Articles - August 2018

A Time of Reckoning in Colombia

It's one thing to sign a peace agreement; it's another to implement it
A conversation with Ambassador Camilo Reyes Rodriguez
By Roland Flamini

Ambassador Reyes argues that Colombia’s counter-narcotics effort requires international support because Colombian coca growers are fulfilling a demand from the United States, Europe and elsewhere. He also points out that the global increase in cheaper synthetic drugs, easier to produce, is already undercutting the cocaine market, and will continue to do so.
Ambassador Reyes was called out of retirement to take over the Washington embassy two years ago. Following a distinguished diplomatic career that included one period as foreign minister and two as deputy foreign minister, he spent eight years as head of the Colombian-American Chamber of Commerce. He talked to Diplomatic Connections this summer as his D.C. posting was drawing to a conclusion.

Diplomatic Connections:  Why were you were brought out of retirement to take over the Washington embassy?

Ambassador Reyes:  I was a career diplomat for 35 years, and I retired in 2008. Then I was head of the Colombian-American Chamber of Commerce, in the private sector for eight years, and after all that President Santos asked me to take over as ambassador in Washington. I think the most important reason for sending me here was that I had been so much involved with Colombian and American enterprises generating investment and trade between the two countries.

Diplomatic Connections:  So that was one of your priorities as ambassador in Washington, what were some of the others?

Ambassador Reyes:  Well, my first priority was to ensure the continuation of United States support for the peace process. But another important mission was the strengthening and further development of the bi-lateral trade and investment relationship – getting in touch with American enterprises, establishing a good relationship, and inviting them to Colombia. We already have a large number of American companies operating in Colombia; they have done good business and they have been successful – and persistent, because we’ve had difficult times. But the fact is that Colombia has gained stability. Then I worked with the United States in confronting the difficulties in the region – Venezuela and Central America, the whole triangle, Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, and Nicaragua. And, of course, the level of cooperation between Colombia and the United States in the fight against drugs. Unfortunately, we have seen an increase in drug production. Overall, I would say that we have managed to build a high level dialogue and cooperation regarding strategic objectives and the work of sustaining peace and we’ve agreed that we will keep that level of cooperation for the next five years.

Diplomatic Connections:  Is there a permanent mechanism in place that looks after this arrangement?

Ambassador Reyes:  There are many mechanisms to keep it going – mechanisms between the Colombians and different government departments in the United States. There’s an education area, there’s an environment negotiation and preservation mechanism; there’s another area of cooperation dealing with security and specifically with development in areas that were affected by the conflict in Colombia. It’s an interesting process that has been advancing for already seven years.

Diplomatic Connections:  So Peace Colombia, the U.S. economic program ($450 million) to help advance the peace process - and a successor to the anti-drug program Plan Colombia - is continuing...

Ambassador Reyes:  It is being sustained. In 2017, the United States decided to support all the programs with $391 million. The same amount was approved in 2018, and I’m happy to mention we’ve heard that at least the first indications for the coming year are very positive in respect of that kind of continued American support. So we have the political support, and the financial support - and we worked hard to get them both.

Diplomatic Connections:  Do you think Washington is obsessed with Colombia’s narcotics problem?

Ambassador Reyes:  I wouldn’t say that it is obsessed. I think it is concerned, worried, but we have managed through a lot of work and a great deal of exchange to build a common view on the way in which we are now operating. Colombia is doing an enormous effort which is reflected in a strategy that has three elements – forced eradication, crop substitution, and interdiction. In a few more months we will start to see very interesting results in the reduction of the area of production.

Diplomatic Connections:  At the moment, as you yourself just pointed out, the area of coca production is increasing. It’s now 200,000 hectares of coca, and that’s an increase from the 130,000 hectares not so long ago.

Ambassador Reyes:  There’s always a discussion on the amount. The United States says there are 200,000 hectares of coca growing. Why has the coca production increased? First, we had a peso devaluation which meant an increase in the profits of the business; second, there was a reduction of gold prices and many illegal gold miners moved to coca production – from one illegal activity to another illegal activity – and third the government offered coca-dependent peasants help to switch to legal crops, and the result was a surge in coca farming to cash in before the eradication. Colombia’s approach to the drug problem is based on what we call shared responsibility, because it’s not only our responsibility. There’s the demand from the United States.

Diplomatic Connections:  Successive Colombian governments have made that argument that Colombian coca crops meet the demand of U.S. and European markets – although in recent years there’s been an increase in drug use in Colombia itself…

Ambassador Reyes:  Yes, an increase in domestic consumption.

Diplomatic Connections:  Do Colombians believe there is the international will to combat drugs as a global problem?

Ambassador Reyes:  The (international attitude) is changing. It’s taking more time than we would like, but it is happening. The change is for two reasons, the more people are affected by the problem they realize that it is much more a health issue than a security issue, and the approach to this problem should be a different one, but that change takes time. Secondly, in the end it’s the huge increase in the synthetic drug consumption that’s probably going to change reality.

Diplomatic Connections:  In other words, synthetic drugs are taking over the cocaine market.

Ambassador Reyes:  Yes, the opiates and the introduction of drugs like fentanyl that you can make in a small back room.

Diplomatic Connections:  Is the U.S. involvement what Colombia wants, or is it the involvement the U.S. thinks that you should have?

Ambassador Reyes:  We have managed to build a common understanding, starting from different realities. One of the big merits of the whole effort is that we have been able until now to build a common understanding of the best way to confront the problem.

Diplomatic Connections: What does that mean in practice?

Ambassador Reyes:  Our view is that we have made an enormous effort, and many Colombians have been lost; we have suffered an enormous amount of violence because of our drug problem, and why is it that it happens? Because someone paid for it. On the other hand the Americans say, this is reaching our society because someone produces it.  From two very different perceptions in which one could always blame the other, Colombia and the United States managed to build a common view and a common approach in which we work together to reduce and control, and, we hope, one day simply eliminate the problem.

Diplomatic Connections: How much of a challenge is Venezuela to Colombia?

Ambassador Reyes:  It is from very different points of view a huge challenge, we already have many refugees – 800,000 at present - and we really hope the international community increases its efforts to contain a humanitarian crisis which is huge, and then to see which way it can press for a path forward to democratic institutions in Venezuela.

Diplomatic Connections: President Duque campaigned on the promise to advance the peace process, isn’t that correct?

Ambassador Reyes:  The new government has said that they want to change some elements of the agreement. They have said, We will comply, we want to implement it, we will push onward with the agreement. But there are some elements that need to be changed. The challenge now is to see how these changes can take place, while at the same time, preserving the peace process as a whole. So it is not going to be easy, but I think – and this is my own opinion - that Colombia really wants to preserve the peace agreement, and that public opinion wouldn’t back a return to war, and asking the FARC to “go back to the mountains” because the agreement couldn’t be implemented.

Diplomatic Connections: Isn’t one of the issues how to make some insurgents accountable for their past actions?

Ambassador Reyes:  Yes. There are still many challenges, and the first one is to figure out how the justice system is to be applied to people who took part in the conflict, and people who were victims of the conflict. You can pardon the guerillas; you can tell them, you demobilize - which has happened - give in your weapons – which also happened, and in both cases it happened surprisingly successfully - and then you say, now we want you to become members of a functioning society and become citizens. But those of you who committed a certain type of crime will have to somehow pay, and be punished, because there is a part of justice that cannot be avoided. That part of the implementation is extremely touchy and difficult. More so when you think of former rebels participating in politics.

Diplomatic Connections: Indeed: Gustavo Petro, who came second in the election, is himself former leftist guerilla. The fact is that the left, for the first time, did surprisingly well in the presidential elections. How do you explain its success?

Ambassador Reyes:  It’s a trend away from the institutionalized political parties. The traditional (conservative) parties in Colombia are having a difficult time. In the past, the left in Colombia had been “kidnapped” by the left wing guerillas. Once the guerillas were demobilized the whole political scenario changed. The FARC itself got very few votes in the election, but the opportunity of having a legitimate left wing party and a (leftist) political voice was enhanced by the peace process.

Diplomatic Connections: Given your long experience in diplomacy, what advice would you give to a young diplomat coming to Washington?

Ambassador Reyes:  Firstly, (he or she) needs to be aware that both the United States and the international environment are going through a transition, or parallel transitions, which represent new realities and new challenges. This country is going through an important transformation, and an important change in the way the U.S. addresses the international agenda. There is also a change globally, and all this makes the work of a young diplomat much more demanding. It is going to be more difficult to understand what is happening, and it’s going to be more difficult to try to build a strategy for a country, and increasingly demanding to be efficient. There are new actors in the international community. There are very powerful NGOs (non-government organizations), and a very powerful new genre of enterprises. If you think of Google, or Microsoft, or Apple, with larger revenue than the GDP of many countries; Facebook has a stronger political capacity than many countries.

Diplomatic Connections: What changes do you have in mind?

Ambassador Reyes:  I think that there are many new circumstances, but I would mention the Brexit phenomenon. The fact that the successful advancement of the integration process in Europe was suddenly stopped, questioned, and one needs to admit that Europe has entered a crisis with some big risks. When you look at what is happening in Central Europe, and what is happening in Spain, one realizes that this huge effort that went into the building of the European Union has stopped, and is going through a difficult time, which I think will last for some years before it finds a new, stable kind of integration.

Diplomatic Connections: What’s next for you after Washington?

Ambassador Reyes:  I’m looking forward to some rest and may also take time to travel. But I’ve had a strong connection with some universities and teaching is of great interest to me. I hope to share the experiences of my career with young students, and at the same time do some research to try and establish the main elements that today create this very difficult foreign policy environment for Latin America.

Diplomatic Connections: You’re thinking of writing a book.

Ambassador Reyes:  I’m going to try to do just that. It’s not an easy project. Based on my own experience, I want to try to identify the main lessons from 40 years in foreign relations, including my years at the chamber which were very related with foreign trade and investment.

Diplomatic Connections: In your long career, which world leader impressed you most?

Ambassador Reyes:  I was very surprised to see the ability with which the German politicians put together Germany at the end of the Cold War – Chancellor Helmut Kohl, Helmut Schmidt, Willy Brandt. They were not only very courageous. Consider the cost and the political generosity they needed, the enormous amount of money they paid to integrate.

Diplomatic Connections: And in the U.S.?

Ambassador Reyes:  In the U.S., I am very, very much seduced by the personality of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. He had an enormous influence in Latin America. Both elements of politics, The Good Neighbor and The New Deal, somehow were copied in Colombia. On the other hand, I can’t ignore obviously that very bright moment and some very strong elements of John F. Kennedy’s presidency.

Diplomatic Connections bids a fond farewell to Ambassador Reyes.
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