President Iván Duque discusses the Venezuelan refugee crisis, Colombia's response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and the progress on the implementation of the Colombian peace agreement.
JACOBSON: Thank you very much, and good day to everyone. Welcome to today’s Council on Foreign Relations virtual meeting with President Iván Duque of Columbia. I’m Roberta Jacobson, senior advisor at the Albright Stonebridge Group. And I will be presiding over today’s discussion. We have more than three hundred people registered for this virtual event and we will do our best to get as many questions as possible during the question-and-answer period.
Iván Duque Márquez was elected president of Colombia on June 17, 2018. He graduated as a lawyer from the Sergio Arboleda University, with studies in philosophy and humanities. He has master’s degrees from Georgetown in public policy, and from the American University in economic law, as well as executive studies at Harvard. As a senator, he led passage of key legislation in Colombia, such as the Orange law, which encourages creative industries and culture as an engine of development, the unemployment law, the defibrillator law, requiring defibrillators in public places and emergency transport, as well as being the co-author of the law that extended maternity leave from fourteen to eighteen weeks.
He is the author of numerous books and publications. President Duque was drafter, presented, and defended the lawsuit against the Legislative Act for Peace before the Constitutional Court, which limited the fast track and allowed Congress to make changes in the implementation and agreements—of the agreements with the FARC guerrillas. In 2016, he was chosen as one of the most outstanding leaders of the country by Semana magazine and the Columbia Líder Foundation. and during his three years as a congressman he was chosen as the best senator by his own colleagues.
It is a pleasure to have you with us today, President Duque. And I turn the floor over to you before we engage in a conversation.
DUQUE: Thank you so much, Ambassador Jacobson. It’s a pleasure to be again in the Council on Foreign Relations. It’s a great honor for me to participate in this event. And I also express my gratitude to the people that are joining us virtually. I wanted to share with you and with all the people who were invited today some comments about where is Colombia right now, and where are we heading? We ended 2019 with one of the strongest economies in Latin America. We grew above the world average, regional average, and OECD average. We got a big spike on investment. We also faced a very positive circumstance in that we had the best year ever in Colombia in terms of tourism.
And we got a big reduction on the fiscal deficit, the first fiscal primary surplus in almost a decade. And we were advancing in many fronts and social policy, including the data that came out yesterday where multidimensional poverty had a reduction where more than six hundred thousand people left multidimensional poverty. We have been also working closely with our policy of peace with legality so that we ensure that people who have left violence will enter into a process of reconciliation. And also we have made profound investments in different regions in Colombia so that we can have the regional-focused development plans.
So in a nutshell, yes, we have had advances, and we have also faced challenges, like the migration that we have seen from Venezuela that was above 1.7 million migrants in Colombia. And also the spike that we inherited on illegal crops that for the first time in almost six years had a big reduction. And we are also trying to protect the areas of the country where the influence of narco traffic has been the cause of the assassination of social leaders, and also has put in danger the life of people who are calling for narcotraffickers not to recruit children and not to recruit members of society. But we have seen advances and we have worked close and hand-in-hand with the United States in those fronts.
And in this year, we have been facing this terrible pandemic that has created a major impact on the world’s health system, also in the economic system and employment. And I consider this the biggest challenge that we have faced as humanity maybe after the Second World War. And we have tried to accommodate a lot of
measures so that we protect life, so that we protect the health-care system, but at the same time we define a route so that we recover productive life and we can, as a society, adapt and adopt the right measures to face COVID-19.
As of today, facing this pandemic, our rates in terms of contagions per million and deaths per million is making some positive advances in comparison with other countries in Latin America and other countries in the world. But not withstanding that, the challenges still continue because we know the virus is going to be at least for about a year in the world. And there is no vaccine and there is not treatment that has been certified. So the only way that we can reduce the expansion level of contagion is with our own behavior, with our own protocols, and at the same time creating an atmosphere inside the country where every single citizen is highly convinced about that if they protect themselves they will protect the rest of society. So we have to work hand-in-hand with local governments, but also with the Colombian citizens.
And I believe, Ambassador, that the way we have been managing this situation not only involves that we have expanded our ICU capacity at about 40 percent, and not only that we have created a national stockpile so that more than sixty million pieces of personal protection equipment can be displayed throughout the country, and we have increased liquidity for the health-care system, but also that we have established a social safety net where we provide resources to the people in need that has reached more than ten million families in Colombia. And we have also put in place in policy where we subsidize 40 percent of the minimum wage payroll for companies that have been affected 20 percent or more in their sales in the last four months. And also we have put in place a mechanism where we have 90 percent loan guarantees to protect the payrolls in the small- and medium-sized enterprises in Colombia.
All this just demonstrates that, yes, we have challenges, but we’re facing them. And it also demonstrates that even in times of crisis, resilience has been the best word to define the Colombian people. And we will continue to embrace all the policies needed so that we can move forward as a nation, considering that these are times when uncertainty is a word that is used on a frequent basis. But in times of uncertainty, we have the certainty of our willingness to keep on moving forward with the idea of not only succeeding, but also protecting the people in need.
With that introduction, I’ll leave the word back to you, Ambassador. And it’s a great pleasure for me to be back at CFR.
JACOBSON: Thank you so much, President Duque.
Let me start by asking you a question related to COVID. I think your own measures against the coronavirus have been very strong and quite successful. But the question really becomes, what does Colombia’s economy and society look like on the other side of this pandemic? How much time do you have with the day-to-day of the crisis of the pandemic to think about your vision for Colombia and how you go forward in a slightly longer perspective?
DUQUE: Well, I think that’s a great question, Ambassador, because at the end of last year, after a conversation that I had months before with Gro Harlem Brundtland, who was director of the World Health Organization and former prime minister of Norway. She told me about a report that came out late October, and it was called The World in Danger. And in chapter number three, there was a very strong announcement saying that the world should prepare in the next years to face a pandemic that would be derived from a respiratory virus. And since then, I started working with the people in the health ministry. And when we saw what was happen in Wuhan at the end of the year, we decided to start monitoring what was happening there. And since early January, we decided to evaluate what could happen If the virus knocked at our door. And we were seeing then what was happening in Europe.
And based on the following process that we were doing on a daily basis, we decided to create a strategy based on three pillars. The first pillar was preparation and prevention. The second pillar was a containment—to contain the virus. And the third one, to mitigate the virus. So we always thought on this strategy, without leaving our major priorities as a government. But obviously this pandemic came stronger than anyone could have expected. And we know the impact it has had on the economy, and trade, on the exchange terms for commodities, you name it. But we have decided, you know, we will face the pandemic, and we have taken all the measures so that we keep having the idea of accomplishing the major objectives in our national development plan. And let me just mention four very important issues.
Inside our decision-making process, and in the midst of the pandemic in the last four months, we got Colombia to be included as a formal member of the OECD, finishing the legislative process. We also made one of the biggest programs that was to bring private investors to the production of electricity to the northern coast of Colombia. In the midst of the pandemic we got the confidence of investors. We have also approved very important pieces of legislation, like the one that establishes life sentence of those who are violators or assassins of children. And we have also put in place legislation that promotes investment and protects SMEs. So those were lines that were always a priority in our administration, and we have been able to handle those issues, with the protection of Colombia in the pandemic.
But I think the number-one question that we all ask ourselves is: How is it that we are going to plan for the next years? And I think at this moment we know that we’re going to be indebted, all of the countries, more indebted, with more fiscal deficits. But this is what we have to do in this situation because this time it’s different. None of the crisis that we have ever felt in economic terms can be comparable to the ones that we’re suffering today. So we have to be bold. We have to be creative. We have to be innovative in, how do we protect the social safety nets so that we don’t have a setback in terms of social indicators? But I think the next challenge is, how are we going to build the recovery plan that allow us to get people back to work in safety? And how do we accomplish the global sustainable development goals by 2030?
JACOBSON: In that regard, Mr. President, you’ve already touched this issue, but you are about to launch a new economic strategy this week, I believe. Can you give us a little bit of a preview of what kinds of things you are looking at to achieve that recovery?
DUQUE: I have always believed that in times of crisis, and especially in the one that we’re seeing today in the world, we have—we have to get the economy growing in what I called the V, as in victory, type of recovery. You don’t want to have a L form of recovery. You don’t want a U type of recovery. You don’t want a W type of recovery. Those scenarios are possible. But we have to build a V recovery, which means that, yes, we will suffer in 2020, but we will make all of it in our heads possible so that we can have a rapid recovery, and especially considering the expectations in 2021, where we have defined as an objective to grow something close to 6 percent.
So how do we get there? We have to activate the sectors that are triggers of economic activity, and they have to go hand-in-hand with all the safety and all the bio-protocols. So we’re talking about infrastructure, where we have the private and the public sector working hand-in-hand on PPPs. And, yes, we have—we’re going to finish some of the projects that we have to accelerate in the next three years, but we also are going to open for rapid bidding some of the strategic 5G highways in Colombia, and also tertiary roads around the nation. We also want to do a big investment in terms of water and storage. And we have created important incentives for the housing market.
And let me just give you a very important data. We announced a month and a half ago a program of subsidies for the poorest of the poor to acquire housing. And we also made a big bet on people that are middle class or upper class type of housing. Now, when you look at low-income housing, the amount of sales that we had in June of 2020, compared with June of 2019, we only had fifty houses less, which means we almost have the same amount of housing sales for the low-income communities. And that is going to be a trigger.
We are going to have one hundred thousand subsidies where in a fixed rate, thirty years, people can acquire a home with a monthly payment that is close to $80 to $90, which is lower than they are now paying for rent. And this gives incentives for the Colombian people to acquire a house, to buy a house, and at the same time activate the sector. And in terms of upper-income housing, we have—we have designed a scheme of payment that allows you to buy your first house, but also if you want to buy a second house you can have a fixed rate in a very comfortable amount of payments. So with that, I think that is going to become also accelerated.
The other element is green growth, where we’re pushing to accelerate all the programs from nonconventional renewable energies. And in the time of my administration, we have tripled the installed capacity of nonconventional renewables. And we’re going to have the projects that will lead us by 2022 to have 10 percent of our energy matrix in that type of energies, to accelerate in 2021 and 2022. And that will leave Colombia as the leader of energy transition in Latin America, where in less than four years we will pass from 0.5 percent of nonconventional energy’s contribution to the matrix to more than 10 percent.
And the other—the other element of acceleration is going to be linked with SMEs and the industrial process. And something that I want to quote from Richard Haass, who’s very close to CFR, is the acceleration of history. Because we have used the opportunity of this crisis to accelerate financial inclusion, fintech, govtech, education technologies, and also telemedicine. We see in those areas also a big engine of our recovery. So in a nutshell, I’ll say that, Ambassador. And maybe—I’m not going to leave it aside—is tourism. Because I think this is the biggest challenge.
How is it that we’re going to get back tourism? How is it that we’re going to get back in the next months air transportation? Colombia has a big interest in making tourism an engine of growth. And we know 2020’s going to be complicated, but our big bet is that in 2021 Colombia will be one of the leaders in Latin America in bioprodigals (ph) for sustainable tourism.
JACOBSON: Great. There are analysts and political leaders who’ve said that the coronavirus and its response is undermining or weakening the peace process in Colombia. Can you tell us the status of the peace process and your view about how the implementation is going?
DUQUE: Well, I think that’s a very important question, Ambassador, because as people know, when I was a senator I campaigned for the no in the plebiscite, which was not a no against peace. It was—it was a no that was trying to make some correction so that we can ensure that the construction of a lasting peace will be based in the lack of impunity, and will be also based in that people that have committed the worst crimes against humanity will have to face a credible sentence that will give some sort of hope and protection to the victims. In the two years that we have been in office, I think the most important thing is to look at the data. I always remember this famous word—this famous phrase of Daniel Patrick Moynihan that some people have linked it to Mark Twain, where he said: In politics you’re entitled to your opinions, but not to your own facts.
And when we look at facts, for example, in the last two years our contribution in terms of the land reform, in terms of the land bank, we have included eight hundred thousand hectares that will be distributed to peasants so that they can have access to land. When we look at what that eight hundred thousand hectares means, it means four times of what we inherited in the two years previous to our administration, where the peace process was signed. When we look, for example, at the projects for people who were former combatants, and collective projects, we started with zero. And today we have more than one thousand projects that are in place.
In terms of the local-focused development plans, we inherited two that were closed, and we finished fourteen more that have established the planning mechanisms for the next decade in those areas. And we have approved more than four hundred projects that are taking place based on those regional-focused development plans. And in terms of former combatants, we not only have ensured that they will have access to social security, but we have also ensured that they will be part of a land-titling and property-titling mechanism so they can become owners, and they can use that property for productive processes.
And obviously do we have challenges? Yes we do, and we have big challenges—especially regarding narcotrafficking and illegal mining—that we know that those organizations that are part of those criminal blocs, they want to go to the towns where they have an influence. And they are threatening, and they are attacking, and sometimes they’re killing social leaders. And since they won, we acknowledge that that was going to be one of the major challenges in building peace. And yes, last year we closed 2019 with a reduction in the assassination of social leaders by those armed groups. But I don’t feel happy at all, because we have to take that to zero. And we have to accelerate permanently.
And I hope this year we’ll have a major reduction. It is very much focused on specific municipalities. We have more than 1,100 municipalities and we’re talking about—less than seventy. But we have to do work that combines security and justice also with live opportunities for those communities. And that’s one of the most important things that we have put in place. And let me say something on land titling. And this is—this is something that I really want to give credit to all the public servants that have made this possible. Within the pandemic, ambassador, we have made the largest land titling process in Colombia virtually. We have given those titles to more than four thousand families.
And so is the pandemic affecting us? It’s affecting us, yes, in everything. The United States, Colombia. But we have been adapting and adopting the right mechanisms so that these things do not stop, and they continue building a credible social safety net for those who have make a bad bet in the construction piece.
JACOBSON: Thank you. Mr. President, let’s turn to Venezuela for a minute. Nicolas Maduro is still in power in Venezuela. Colombia has been the home of more Venezuelan refugees than any other country. What needs to happen to change the situation? Is a new approach needed? And what can you tell us about the status of migrants, and flow of migrants into Colombia, and your own expectations for Venezuela in the coming year?
DUQUE: Well, Ambassador, I think the most important thing about how we respond to that very important question is where are we now and where were we two years ago? When I began my administration in August 2018, I remember that Nicolas Maduro felt very strong. And he was recognized by most of the countries as the president of Venezuela. But when we look where are we today, we see that more than fifty countries do not recognize Nicolas Maduro as the president of Venezuela. They recognize the general assembly, the National Assembly. And they recognize the interim president, Juan Guaidó. Do I consider that a success? Yes. I consider that a very important diplomatic success.
When we look at the inter-American system, can be criticized, of course, but we can also trace the things that they have done to defend democracy and the values that we have all embraced. Today, the representative before the OAS is the representative of the interim president of Juan Guaidó and the assembly. And the same thing happens at the Inter-American Development Bank. So that is a demonstration that the diplomatic blockade has produced important effects.
But I also want to highlight three important elements that have been met. The indictments that DOJ has established against Maduro and his cronies is a very important step, because they have been finger-pointed internationally as to what they are—narcotraffickers. And that means they no longer can travel around the world, as they used to, because they know they are under the eyes of international justice, so that they will be sent to the United States to pay for their sentences on narcotrafficking. And I also consider that the blockades and the sanctions that have been put in place by the European Union, by many countries in Latin America against the top leaders of the dictatorship, have also demonstrated that we’re working closely.
Now, what is to be done? Sometimes I regret, when I see people evaluating President Guaidó’s behavior, as if it was a box match. Let’s see how strong is Guaidó against Maduro? You know, Guaidó on his own can’t knock out the regime. He needs the support of all the international community. He needs the support of independent media. He needs the support of all the multilateral institutions. And if we give him that support, we will be more effective fighting the regime. And I can also say something that I consider is very important.
The solution has to be a solution inside Venezuela. And there are four elements to be met: The end of the dictatorship, number one. A call for a transitionary government with broad participation. That means this is not going to be opposition alone or Chavistas alone. They all have—they both have to be at the table with people that are not indicted for criminals, for friends. And we have to call for free elections very soon and put in place the economic recovery plan for Venezuela. I know that maybe things have lasted more than we have all expected. And maybe they have lasted more than we all want.
But if I may say it clearly, I think what we have seen in the last two years is the real demonstration that Venezuela is going to have the opportunity of a new hope. And in the next months, as we continue having more pressure against the regime, we all have to say clearly that no solution in Venezuela can be viable with Nicolas Maduro still around. We need to find a way out for him so that we can put in place the transitionary government.
JACOBSON: Thank you so much, President Duque. And the truth is, I have lots more questions I’d like to ask you, but we have a very large number of members with us today. And so at this time I’d like to invite members to join our conversation with their question. A reminder that this virtual meeting is on the record. And the operator will remind you how to join the question queue. So if I can turn to the first question.
STAFF: (Gives queuing instructions.)
We will take the first question from Daniel Runde.
Q: Thank you, President Duque. I’m Dan Runde. I’m at CSIS, the think tank.
Your country is a real source of hope for the region and for the world. And congratulations on becoming a member of the OECD. I wanted to ask you about the Inter-American Development Bank presidency. The IDB is a major source of stability and partnership in the region, and it’s going to be a major part of the solution—a major part of the solution for responding to the coronavirus. The IDB presidency is turning over in the fall. Colombia’s Luis Alberto Moreno is cycling out. There are three candidates, including an American candidate. The United States has never put forward a candidate before, for a number of reasons. Is Colombia supporting the American candidate? And if so, could you talk about the IDB race and what Colombia’s rationale is for supporting a candidate, including if it’s the U.S. one? Thank you.
DUQUE: Well, thank you so much, Daniel, for your question. As you know, I worked at the IDB for more than a decade. I was a member of the board. And I also acted as a division chief. So I know the institution and I love the institution. And I have always considered the IDB a very important mechanism to strengthen the ties within all the countries in the western hemisphere, but also it has been a point of connection with the rest of the world. So let me first stay the following: I’ve seen a lot of people criticizing that there is an American candidate. And I consider that very, you know, weird because nothing in the charter of the IDB prohibits that a member state can present a candidate. There’s nothing that prohibits a member country to present a candidate. So that’s the one thing. We have to defend the institution with the regulations inside the institution.
Now, the second thing is that there has been a political pact throughout the years saying that the president should be Latin American, and the executive vice president should be American. The fact is the United States has 30 percent of the shares of the bank. And we’re in a moment where the bank needs to have a new replenishment. The bank needs more capital so that it can really attend the needs of Latin America in the upcoming years. And no replenishment can be viable if there’s not a strong support from the United States as the major shareholder. But we also have to be bold in designing new mechanisms and new instruments. And for many years, there has been a discussion inside the IDB, because there hasn’t been a replenishment in the last eleven years. And some people have even criticized that the bank has not been so strategical or so important for the U.S.
So seeing at this moment that there is an American candidate that wants to work on a replenishment, and that there is a genuine interest from the major shareholder to move the bank to a new—to a new frontier of instruments, I see that as positive. Now, the election process, it’s a free election process. Everybody will listen to the candidates and we will all make the decision. Actually, the IDB is one of the most—has one of the most transparent mechanisms to select the president in comparison to other international multilateral financial institutions. And I think that the U.S. candidate that has been proposed, we have publicly said that we support the candidate. We support him because we consider this person that knows Latin America, that has been active in Latin American policy, that has worked in the—in the Treasury Department, and that has also participated in the Board of Directors at the IMF. We consider that person has the credentials.
And the other important thing for me, as president of Colombia, is that the milestones that we have achieved in terms of policy inside the bank can be sustained and can be strengthened throughout the years. We feel very proud about all the achievement Luis Alberto Moreno has made. He put the strategy on climate change in the bank, he launched a new mechanism for the private sector, he has worked on designing instruments that can help the countries close their social gaps and implement their sustainable development goals. He has put the agenda of culture and the orange economy in the front one of the bank. So we consider also those achievements has to be—have to be strengthened throughout the years.
So my question is, let’s not politicize the election of the president of the—of the IDB. The presidency of the IDB cannot depend on what’s going to happen in the U.S. elections. It happens this year there’s—practically both things are happening at the same time, with a difference of one month. But let’s not try to link. We consider the U.S. candidate is an idoneous candidate. And we have said publicly we will support him. And we want to have a very important election, transparent election. And whoever wins, and as I say we’re supporting the United States candidate, has to be with the conviction of putting in place a new replenishment, a modernizing of the instruments, and strengthening the legacy of Luis Alberto Moreno.
JACOBSON: Thank you. Kayla, next question.
STAFF: We will take the next question from Stephen Donehoo.
Q: Good morning, Mr. President. Thank you very much for doing this. It’s good to have you with us.
DUQUE: Thank you, Stephen.
Q: Yes, sir. You will be assuming the presidency pro tem of the Pacific Alliance soon. And one of the functions of that organization is to harmonize regulations between the four countries that are the member countries. What are your priorities in that respect? And will you seek to bring the regulations of those countries and other aspirants into the OECD kind of regulations that Colombia has now committed to?
DUQUE: Well, Stephen, let me begin by saying that this year we’re going to assume not only the pro tempore presidency of the Pacific Alliance, we assumed last week the presidency pro tempore of the Andean nations integration system. And when we look on both systems, there are very positive things happening. On the one hand, we are going to accelerate the process so that Ecuador becomes a full member of the Pacific Alliance. And that is going to have a very important impact, because that will basically put Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru, which is 70 percent or 80 percent of the Andean integration system, also in the Pacific Alliance.
The other thing is that when the Pacific Alliance, Mexico, Colombia, and Chile are members of the OECD, and I think we have to look in the upcoming years so that we can help and support Peru to become a member of the OECD. What the important thing about that is that we can harmonize a lot of the regulation system that we have. And if we do that, that is going to accelerate more intraregional trade. My basic concern when we look at the Pacific Alliance and the Andean integration mechanism is that intra-regional trade in Latin America, this is still low in comparison to other intraregional blocs around the world, like the European Union, or NAFTA, or
even the case of the Asian countries. So how do we accelerate that trade? I think we have to build legislation and regulation that facilitates for us building aggregated value chains. And that is going to be one of the most important elements in the agenda for the next year. I also consider that the participation of Mexico, it’s very relevant, but it’s relevant day by day because foreign direct investment coming from Mexico to Latin America has been increasing, to the rest of Latin America, and especially to the Pacific Alliance. But also, Peruvian, Colombian, and Chilean investment in Mexico is also flowing with velocity.
So if you ask me, what will be my major objective in this year that we will assume the pro tempore presidency? The accession of Ecuador and trying to accelerate the harmonization of regulation so that free flow of investment becomes an engine of economic recovery, especially facing COVID-19.
JACOBSON: Thank you very much. Kayla and our next question.
STAFF: We will take the next question from David Petraeus.
STAFF: General, please accept the unmute now button.
All right. We will take the next question from Kurt Tidd.
Q: Good morning, Mr. President. And thank you very much for taking the time to spend with us.
Often the—all of the attention on the funding streams for much of the illegal activity focuses on criminal cartels participating in the coca trade. Less well known is the enormous sums of money generated by illegal gold mining and smuggling of illegally mined gold throughout Colombia, Peru, Ecuador, and other countries in the region. I wonder, can you talk a little bit about the role that you see on the illegally mined gold in supporting the Maduro regime, but also on criminal instability in general? Thank you.
DUQUE: Thank you so much, Kurt, for your question. And maybe I will divide your question in two. Let’s talk about the illegal trade in drugs, and what we have been doing, and also highlight the risks that are in Venezuela. When I came to office I had to face a more than two hundred thousand hectares of coca crops that had been growing exponentially since 2015. And the most important challenge that we face is how do we stop the growth, how do start reducing the area of illegal crops, and how could we increase the seizures of illegal drugs? As of today, two years after we took office, we have built the largest reduction on coca crop hectares in the last seven years. But most importantly, we have also got to a point where we have the biggest seizures of illegal drugs, not only in our own effort but also in a multilateral effort, with twenty-one nations in the Americas.
So Colombia today represents more than 40 percent of all the seizures of illegal drugs in the western hemisphere. And we are the strongest allies of the United States in the war against drugs in the hemisphere. Now, the risk is that in Venezuela you have a cartel who’s running the dictatorship. And that cartel has very close ties with ELN, with FARC, and with other cartels. So we have been also working on anti-money laundering. And I consider one of the most important things that should happen in the next weeks is that a criminal like Alex Saab, who was arrested in Cabo Verde, can be extradited to the United States. And we have been supporting the United States authorities to gather as much as information possible, because we’re talking about the biggest money launderer for the Maduro regime.
If we get this criminal to be extradited in the United States, and we gather all the information, I think we will be able to knock down all the networks that use money laundering in the narcotrafficking operations by Colombian criminals in Venezuela, working with the regime. And the second thing that you raised is illegal mining. In Colombia, we have been fighting illegal armed groups that use illegal mining as a source of income. But they are also connected to narcotrafficking operations. They try to build a criminal infrastructure so that they are
active in many illegal businesses. And we’re talking illegal mining, illegal drugs, but also the traffic on people and species. So we have been increasing our intelligence capacities to attack them, but in fact the most worrying situation today is that in the mining arc of Venezuela ELN, former FARC dissidents, are working with the regime so that they can do all the exploiting of the illegal mining. They use that illegal mining as a source of income for the cronies that are in the top command of the Maduro regime.
We have, and this is a must, to denounce this internationally. And we have to seize all the assets of all those criminals. And that has to be one of the most important objectives to meet in the following months. If we get Alex Saab to be extradited to the United States, for sure we will know a lot more and we will be more effective at dismantling all those networks. And in Colombia, we have been attacking, and we have been confronting the criminal structures of ELN and FARC dissidents. And as of today, of course, we have to do much more. We have not only captured, but some people have died in military operations that are commander of those illegal businesses in different regions of Colombia. That’s why we have deployed and displaced in the country a good amount of intelligence, and military, and police capacities, so that we don’t allow those organized criminals to put more pressure on low-income communities throughout the country.
JACOBSON: Thank you. Next question.
STAFF: We will take the next question from Kendra Gaither.
Q: Good morning, Mr. President, Ambassador. My name is Kendra Gaither. I’m at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, where I serve as executive director for the U.S.-Colombia Business Council.
And, Mr. President, it would be interested to hear a little bit more about the positioning that Colombia is foreseeing on the global stage as it relates to investors. I know that some of the plans that you’ll be unveiling will be looking at issues of economic resilience. And I’m curious to know how you see foreign investors playing a role in that strategy.
DUQUE: Kendra, thank you so much for your question. As you well know, in the last two years we have made bold decisions in Colombia to make our country more attractive to international investors. The economic growth bill that we approve in Congress not only allowed us to reduce the tax burden on investors, and especially on corporation that are micro, small and large size, but we also allowed to discount all the investments and all the payments in VAT for capital goods. And we also made discountable local taxes on trade. By that, we lowered the taxing rate by more than 15 percent. And we had a big, big spike in investment in the last—in the last year and a half.
And actually, we—and this motivates me a lot. Most of the foreign direct investment has increased in non-energy sectors because initially we had a higher concentration on fuels and mining, and today we have seen that that investment is moving to other areas including technology, including services, including tourism. So yes, we want Colombia to remain an attractive country. And that’s why we have been the first country in Latin America that maybe two weeks ago presented the medium-range fiscal plan so that we know what the expectations are for 2021, 2023—2022 and 2023, and thereon.
And, yes, we say 2020 is going to leave us more indebted and ending with a bigger deficit. But we will strive to make a reduction in 2021 that has to be strategical so that we reduce expenses, but we keep on focusing investment where we need to protect the social safety net, and where we need to have engines of economic growth such as infrastructure, energy, SMEs, technology. And with that, I think what we’re going to see in the next two to three years is going to be a great opportunity to investors in Colombia.
In terms of exchange terms, I think the possibility of bringing dollars to invest in Colombia is going to be very positive because of the changes we have seen in the terms of exchange. The second thing is, how do we consi
And especially considering that the bet that we have is that in 2021 we will grow above 6 percent. And we know 2022 and thereon is going to be a moment of stability. And if we go back to the premises that we had at the beginning of this year, and I want to highlight this, January and February this year we grew above 4 percent. We then faced the COVID-19 at the end of March.
And when you look at the growth Colombia had on the first trimester, considering the impact of COVID-19 since mid-March, we grew at 1.1 percent. We were one of the few countries in Latin America that had growth in the first trimester, and one of the few countries in the OECD that had growth in the first trimester. So if we go back to where we—where we were in terms of the acceleration of investment, and also the legal stability for investors, I’m pretty sure that, yes, we will meet the target of growing above 6 percent, or close to 6 percent, next year. And that is going to be based on a heavy participation of international investors in sectors where we know we have the right incentives, and we’re talking about all the PPPs in infrastructure, water, and storage. Nagabelite (ph) of the Magdalena River and the Canal del Dique in Cartagena, that is going to be the most important climate change, or anti-climate change, or adaptation to climate change, projects in Latin America in the next few decades.
JACOBSON: Great. Next question, please, Kayla.
STAFF: We will take the next question from Bernard Aronson.
Q: Thank you very much. Good morning, Mr. President. Good to see you.
I want to follow up on your remarks about implementation of the peace agreement, maybe not surprisingly. But before I do, I just want to say something that doesn’t get noted as much as it should, which is that Colombia really created a model of generosity and good will in its dealings with the refugees coming in from Venezuela compared to many countries in the rest of the world, including my own. And I think Colombia deserves great credit for the way it has reached out to Venezuelans.
You know, as you know, the issue of post-agreement security was extremely important at the table in Havana. And the parties agreed on a comprehensive system of security guarantees, the creation of a national commission chaired by the president that was supposed to meet every month, a special investigative unit in the office of the attorney general, and elite corps of the national police—all aimed at going after these organized criminal gangs that you mentioned, whether ELN, FARC dissidents, or former powers. And you rightly, you know, acknowledge that along there’s been some progress, this is still a real issue of concern. And I guess I wonder, why is it so difficult? And I’m saying that in recognition that this didn’t begin in your watch. Colombia’s faced this problem for many years. But in significant rural parts of the country still there is impunity for these groups. And how does that continue? And why? And how do you think about addressing that going forward?
DUQUE: Thank you so much for your question, Dr. Aronson, but I can call you Bernie. I know we met in your office in the midst of the election on the plebiscite. And we have always followed your comments because you followed closely the process in Lavan (ph). And I can say, when we look today, Dr. Aronson, two years after we began the administration, but more importantly almost four years since the agreement was signed, you can see that the largest acceleration in terms of the regional-focused development plans, in terms of the land bank, in terms of social security for former combatants, in terms of individual projects and collective projects, has taken place during my administration. And I meet a lot of critics to the accords. And I voted for the no. And I remember when we had conversations with you in Bogota, I told you that the most challenging issue was to build peace without impunity, and that we could guarantee that we could have the control of the territories that will be led from the people that will engage in a—in a process of reconducting a legal life.
When I came to office, we had seen a weakening in some of the capacities of the military to have territorial control. So with the last ten years, we had to increase also that capacity, so that we can have effective and more presence in the territories. Now, the other thing is, you know very well that the FARC dissidents that never
wanted to engage in any case, they were pure criminals involved in narcotrafficking operations, they try to take advantage of what happens so that they could have new structures they could control. And they were also in bed with the Venezuelan regime. And then you have ELN also wanting to do this. Then you had Caparros and then you had Pelusos. You had more than five groups that wanted to take advantage of the illegal drug business.
And we have been fighting them. Now, have they been the heads of the assassinations of social leaders? The response is yes. Although it’s focused on specific municipalities, those narcotrafficking groups are the ones who are killing social leaders. And those are also the ones who are killing some former combatants. When you look at the people that are in the ETCRs, in the territories where they can have a reestablishment to productive life, we have been able to keep a control, and support, and protection to all those former combatants. But for those who are not in the ETCRs, that are in other parts the territory, and there particularly in municipalities where there is presence of narcotrafficking and illegal mining, those armed groups are the ones who are trying to assassinated, and they have assassinated, former combatants.
Do I feel bad about it? I respond, yes. And we have kept not only the discussion within the commission for safety in a permanent basis, but also we have created two programs that are very important, that are the specific intervention zones where we want to go to those municipalities, make a bigger social investment, have more presence of justice and security, and also be able to dismantle those organizations. We want those zones to work effectively, and especially in those areas where we have seen a spike on attacks on social leaders and former combatants.
And the other thing is the PDETs, the regionally focused development plans. And you might know this very well, Dr. Aronson. When the agreement was signed, and you were there, we basically had a big expectation that those regional focused development plans will be finished before I came to power, so that they could be left for the new administration to implement. In fact, there were only two that were built. And in the last two years, we have worked on designing fourteen that are now in place, including the programs that we have massive land titling. And even during the pandemic, we have given the largest amount of titles to Colombians virtually, using technology so that the COIVD-19 pandemic does not prevent us to keep on moving forward.
But the other issue is regarding, and this is very important, the land bank. The land bank was considered one of the most important things for social justice in Colombia. And only two hundred thousand hectares were included in the bank between 2016 and 2018. And in the last two years we have included in the bank more than eight hundred thousand hectares that will be part of a land distribution that is connected to productive projects. So I consider those are very important milestones. And the biggest challenge we face is to really dismantle those criminal structures. And we will continue to work hand-in-hand. I have to express my gratitude to the support we have gotten from the United States government for us to be more assertive, and to be more effective dismantling those organizations.
And I look forward, Bernie, that once the COVID-19 pandemic comes in a next stage, we don’t know when, you can visit Colombia and you can see with your own eyes the evolution of the peace with legality policy that we have put in place in the last two years. Thank you so much for your question, Bernie.
JACOBSON: Thank you, Mr. President. I think we all join me in thanking you for being with us today. It was a great honor. We appreciate it. Thanks to all of our members for being here for today’s virtual meeting. Let me note that our next general meeting is this afternoon at 5:00 p.m. Eastern on the China-India border crisis. And please note that the audio and transcript of today’s call will be posted on the CFR website. Thank you so much, again, Mr. President, for being with CFR today.
DUQUE: Ambassador, thank you so much. And I express my gratitude to all the members of CFR, and also express my gratitude to Dr. Rubenstein, and to all of the members of the board. Thank you.
JACOBSON: Thank you.