A Conversation With President Iván Duque of Colombia

Thursday, July 29, 2021
Luisa Gonzalez/Reuters

President, Republic of Colombia


Vice Chair, Global Affairs, The Carlyle Group; Former Supreme Allied Commander Europe, North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO); Former Commander, U.S. Southern Command; CFR Member

President Duque discusses Colombia’s domestic political and economic outlook, including the response to recent civilian protests, and the future of Colombia-U.S. relations.

STAVRIDIS: Well, good morning, Mr. President. Buenos dias, Señor Presidente. A por mis amigos que hablan Español, muy buenos dias. Soy Almirante Jim Stavridis. Un verdad hijo de Miami, aprendió Español in las calles de Miami. I will now switch to my normal speaking language, which is English, and welcome the president to this event.

I have, myself, deployed many times in and around Latin America. I’m a retired four-star admiral. And my principal connection with Colombia was serving as the commander of U.S. Southern Command, Comand La Sur, from 2006 to 2009. Many UNITAS deployments, worked closely with President Uribe, then minister of defense, Juan Manuel Santos. And so I continue to count myself an amigo de Colombia.

We are very honored today, Mr. President, to have your joining us. President Iván Duque Márquez has been the president of Colombia since June of 1918. Prior to that he served at the IDB, working on the region and representing Colombia. He’s well known in Colombia not only as president, but as a senator of Colombia. He was instrumental in passing what are called the orange laws. He’s written five books, has a master’s degree from Georgetown. Mr. President, I wish you had come to the Fletcher School instead of Georgetown, but—(laughter)—we will forgive you that. And of course, a law degree from Columbia. I must highlight one of his books, El Futuro Está en el Centro, The Future Is in The Center. Mr. President, that would be a pretty good book to write for the United States of America. I congratulate you on your career, your time as the president.

And, sir, let me—let me begin with a question taken from today’s headlines. We see waves of refugees arriving on your north shore, your Caribbean shore. Colombia is, of course, an Andean power, a Pacific power, but very much a Caribbean power as well. So today we’re seeing both Haitians and Cubans, unsurprisingly, trying to depart those two nations. How is Colombia doing with these refugees? We’ll come to Venezuela in a bit. But let’s start with Cuba and Haiti, Mr. President. How do you see those situations? And how are things going?

DUQUE: Well first of all many thanks, Admiral. It’s great to see you again. I still remember when I met you when I was at Georgetown and you were, at those days, leading the forces in NATO. So it’s really a great honor to be here with you. Also, my gratitude to the Council on Foreign Relations. And once again, it’s a great pleasure to be able to share opinions and objectives with you.

Let me begin my reflecting your question. And definitely we have two type of challenges when it comes to migration. On the one hand, we have the Venezuelan migration, which is now the biggest migration crisis around the world. We have more than six million people that have left Venezuela, with frozen bones, with hunger, lacking medicine, lacking access to minimum services. And here in Colombia, we have something close to one-point-eight million. We’re getting close to two million migrants.

We definitely have decided to undertake a policy which is a fraternal migration policy. And we created the temporary protection status for one-point-eight million Venezuelans. Actually, as of today, we have already registered with a TPS card that will be granted before the end of the year, one-point-three migrants. And we expect to provide all of them with a card by August next year. But that’s not just the policy. The policy is to grant the card, we grant the right. But then we have to embrace a policy of generating employment and guaranteeing minimum coverage of health services, among others. So that’s one hand of the migration situation that we regularly have to have.

The other thing is what’s happening on the border with Panama. And this is not new. I’m seeing right now that, yes, it has (heat ?) the media the crisis that we have on the municipality of Necocli, where more than ten thousand migrants have arrived. But it’s very important to say that this is something that we have seen on a regular basis. We have seen migrants coming from the Caribbean. We have seen migrants coming from Cuba, from Haiti on a regular basis. And what is also most worrying is that sometimes we have seen migrants that have come from Africa. So they come from Africa, they settle on the border with Panama, and they try to access Panama through nonlegal routes. And definitely we have to embrace this because this is more than a refugee crisis. Sometimes it has to do with the human trafficking.

So this is something that we should embrace regionally. It’s not just what Colombia can do; it’s what we all have to do. And definitely we have to put more controls. We have to be able to cooperate strongly with Panama and other countries. But people that access this border, they don’t stay in Panama. They want to keep moving north. And they end up getting close to the United States south border. And that also implies that it is a regional situation.

Now, how can we prevent this? Definitely we have to do a lot in intercepting the ships that are bringing people from other parts of the world and that are actively participants in human trafficking. We have to denounce, we have to act. But in another—on the other hand, what we have to do in some other countries is generate opportunities. And definitely what we have seen in the case of Haiti—and this is something that has happened over the last decade after the earthquake—is that we need to generate sustainable opportunities. The United States made a big investment with the Caracol Industrial Park. The IDB was an active participant there. A lot of foreign investment was promoted. But definitely I think the levels of human capital ought to be increased.

And that’s not just the case in Haiti. We have other cases in Latin America. So I consider that the best way to put an end to that pressure in the U.S. south border also has to do with the opportunity that near-shoring brings. If we have more near-shoring in the Americas, if we have more investment—taking into account that the U.S. is the largest market that we have in the hemisphere—it is much wiser to have investment in our countries that can generate employment and that can in some sort of ways deter the pressure of trying to move to the southern border, and into United States, putting in jeopardy the lives of many people who are trying just to get in, putting their lives in danger.

So I consider those types of policies have to be embraced. Colombia wants to be a very important player in the near-shoring spectrum. But definitely we need to work much closer, not only to interdict, intercept, and prevent those ships to arrive on our soil, but also to put more migration controls hand-in-hand with Panama on that border.

STAVRIDIS: Mr. President, I believe that mirrors the approach that we see from the Biden administration, this idea that we have to address this regionally. How do you feel the OAS, Organization of American States, is helping in this effort, in terms of regional work?

DUQUE: I have been an admirer of the work that Secretary General Almagro has been doing. That’s why we promoted his candidacy for reelection in the OAS. We believe he has a strong leadership. And I have to say, the years that I have seen the OAS acting, this is the first time that I see a most vocal OAS when it comes to denounce the attacks on democracy. I think what we have seen in the OAS protecting democracy in Venezuela and putting pressure so that there is really the path of having free elections as something that has to be valued. I also believe that with Secretary Almagro, there have been very many policies that we are trying to embrace on a regional level.

One has to do with the regional declaration on the private sector promotion and protection—something that we started almost two years and a half ago, and that we hope it would come into not only a resolution, but into a regional agreement. And it’s just to say that the best way to close the social gaps is through entrepreneurship, investment, and private sector development. And that’s having the liberty of markets, obviously, with some sort of conscious capitalism where people that have their corporations and people who are entrepreneurs can also believe that they can do good by doing well and trying to have a more positive impact in the areas where they work.

Now, it is also important to highlight that the OAS has created an atmosphere of debate of how can we do something much stronger when it comes to regional human trafficking? I think that’s important, but definitely it has to do with migration control. And migration control is not just to deal with the problem where you have the problem, but it’s also to prevent the problem to become a bigger one. And what we are seeing, the human trafficking from Africa, or human trafficking from Haiti, or from Cuba, or from other places is happening, I think we can do something at the preliminary line trying to interdict, trying to prevent. Because otherwise what we will continue seeing is that they could arrive to Colombia, they could arrive to Honduras, they could arrive to Guatemala. And this is going to generate a permanent pressure on the U.S. southern border.

And especially considering that we’re living in a COVID era, where COVID is not over and COVID has created such a social, economic impact with a negative matter in many countries, well that’s going to generate additional pressure because the world biggest economy is the United States. And you will see more migrants trying to get to the southern border in order to pass. And why do they want to pass? Because they want to multiply themselves by the exchange rate, so they can send more money to their houses for remittances. So I think we have to prevent, but at the same time we need to create the Latin America dynamic labor force. And that can happen if there is a clear and an accelerating process of near-shoring.

STAVRIDIS: Thank you, Mr. President. Very clear. Let me—let me move a little bit to your borders to the east and ask you to speak a bit about Venezuela. You mentioned the immense humanitarian crisis brought about by reaction to the dictatorship there. Obviously, tensions have been extant on this border for decades. What’s your current assessment of the relationship between Bogota and Caracas?

DUQUE: Let me divide the concept of relationship in two. First of all, the relationship with our Venezuelan brothers and sisters. As Brookings Institution wrote maybe a year ago, when we were moving forward with the TPS, they basically said that the gesture that Colombia showed to the world is maybe the most important humanitarian gesture that has been seen in the last fifty years around the globe. And we’re talking about giving temporary protection status to one-point-eight million migrants. That’s something that it’s really a reference point. We’re not a rich country, and we have embraced that fraternal policy because we consider this is the right way to do, the right way to go. And obviously we need to do much more in order to make this an opportunity.

The United States, for example, has a long tradition in the last one hundred years on how migration can contribute to development. There have been many migrants in the United States that came in moments of distress and around the world, and they generated transformations in science, and entrepreneurship, in literature, in medicine—you name it. And so we have to be able to transform this migration dynamic into something that contributes to our economic growth and our social transformation. But we can only do that if we generate opportunities. And definitely the humanitarian and migration crisis that we see in Venezuela—(inaudible)—is-it’s really affecting the whole hemisphere.

We’re talking about people that have come lacking every minimum service. And, yes, we are spending around $1 billion year over year to attend this crisis. Now, when it comes to the international community and the contribution that they are making, what’s really worrying is that, yes, we have a lot of pledges, but not a lot of disbursements. And when we compare what we have received from migrants compared to other crises of a similar magnitude around the world, it’s really a major gap what we can observe. We look at what has happened in Syria, the amount of money per migrant has been around $3,000 per migrant that has been contributed by the international community. When it comes to the situation in South Sudan, when you evaluate how much money has been given per migrant, it’s around $1,600. And in our case, we haven’t even gotten to $300 per migrant.

So we have been paying most of the resources. And it’s not that we’re begging for this. It’s something that we should all address. And we’re taking the biggest fiscal burden. So have done it, and I think we’re turning this into an opportunity. But definitely if there’s not a recovery in Venezuela, if there’s not a path to democracy, this crisis is going to grow day over day, and it’s going to become unmanageable for all of our countries. So this is something that has to be addressed fast.

Now, when it comes about—the discussion about the regime in Venezuela, well, the regime in Venezuela is a dictatorship. And, obviously, they started as a democracy, and then, as I have called it, a dictocracy. And now it has become into a brutal dictatorship that has destroyed liberties, that has destroyed the independence of powers, that has destroyed free press, and is leaving the people in hunger. And that’s why the migration crisis has become such a big problem in the hemisphere.

Now, we have denounced Nicolas Maduro before the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity. It’s something that I have said. We had a terrorist attack that took place in Cucuta a month ago where a car bomb was put in a military compound where we have seen with, based on the evidence, that the people who put that car bomb in the brigade, they not only wanted to kill Colombian soldiers, but they wanted to kill United States soldiers and United States citizens. Where was that plot conceived? In Venezuela. Who are the ones behind this? The FARC dissidents.

So that’s why we have said that we will continue denouncing this and maybe, in a respectful way, we have said that maybe the United States should consider to declare the Venezuelan regime as a sponsor of terrorism. It’s a clear violation of Resolution 1373 that was issued in September 2001 after the horrible September 11 attacks. And it is a way to say that countries cannot provide safe haven or protection to terrorist groups. So I think this is something that has to be denounced because that’s part of the congruence and the coherence that we have to keep, not only to protect the democratic charter in the Americas, but also to highlight that no country in the world can continue providing safe haven to terrorist organizations that are attempting against many countries.

So I would make that division. Say that we want to protect our brothers and sisters, but we definitely need to keep our voice loud enough to denounce the linkages between the Maduro regime and the narco-terrorist organizations around the hemisphere.

STAVRIDIS: And I think this is similar—harkening back to my days as supreme allied commander of NATO—the way the Europeans look at Belarus, and the distinction between Lukashenko, the so-called last dictator of Europe, and the people of Belarus, who deserve a better future. And that certainly is the case in Venezuela, Mr. President. I was also struck by your use of numbers and detail in terms of payment per refugee. I, for one, was unaware of that disparity. And it is a very stark one, as you outline it. So thank you for sharing that with us.

During my time as commander of U.S. Southern Command, in addition to working very closely with your military—General Freddy Padilla, Admiral Barrera, other terrific military officers who helped in the fight against the FARC, we also spent a fair amount of time contending with narcotics in the region. You and I both know there’s no silver bullet to deal with narcotics. You have to address it at the supply. You have to address the transit. You have to, above all, in my view, address the market here in the United States—the demand side of the equation. But, Mr. President, can you talk a little bit about how you see narcotics as woven through some of these other challenges we’ve discussed? And then perhaps a word about how it goes today in your country.

DUQUE: Well, thank you so much, Admiral, for that question. Actually, this year the world is commemorating fifty years of the Global Convention Against Drugs. That convention was signed in 1971. And as you know, those days President Nixon was very vocal and was a promoter of that charter. And the United Nations was also very active. And I think it has been the world’s, you know, biggest treaty in terms of country participation dealing with a major threat. Now, what’s worrying is that fifty years down the road we still are struggling with the same situation. Now, it’s always important to put in context the counterfactual, because there are many people that have said, well, that fight against drugs has been a mistake, and nothing has been achieved.

I don’t see that clear enough. And I believe that if we look at the counterfactual, what will be interesting to evaluate is what would have happened to the world if the convention would have never taken place? And what would have happened if we had never decided to have a global action? I think we would have been a most complex situation, definitely. But that doesn’t mean that we—that we don’t have to think outside the box, out of the box, and try to identify what can we do that is more efficient? And in the case of Colombia, Admiral, as you know, Plan Colombia was very important. The support of the United States was very important. And in 2000, we had around 188,000 hectares of coca crops. And by the year 2014, we were below fifty thousand hectares.

And plus, we were very effective attacking terrorist organizations. And Colombia had a transformation that has made the country evolve into a sustainable economy that is now a member of the OECD. Nevertheless, since 2014 when aerial spraying was stopped, and that’s not just saying—because I don’t think aerial spraying is a silver bullet, but it was a very important instrument. Since 2014 until the day I assumed office, we saw a spike that was very exponential. We passed from less than fifty thousand hectares to more than two hundred thousand hectares. And we have been not only trying put an end to that expansion growth, but also bring the numbers down. We actually last year conceived the biggest interdiction in our history, with more than five hundred tons of cocaine that was interdicted. We have the largest destruction of coca production in labs, and we also move forward with 130,000 hectares that were manually eradicated.

So I think, yes, the numbers that we have conceived are important, but this is a day-to-day matter. And what I should say also, in a respectful way, is that this is a dual responsibility. Not only countries like ours that are producers but also consumers, but also the largest markets of consuming need to do much more. And definitely maybe the numbers that we have seen due to the pandemic have demonstrated that. In 2020 the consumption of drugs in the United States had a big spike—had a big spike. And definitely we have to do a lot more interdicting in the streets of the United States, but also I believe that this is a great opportunity to put in place very important campaigns. I still remember, for example, Nancy Reagan at the time, she launched that great campaign that was called say no to drugs, that was very efficient to deal with the crack pandemic that happened—or epidemic—in many cities of the United States.

But also I think we have to do something together, and it’s to de-brand cocaine. And what do I mean by that? There are many people that are consumers of cocaine in countries like the United States. And they don’t know that every gram of cocaine they’re consuming is destroying the jungle, it’s killing people, it’s generating corruption. So it’s incoherent, but some of them are the same ones who are going to the street protesting against those things, that are protesting in favor of the environment, that are protesting in favor of social inclusion, and also protesting because they feel the world has to be equitable. Well, if you really want to do that you have to be aware that if you consume cocaine, what you’re actually doing is you’re erasing with your arm what you have just expressed. And it is because cocaine is a business that destroys the environment.

People don’t regularly know that to plant one hectare of coca, almost three hectares of tropical jungle are destroyed. People are not regularly aware of all the chemicals that are used to produce cocaine that are thrown in the rivers are or are thrown in the jungles. And people don’t regularly know that people are consuming gasoline and other type of chemicals that can destroy absolutely your nervous system. So I think we have to be tough on the cartels. We have to be tough in reducing the coca crops area. We have to be tough on interdiction. But at the same time, I think we have to be very convincing in the consumption markets of what are the implications of consuming cocaine. And at the same time, we have to do much more interdicting the trafficking in the streets of the largest consuming markets around the world.

STAVRIDIS: Yeah, I could not agree with you more, and often made that point as commander of U.S. Southern Command. And, by the way, while we’re on the subject of interdiction, just a shoutout to the Colombian Navy, which has done such remarkable work in the interdiction side, working with the Joint Interagency Taskforce South in Key West, Florida, which was under my command. Colombia’s navy is so professional, so capable.

Mr. President, my time as questioner if almost up. But I wanted to do one quick follow on with you on the narcotics question, which is simply to ask you your thoughts on legalization. Here in the United States, as you know, there’s a very strong movement—I think an inevitable one—to legalize marijuana nationally. Many states have done so already. Most Americans don’t realize that marijuana is the largest cash crop in the United States. And so that is certainly a trend. Curious your views on marijuana. And then I think a more difficult question, legalization of coca, cocaine, et cetera.

DUQUE: I think that’s a great question, admiral. And again, we have to look at that discussion in a broader way because definitely I think the world has been evolving on medical use of cannabis. And actually, Colombia is now undertaking a policy for that medical use. We have now become exporters of products derived from cannabis. And we have done it with serious pharmaceutical processing, with great tracking. And we are now seeing that market evolve. But actually, I signed a decree—I signed a decree last week where it’s not just going to be pharmaceutical development, where we’re going to have research and development on food, industry, also cosmetics, and also other industrial uses. I think that’s very important.

But we have not gotten yet to the recreational use. Recreational use around the world, we have some states in the United States, we have countries in South America, also countries in Europe. And I still believe we’re pretty much far away of having a world recreational use, and especially because once you have the recreational use all over the—all over the world, you’re not going to be able to track who are the real responsible producers. And then the decision will be, OK, let’s tax it. So let’s tax it because if it generates a negative effect on society, if we tax it we collect the money that can be invested in the medical services. Well, once those things happen, and the taxation becomes too high, you’re really creating also an underground market. And so we’ll be back again in the same situation.

So I think that discussion has to be taken with—considering all the elements, and not just making this an ideological debate. I remember the times of Milton Friedman, when the right to choose was part of the discussion. He raised very important economic arguments. But I think we have to consider this not only in the economic side, we have to consider this the social side. And we have to consider this in the medical side, because in developing countries if a high-income family has someone that’s gotten into drug addiction, they might have the resources to pay for the treatment. But if that tragedy comes to a low-income family, it destroys completely the family. And the cost of the health services is not—it has never been calculated in a responsible and analytical way.

So I think those elements have to be put in place. And when it comes to cocaine, how could you legalize cocaine, sometimes I’m asking myself when I see the discussion. Cocaine destroys the nervous system. You don’t want to have people driving cars consuming cocaine. You don’t want to have people buying guns consuming cocaine. You don’t want to have people in highways walking around consuming cocaine. Those kind of elements in terms of the effects that hard drugs can have on society also have to be considered, because they can become an epidemic. And we have to believe that the prohibition can also be connected to more policies that embrace the issue of drug addiction through health policy.

But when it comes to the illegal chain, I think we haven’t been still creative enough to see how can we have a more strong effect? And something that I should mention, which is also interesting, is that maybe we should do more research and development to identify alternative uses of coca, as we have done with cannabis. Cannabis has demonstrated that the pharmaceutical use is an opportunity. I think we should also try to do the same with coca, because sometimes we think: How much are we spending day over day, year over year, in eradicating a plant? And how much that plant is generating deaths and corruption around the world?

I think if we identify alternative uses, and if he has medical, for example, alternative uses, that can even create a bigger amount of income, well, that can be a way to destroy the negative use or the criminal use. And I think those elements have to be open in a broader spectrum in the debate around the table, and maybe should be part of the reflection of fifty years after the World Convention Against Drugs.

STAVRIDIS: Indeed. And I suspect that this particular conversation about legalization will continue. And to pick up a theme you raised earlier, I think this is an area that is ripe for private-public cooperation, as we have seen in other areas. And indeed, the cannabis industry has arrived in the United States. And it makes sense, the way you just outlined it. So I think we’ll put that one down as an ongoing conversation.

Mr. President, we have some wonderful experts on your country and on the region who are part of this call. And I would like to now open it up. I know there’ll be questions about how the peace process is going, what’s happening with the FARC, what’s happening with the criminal gangs, protests. There’s much more to explore. But let me go ahead and open it up. Laura, and if you could bring the first questioner up, that would be terrific.

OPERATOR: Thank you, gentlemen.

(Gives queuing instructions.)

We’ll take the first question from Mark Hetfield.

Q: Mr. President, in addition to being a Hoya, like yourself, I’m the president of HIAS, which is the Jewish Community’s refugee agency. And we work closely with the national and local governments in Bogota and Barranquilla. And I wanted to, first of all, thank you for the act of true political courage and doing the right thing by granting temporary protection status to the Venezuelan asylum seekers and migrants in Colombia. I wanted to ask two related questions for you to go a little bit deeper on that. One is if you could address what the government strategy is to address growing xenophobia in Colombia, which is a natural outgrowth of the phenomenon that you’re experiencing. And the second is, if you could say a few words on the strategy to give internally displaced persons in rural areas access to livelihoods. Thank you.

DUQUE: Thank you. If I may suggest, Admiral, maybe we can take a group of maybe five questions so I can address them all?

STAVRIDIS: I think that’s extremely brave of you. I never take more than three. But, Laura, if you could tee-up, let’s say, three more questions for Señor Presidente, please.

OPERATOR: OK. We’ll take the next question from Patrick Duddy.

Q: Good morning, Mr. President. Good morning, Admiral. I’m the former—I’m the former U.S. ambassador to Venezuela.

I was wondering, Mr. President, very specifically what you would like to see the United States do beyond declaring Venezuela a state sponsor of terror? And as a footnote to that question, I would remind you that the U.S. has applied a fairly wide range of sanctions to Venezuela already and, at least to date, they have had little effect in terms of the restoration of democracy in the country.

DUQUE: Thank you.

STAVRIDIS: Thanks, Ambassador. Laura, you have another one for us?

OPERATOR: Sure. We’ll take a third question from Sarah Heck.

Q: Hi, Mr. President. My name is Sarah Heck and I work at Stripe, a payments company out of the Bay Area.

We have been very encouraged by your work on economic growth and digital opportunity, particularly for small and medium enterprises in Colombia. (Coughs.) Excuse me. Including some recent changes that you all have made in Colombia around regulation for fintech. And I was wondering, as you think about your role as the chair of the Pacific alliance, and harmonization of regulation in the region—particularly after COVID, for businesses small and large that are trying to flourish and invest in the region—how might you think about regional harmonization of regulation?

DUQUE: Thank you. So let me—let me take those three questions rapidly. Let me begin with the question that Mark made. How is it that we’re fighting the xenophobic sentiments? Sometime that I have to say is that the Colombian constitution has been a constitution that has given a clear message of protection of migrants. We’re now celebrating thirty years of our constitution. And the Article 100 of the constitution says that foreigners will have the same rights as Colombians on Colombian soil. It’s not easy to find a constitution that can say something like that so clear.

And in 1994, for example, there was a treaty that was signed by Colombia to grant labor protection to foreigners on our soil. So this has been an evolution. And since I ran for the presidency, I said that considering the magnitude of this crisis, I also reflected that for many decades in the twentieth century many Colombians went to Venezuela in times of despair in our country to seek opportunities. And they were received with open arms. It is also a way for us to demonstrate that we should give back to our brothers and sisters. When we launched the program to, first of all, grant the citizenship to children that were in the risk of—(inaudible)—and we granted that three years ago, the response by the Colombian people was very positive.

Then when we launched a policy to protect the migrants, the response was so positive. And when we declared early this year the temporary protection status to one-point-eight million migrants, the response from governors and mayors and civil society was very positive. So I think that’s a demonstration that we know that at this moment fraternity is the best way to fight xenophobic sentiment. Now, it’s also important to say that the TPS also creates an environment so that there is not an unfair competition. Because if we didn’t have the status, what was happening in the streets of Colombia is that many migrants were hired, and they were paid under the table less than a Colombian worker. And that generates unfairness, and that does generate xenophobic sentiments.

So we have leveled the ground with the TPS. And that leveling of the ground is what has to produce opportunities. And that’s why we have created elements of regulation to create new jobs in Colombia. That is very important. And the other thing that is important is to be in the bordering areas where the big challenges are. That’s Cucuta. That’s Puerto Carreño. That’s La Guajira. And we have called the international community and international donor community to support us there. I think that has been working.

Now, on the refugee side, on people that have been displaced, displaced by violence has been a major element in our society over the last three decades. And what is interesting is that we have been hitting hard all the criminal structures of Clan Del Golfo, ELN, FARC dissidents. And maybe we hear a lot of noise, but when we look at the data and the evidence, last year we had the lowest homicide rate in forty-six years. In 2019, we had the third-lowest homicide rate in forty years. And we suspect his year to continue that path. We also have to say that when we look, for example, at a crime that’s kidnapping, that was years ago one of the—of the triggers of mobilizing people around the country as refugees, well, we reached last year the lowest kidnapping rate since we have those statistics more than forty years ago. And can we say this is victory? No, because we still have to do much more. But those elements are important.

Now, when it comes to attend the victims, my administration has granted the highest amount of resources for victim reparation. And we’re opening programs where we have a differentiation to grant opportunities for people that have been victims of violence. We have done it, for example, in low-income housing. And last year, during the pandemic, in the midst of the pandemic, we had the highest sales of low-income housing in Colombian history, because we have been using elements as subsidies in a bright way and we have opened those opportunities for people that have been affected by violence. So I think that that, Mark, I will respond to your questions.

Now, Patrick asked me about why do I think that Venezuela should be declared a state sponsor of terrorism. I think the dictatorship—I think the regime has definitely to be declared a state sponsor of terror because they are sponsors of terror. I mean, this year we’re going to have in our memory twenty years since September 11th. Twenty years. And when we recall how the Taliban regime protected al-Qaida members in Afghani soil, well, the same thing is happening in Venezuela. Maduro and their regime has Pablito, leader of ELN, Antonio Garcia, leader of ELN, it has Ivan Marquez, a dissident from FARC, El Paisa, a dissident from FARC. They have also João Mechas, who’s a dissident from FARC, who plotted the car bomb in Cucuta that fortunately didn’t become into a major tragedy. And it was aimed not only to kill Colombians, but to kill U.S. citizens. So if you evaluate the essence of Resolution 1373 that came out of the U.N. Security Council twenty years ago, well, it is evident that what’s taking place in Venezuela, it’s a violation of that resolution. That’s why I consider they should declared.

Now, is that declaration a silver bullet? No, it is not, because I think we have to concentrate in how do we build a path to democracy and the path to economic and social reconstruction. And that also has to do with what the Venezuelans can do. And that’s why the democratic resistance is approaching the regime, trying to build a roadmap so that here can be a recovery of democracy. Is that going to work? We don’t know, because what we have seen over the years is that every single time there is a negotiation, the regime wants to become stronger. They want to win time. They want to put more pressure. And maybe what we have seen is not a substantial result. Can this time be different? Maybe yes. How can it be different? Maybe with international pressure.

And that’s why Colombia has expressed to the United States that we want to be part of the solution, and not part of the problem. That we want to work hand-in-hand with the United States, as we have done it over the last five years. Because the Lima Group was created with the participation of the United States, Colombia, and other countries. We acted multilaterally. We acted multilaterally at the OAS. We acted multilaterally at the Lima Group. We acted multilaterally at the IDB. So can we do something multilateral? Yes. And we will be working hand-in-hand with the United States. But there has to be a strong pressure so that there are free elections with all full guarantees, so that people can really experience that whatever they decide is going to be respected by the regime, and that there can be a new tomorrow.

And, Sarah, thank you for your question. And I’m very happy because I remember that in 2019 we had a visit to Silicon Valley. We were able to have dialogues with the big tech companies from the United States. We had a great conversation with the people from the World Economic Forum in San Francisco, and the Fourth Industrial Revolution Center. We also had a great conversation with Andy Jassy from Amazon, with Satya Nadella from Microsoft. And what happened since that visit is that most of the big tech companies of the United States have increased the investment in Colombia. And something that was – that was asked by them is: We want to be there. We know that you have the interest of making Colombia a Silicon Valley in Latin America. But we need to have more programmers.

And we launched in the midst of the pandemic a program to train one hundred thousand programmers. As of today, we have 52,000 persons that are being trained as programmers, and we will have fifty thousand more in the next semester. We have done this with universities. We have done this through virtual education. And this is going to be a revolution, because most of their skills are going to be used to make Colombia a place for app development and to have fintech, govtech, edtech, you name it. And using, for example, the fourth industrial revolution—especially AI and IoT—as instruments that are going to be connected with the increasing of coverage of 4G networks, and the transition to 5G networks that should start by the end of this year.

And last but not least, and you mentioned fintech, last year we decided to put in place nonconditional cash transfers to the families that were more affected by the pandemic. That means that we had to send the resources to almost four million families. And we did that through fintech. So we made the largest expansion of financial inclusion in a Latin American country in 2020. We ranked number one in 2019 by the IDB. And I believe now, seeing Nubank, Lulo Bank, and new opportunities in virtual banking that Colombia is going to be a disruptive market. And we will have new generations of Colombians using these kind of services through virtual technologies.

So we are now in Congress working on a dynamic transformation of the financial markets in order to connect that to the new technologies. And I think this is going to make Colombia the number-one market for fintech in Latin America. I think we are already in that position, but we want to consolidate this for the years to come. So it has happened because we have approached regulation, but also because we have promoted entrepreneurship. And I think we have created an environment so that companies can be founded, can grow, and can grow at three-digit levels, becoming unicorns, as is called in the world of entrepreneurs.

STAVRIDIS: Let me just, in my role as vice chairman global affairs at the Carlyle Group, simply underline what the president has said. And the potential in Colombia is something we’re well-aware of and are invested in Colombia, as well, as the president knows well.

I think, Mr. President, we have time for perhaps two more questions. So why don’t we see how they go? Laura, let’s tee-up two questions for the president, please.

OPERATOR: Great. The first question will come from Mark Rosen. As a reminder, please state your affiliation before asking a question.

Q: Good morning, Mr. President. Good morning, Admiral.

I was the recent—or, recently the United States Executive Director at the International Monetary Fund. And before that, I spent thirty years as an investment banker, bringing capital to Latin American and particularly to the Andean region. And today I think investors look at the Andean region, which has been seen for many decades as a very attractive place to invest, with some concern.

As you know, yesterday President Castillo was inaugurated as president of Peru, representing a Marxist-Leninist Party, even though he has said he is not a Marxist-Leninist and hopefully will govern from the center. In Chile, the leading candidate is Mr. Boric. The communist candidate, Communist Party candidate was defeated in the primary recently, as you know. But he is certainly, you know, to the—to the—not necessarily pro-business, I would say. And in your country the leading candidate next year is Senator Petro or Mr. Petro. Again, there is some concern about his—about his positions from a perspective of foreign investors and investors generally.

So I wanted to ask you, where does the Andean region go if, at this time next year, we have a President Castillo, a President Boric, and a President Petro in the Andean region? What do you say to investors? Are they going to govern from the center? Have they looked at Colombia? Have they looked at Venezuela and Colombia and recognized what went wrong there, and that they will not follow those kinds of policies?

STAVRIDIS: Thank you, Mark.

Q: Or should we be concerned?

STAVRIDIS: Thank you, Mark. OK, and I think we have time to, very quickly, Laura. Whoever the next questioner is, please be concise.

OPERATOR: Great. We’ll take the last question from Sarah Leah Whitson.

Q: Hi, Mr. President. My name is Sarah Leah Whitson, from Democracy for the Arab World Now.

I know typically you in your position as president receive lots of advice from the United States, but I wondered if you could offer us some advice—offer some advice to the Biden administration? And it really ties into your remarks about sanctions on Venezuela for terrorism. Of course, there are sanctions on Cuba. There’s been a new condemnation by the State Department on Cuba for attacks on protesters. And these policies are quite in contrast to America’s role in the Middle East, where four ceasefire resolutions were balked as the war by Israel against Gaza continued. Military support for Israel continues. And I know you’ve seen some of the consequences of Israeli abuses, given your role investigating the attack on the flotilla, I believe in 2010—

STAVRIDIS: OK. Thank you very much. We’ll go ahead and let the president answer. We only have four minutes left. Thank you for your question.

DUQUE: Well, Admiral. Mark, on your question, I’m not good at reading the future. I’m good maybe at, you know, interpreting the present and maybe evaluating history. And I can’t give you detailed information about what is going to happen in Peru or in Chile, but I can use the Colombian experience. Colombia has been a country that has always rejected populism, demagoguery, and people who want to build their electoral success based on generating chaos. That has been a tradition. And actually, in 2018 I won the election by a landslide. I won the election with a difference of two million votes with a centrist policy. And as General Stavridis mentioned at the beginning of this conversation, we launched a book called The Future Is in The Center. We have to have a balance in modern democracies.

And, yes, we have to promote entrepreneurship and we have to defend market economy. But at the same time, we need to do a very permanent work on closing the social gaps. And I think from our experience in Colombia, we have been able to do that. And I think when people reflect on what has been the legacy of twenty-first century socialism in Venezuela, it has been tragedy. They destroyed one of the richest countries in Latin America. So if people really want to generate opportunities, and if people really want to close the social gaps, there is no way that can happen if you don’t have private sector development, if you don’t have entrepreneurship, and if you don’t have a market economy.

So whomever wants to promote wealth by destroying the market economy, it’s just a demagogue. It’s just a populism. And basing it—what you’re doing is bringing a fracture in society. And I think Colombia has demonstrated—and I can say also in my administration, we, for example, have reached free university—public university education for the poorest of the poor and the middle class. And we have done that with fiscal responsibility. We have been, for example, granting subsidy of 50—to 50 percent of the payroll for more than four million workers that are former workers of the sectors that have been badly affected by the pandemic. But we have done it in a responsible way. We have been able to give back to two million families the VAT tax, so that they don’t have to pay that tax, and it fixes a regression that that tax has as its conception. We have been able also to have the largest expansion of tertiary roads investment, and in education and health care, to duplicate our ICUs. But we have done that in a market economy and protected fiscal prudence.

So I think that has to be on the table. I consider—and I said that yesterday in Peru—I respect the decision of the Peruvian people. But if there’s a constitutional reform that wants to be billed as part of an ideological confrontation, that is not going to be successful, because the constitutions cannot be ideologically ways of defeating the rest of society. A constitution cannot be from the right or from the left. It has to be an instrument to unite society into principles and objectives that ought to be achieved by everyone. So I said there is a path to have a constitutional reform. My suggestion, from the Colombian experience, is that it has to be based on a general societal consensus.

And particularly in the case of Chile, I think Chile has made very important social transformations, because the way they have managed responsibly their fiscal policy, their social policy, and they have very important indicators that are aligned with achieving the sustainable development objectives to 2030. So that has to be considered by all of us. And I think the best way to defeat demagoguery is with pedagogy. That’s why I say that the debate in Latin America is between demagogues and pedagogues. The demagogues offer bread for today, but they’re really selling hunger for the next day. While the pedagogues have to demonstrate that there’s no way to reach success without sacrifice, and that that sacrifice implies fiscal prudence, and defending in an open way a free market economy. Obviously, with the idea of having conscious capitalism when it comes to produce social results.

And, Sarah, I’m not good at giving advices to other countries, because I have to be respectful. But I can say something, and I really want to express this from the bottom my heart. We are very thankful with the Biden administration for the support they have been giving to Colombia. They have—they are giving us more than five million vaccines in the last month and have been helping us to achieve the targets that we have defined in order to reach herd immunity in the country. We’re very happy to have also the Biden administration supporting us in the fight against terrorism. And we are also very happy to see the Biden administration working hand-in-hand with us on reaching important results in the fight against climate change.

We had our team that responds directly to me in London this week with Secretary Kerry thinking on how is it that we’re going to get to Glasgow and move forward the agenda to reduce by 51 percent our carbon emissions by 2030, and how we said that we’re going to reach carbon neutrality by 2050. So I see the administration working very close with allies around the world. Definitely the administration is in the first year but I think they have demonstrated that they are dynamic, and that they want to protect their partners, that they want to work with their allies. So we feel very proud about that. And what we are going to say openly and with enthusiasm is that next year we’ll be celebrating 200 years of bilateral relationship with the United States.

And the most important treasure that we have is that that relationship has been bipartisan and bicameral, and we have been seeing this relationship evolve—notwithstanding whether government is Democrat or Republican. Every administration is bringing the relationship to the next level. And I hope that the celebration of the 200 years of bilateral relationship between the United States and Colombia is going to open the ground for us to build a ten-year plan so that trade, security, investment, climate change, creative economy, among many other topics, is going to help us strengthen the relationship that has been built based on values and common objectives.

STAVRIDIS: Mr. President, I think we’re going to need to leave it there. I can’t think of a better way to conclude. You are very polite and respectful about offering advice, but I, for one, as an American, draw the title of your book, The Future Is in The Center. And I hope my nation can find a way to kind of bridge the very difficult political divides we face. This has been an hour filled with wisdom and good thoughts. We thank you deeply from the Council on Foreign Relations.

Señor El Presidente, muchimas gracias por su presencia aquí.

(Speaks in Spanish.)

DUQUE: Thank you, Admiral. And it has been an honor to share this opportunity with you. We know how much we admire you, how much we value all you did for our country, and we also know how much you’ve done also for the world peace. Your time as NATO commander was a very important time for the world, and we look forward to having you in Colombia anytime soon. All the best to you, and all the best to all the team of the Council on Foreign Relations. And thank you for all the people that have participated and asked so many interesting questions. Thanks a lot and have a great day.

STAVRIDIS: Thanks, everybody.


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