunity to reflect on how our work ties into the larger U.S. foreign policy strategy. We were reminded of Secretary Clinton’s remarks on a Human Rights Agenda for the 21st Century: “Human rights, democracy, and development are not three separate goals with three separate agendas.” From the Action Plan on Racial & Ethnic Equality to CSDI, our projects here intend to create an integrated approach to help our strategic partner leave its history of violence behind for a future of peace and prosperity.