Assistant Secretary Valenzuela Discusses Recent Travel to Andean Region

April 13, 2010

About the Author: Arturo Valenzuela serves as Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs.

I did go travel to Colombia, Ecuador and Peru, and this is an Andean tour. In each of the countries, I was able to meet with the president as well as foreign ministers, although in some ways, what I most enjoyed about the trip was to meet with embassy people in each one of the embassies, U.S. embassies, but also to speak with university students. I am a college professor so I enjoy doing that. I also visited some projects that the United States government supports through USAID and through other initiatives in various places. It was a great trip.

In Colombia, for example, I was able to visit an extraordinary project with a private foundation that helps Afro-Colombians who have been displaced because of the conflict in Colombia, the narco-trafficking conflict in that country, and who are essentially trying to get their lives in order. These are very poor people. But this foundation is a wonder foundation. It's called Little Grains of Hope, that is the name of the foundation, and it was very moving to see what they do.

In the Peruvian Andes, I was able to actually go down to the jungle area, in upper Huallaga, in Northern Peru, to see an absolutely phenomenal development project. With assistance from the United States, through various different agencies, peasants who used to grow coca in this area of Peru are now growing cacao. In fact, not only are they growing cacao, but they are also producing their own chocolate. One of the cooperatives there of about 1,500 peasants won a prize recently in Paris for the quality of their chocolate. They also produce coffee and various sorts of things. This is what we need to do, the main theme of the trip was to talk to leaders in each of these places on how we can move ahead with social inclusion, poverty alleviation, making sure that our populations are more competitive which means in investment in infrastructure, investment in human capital and education. At the same time, we'll work more effectively together on things that are really complicated such as public insecurity, the drug trafficking, criminal violence and things like that which have affected these countries in a major way.

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Rafael Correa, President of Ecuador, is an interesting gentleman. He has a Ph.D. in economics from the University of Illinois. In fact, two days after I visited with him, he traveled to Illinois to receive an award from the University of Illinois, because he is one of the most distinguished graduates. He is a man who has been elected with a significantly large majority support in Ecuador. He has a program of social change he wants to implement. We had frank conversations on some things we agree and some things we disagree -- we didn't really disagree on the objectives that we try to pursue. We both share this commitment to try to cooperate better, how we can cooperative better, how we can work more effectively to address the problems of our societies. In the case of Ecuador, for example, we have very good cooperation on counter narcotics efforts. Ecuador is next to Colombia and is affected significantly by the drug trade. Even though they don't produce coca in Ecuador. I raised some concerns with President Correa about Iran. He has been in conversations with Iranians looking for investments. I made clear that the United States is extremely worried about relationships with countries with Iran, given Iran's violations of some of its responsibilities, internationally, and the condemnation that rightly Iran has received from the UN Security Council on the fact that is has not cooperating with the International Atomic Energy Cooperation. We also discussed some things that concern us about freedom of the press in Ecuador. The concern is that the majority government sometimes does not protect minority rights. We had frank conversations, and it was a cordial conversation. It was a respectful conversation. That's how in all my trips I've said the Obama Administration wants to deal with our Latin America policy. This is not about wanting to beat up on people willy-nilly. We want to try to engage but being very clear too what are fundamental principles and fundamental objectives are.

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The students were interested in a broad range of concerns. They are interested in themselves and what they might want to do in the world. In Ecuador, I had a lot of questions from students who wanted to know about the opportunities they had to come to study in the United States and what fields they ought to study. They are obviously interested in international affairs. In Ecuador, in particular, it was kind of fun because I spoke to university that had a campus in Quito, so I was speaking to some people there. Also through video conferencing, I was speaking to some of the other campuses, so we had a good conversation. They are concerned, obviously, about issues of poverty, inequality, the drug trade. They also asked international questions, they asked about Iran, for example and I tried to explain what the United States' position is.

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Let me just say this -- that in all three countries, I was able to meet foreign ministers as well as the presidents. I had an equally good meeting with President Uribe in Colombia and his team. And President Uribe, as you know, is leaving office soon. It's extraordinary. He has 80% approval ratings. He has done a tremendous job in reversing a very difficult situation in Colombia. Colombia is now a very secure country. But he is leaving office because the constitutional court said that he could not go on for another term. Colombia is an example where the rule of law and where institutions are working well and where a president decides, even if he is very popular, that at the end of his term, he indeed steps down. In Peru, I met with President Garcia who has done an extraordinary good job. Peru has very high economic growth rates recently. Although they have problems in some of the jungle areas for example with the degradation of tropical forests, that was one of the things I looked at there. But as asked in your question, I did go to Cartagena for the World Economic Forum and participated in a panel there with several other leaders and with business leaders from all over Latin America discussing international problems. It was a great opportunity for me to also give our message -- that is, that the United States is reaching out to Latin America to have stronger partnerships with all of our neighbors in the hemisphere in order to resolve the problems that we all think we can resolve together. I am very optimistic about this trip.

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