I just returned from a short trip to Colombia during which I had the opportunity to participate in the first Steering Committee meeting of the U.S.-Colombia Action Plan on Racial and Ethnic Equality. The Action Plan is an excellent opportunity to develop the cultural ties that exist between our two countries, using real person-to-person diplomacy as advocated by Secretary Clinton. It recognizes the unique cultural contributions that Afro Diaspora and indigenous communities have made to U.S. and Colombian societies, and commits both governments to improve access to education, employment, health care, democratic institutions, and cultural preservation for both groups in each country, and to share best practices on social inclusion and anti-discrimination policies. There was a time, not so long ago, that issues such as social inclusiveness, multiculturalism, tolerance, and equal opportunity were not discussed as matters of official relationships between countries. But no longer. As the world continues to become more complex and more connected through online communications technologies and greater international travel, our understanding of critical issues affecting our societies continues to evolve.
The Colombians proved to be excellent hosts of the Steering Group's first meeting. At the Colombian Foreign Ministry, amid the beautiful oil paintings of the Simon Bolivar Room, representatives of the U.S. and Colombian governments met to determine how best to move forward and achieve the objectives laid out in the Action Plan. Particularly notable was the presentation given by Embassy Bogota's Cultural Affairs Officer Rex Moser who discussed ideas for future Action Plan programs. Some of the ideas included English language programs that would provide short-term scholarships to accomplished Afro-Colombian and indigenous students to take English courses at binational centers in Colombia. Others included artistic exchanges, media and acting training programs, and leadership seminars. USAID Director Ken Yamashita provided insight into the programs currently managed by the U.S. government, and highlighted areas in which we will continue to work with the Colombian government to help improve the opportunities of Afro-Colombians and indigenous peoples, including the rule of law, conflict victims assistance, institutional capacity, and education scholarships.
Each presentation was met with a lively response from both governments, and it was clear that the importance of the event was not lost on any of the participants. At the conclusion of the meeting, both governments agreed to continue to work on the details of the Action Plan through a series of informal, thematic working groups that would establish an agenda for the upcoming Plenary Group meeting. The Plenary Group will serve as a vital link to the private sector and civil society for their input and expertise on the development challenges and training needs within these groups.
The Action Plan is part of a larger effort to remove racial and ethnic stigmas, and to address what Colombian Vice Minister of the Interior Viviana Manrique referred to as the "social invisibility" of minority groups. To be an effective social inclusion project, the Action Plan must also appeal to the general Colombian public. Social inclusion is one of the many topics the Secretary will address during her visit to Colombia today. The Action Plan will serve as a blueprint for our governments to move forward to achieve the social objectives that the Secretary has discussed time and again during her travels to every region of the world.