Santos: "The U.S Knows Perfectly That We Have a Plan to Reduce Coca Crops"
Interview with Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos days before the visit of Vicepresident Mike Pence to the country
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Mr. President, what evaluation can you make of your administration after seven years at the head of events in Colombia?
What any leader has to do is look backward and see if he's leaving a better country than he received. I believe that without a doubt, all the indicators show that Colombia is much better today than it was seven years ago.
Of course, much remains for us to do, but I think that we can say that we have the satisfaction of fulfilling our duty because among the priorities in the social area today we are the champions of Latin America in reducing poverty, extreme poverty, creating jobs.
In the economic area, despite the difficulties we've experienced, the petering out of the worst external shock we've had since the period of the Great Depression in the 1930s, we're continuing to grow much above the Latin American average, we're continuing to have a level of investment and we have the highest investment in all of Latin America.
And, of course on the subject of peace, we are leaving for the next government a country with the lowest indices of homicide, of kidnapping, of terrorist attacks, of land piracy, in the last 40 years, and - what is most important - we are leaving a country at peace with the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia guerrillas).
Mr. President, what do you feel remains for you to do in this last year?
I leave with the frustration of not having been able to do many things. For example, in jobs, although we've created more than 3.8 million jobs, unemployment in Colombia remains high, 8.7 percent; that's rather high unemployment.
Regarding infrastructure, we have advanced a great deal, but this country was so far behind that we still have a long way to go.
In the area of education, we've also advanced. We have free education, we're increasing the percentage of high school graduates that go on to higher education from 37 percent to 51 percent, but the 49 percent of the high school graduates who don't proceed to higher education is too high. So there are still frustrations.
In the area of security, there are criminal bands who are doing damage. The ELN (National Liberation Army guerrilla group) is also still around and doing damage. So, as always, we've made progress but there remains much to do.
Do you believe that Colombia can consider itself to be a country at peace today?
A country at peace with the FARC.
We still have problems of insecurity, but we are going to have a great opportunity and it is that we have not reduced our army, our police - quite the opposite, we have strengthened them and now we can use all those resources that were deployed against the FARC so that the groups that are now creating that lack of security remain in a safe place.
The way we're seeing it, and we've looked at it in recent months, it's an increase in the effectiveness of the public forces because now it's concentrated against these groups and was freed up, so to speak, after the peace (pact) was signed with the FARC.
Is it possible to leave the culture of political confrontation behind and what is needed to do that?
I would like to leave the country much less polarized than what it is. I would be delighted to do that. I think the best thing for the country would be for me to reconcile with my predecessor, former President (Alvaro) Uribe. I have tried many times but I have not been able to get a response.
And the pope is coming precisely to take a step - the first step, he calls it - toward reconciliation.
The country needs reconciliation. If we could reconcile with the FARC, how can we not reconcile as Colombians, who unfortunately over 200 years of republican life have had more wars than other Latin American countries? The time has come to change and live in peace and together.
Along those lines, has the Nobel Prize that you received changed in any way your way of looking at politics or exercising power?
Yes, it's helped me a great deal, to be much more tolerant, to be much more understanding, for example, not to treat (the members of) the guerrilla group as enemies but rather as adversaries because "enemy" is a word that denotes someone to be exterminated ... an adversary is someone to be defeated. Those are attitudes that have helped me a great deal in seeing interpersonal relations in a different light.
Mr. President, after a life of public service and eight years in power, it's not easy to return to being a common citizen. What are your plans for when you leave the presidency? Are you going to continue in politics, are you going to remain in Colombia?
Well, the first thing to which I'm totally committed is that I'm not going to bother my successor, I'm not going to put sticks in the wheels and I'm not going to undermine, and I wish him or her the best of successes and if he or she needs me for anything, I will be there. But I'm not going to get involved in politics, I'm going to retire from politics, I'm going to devote myself to academia, to giving conferences, to writing and devoting time to my family - one of the greatest sacrifices is the family in these posts like being president of the republic.
But, are you going to continue and are you going to continue living in Colombia?
I prefer to live in Colombia.
Are you going to create a foundation related to the Nobel, with your work in government?
I'm going to create a foundation to help the victims, to help reconciliation and to be able to share the experiences that we've had here in Colombia with other countries. Perhaps a foundation would help with that and we're creating a foundation.
Mr. President, how to you explain the fact that your party, the Party of the U (Social Party of National Unity), decided not to field a presidential candidate in 2018?
Very simply, there is no person who can have the responsibilities of being a successful candidate at this time. What they decided was to work to have good representation in Congress and, moreover, to influence whoever will be president in the next elections. It's a decision that the party took and it must be respected.
Is it a more of a question of political pragmatism?
Well, I think of political reality.
The visit of the pope, without doubt, is going to be one of the events of this year. What do you expect from it?
The Holy Father has been on our side our from the first day that we informed him of our intention to seek peace. He has been on our side, has urged us on, has supported us, and I have nothing but words of thanks for him. And now, this visit fills us with pride because it's an honor that he's giving Colombia. He's coming only to Colombia, he comes as if to say, 'Colombians, you have taken an important step, now the next one is reconciliation," and I think that he's completely right, and so he couldn't be coming at a more opportune time.
The pope's visit is a pastoral visit, but keeping in mind the situation the country is experiencing, and above all that the ELN at first had a close relationship with Catholic sectors, do you think that that can be a push for those peace talks with them?
Well, let's hope so. Let's hope the ELN understands this and the negotiations with them can advance in a successful process. For the government's part, there's full willingness and we have told them: "Let's take advantage of the pope's visit," and let's hope we can have some good news but it also depends on them.
Would you ask the pope to intervene, along those lines, (and deliver) a message to the ELN directly to get the peace dialogue going in Ecuador?
Well, the Holy Father has always called for peace in Colombia, and not only peace with the FARC. I imagine that he will have something to say about that issue when he comes but the important thing is for that call to be heard by the ELN and for there to be a real advance in the process in which we're involved.
Speaking about the ELN, time is running out for everyone. Do you believe that it's possible to get to a final agreement with them before your mandate ends?
If there's real willingness, yes.
It's known that there is on the government's part, but on their part...
If there were real willingness on their part we would have advanced much more. They have some internal difficulties that are understandable, but I hope that if that willingness really exists, we can move forward quickly.
Mr. President, moving to the issue of Venezuela, on Saturday you said that the "first dictatorial act" was the decision of the Constituent Assembly to fire Attorney General Luisa Ortega. Do you think that President (Nicolas) Maduro, as (US) President (Donald) Trump said, is a "dictator"?
What's happening in Venezuela, unfortunately, is the destruction of democratic institutions. The regime's spokesman himself described the Constituent Assembly as "the constitutional branch that is above all established branches." What are the established branches? The judicial branch, the legislative branch, the executive branch - They're launching an all-powerful authority that has no respect for the separation of powers or for democratic institutions and that is called dictatorship.
Do you think that it's possible to find a way out of the Venezuelan crisis with President Maduro in power?
Hope is the last thing to be lost and I hope that some peaceful solution can be found, negotiated among the parties, because Venezuela deserves a solution that is not violent and we have to insist on that solution by all means and ways possible.
The OAS (Organization of American States) has tried many times to intervene, in the best sense of the word, in Venezuela's crisis and has not succeeded. What do you think the agency might be to help Venezuela? What can the rest of the hemisphere do?
The OAS has not been able to do anything because there is insufficient willingness. Many countries have been discussing the way to help, but to be able to help you need a minimum agreement among the two parties in Venezuela. That is, the government and the opposition. Everything possible has been done to get those two parties to agree to be able to help find that non-violent solution, that hopefully democratic solution, but so far we've failed, but we have to continue insisting because the situation is getting worse and worse.
Are you in any kind of contact with the Venezuelan government, something that they would listen to, some kind of advice, a recommendation?
By an indirect route there are always communications, of course, but personally, for example, I haven't spoken with President Maduro since we had an incident where some Venezuelan soldiers entered Colombian territory (last March) and it fell to us to respond forcefully.
You recently suggested the possibility of a rupture of Colombian-Venezuelan relations. What implications would a situation like that have for the two countries?
It's not an option that's being considered at this time, it's simply a response to a question where they asked whether I'd rule out that possibility. All options are on the table and that can't be denied, but I don't think that it would be the most useful or appropriate way to keep open some possibility of dialogue and to maintain some possibility of helping achieve a peaceful solution.
Does the government have a contingency plan to take in Venezuelans if the situation seriously deteriorates in a matter of days or weeks?
These are very difficult situations. The situation with Venezuela has been very difficult. Colombia is the country that has the most to lose or to gain from what happens in Venezuela and for us it's been, I think, a source of constant concern. So, we've always been hoping to find a good solution, a negotiated solution that restores to Venezuela not only its democracy, but also its economy, its capacity for development.
In our case, we have been very generous with the Venezuelans because the Venezuelans were very generous with Colombia when we had problems and what we want with all our heart is for them to resolve their problems and not have to come to Colombia. Those who have come to Colombia, we've welcomed them here with generosity because that is what is appropriate.
Mr. President, the United States announced last week that if Colombia does not deal with the problem of drugs that could create both political and bilateral problems. Are relations with Washington becoming chillier?
No, in a few days Vice President (Mike) Pence is coming, on his first visit to Latin America, and he selected Colombia as a gesture because we have very good relations. The United States knows perfectly well that we have a plan, for the first time - concrete, measurable - to reduce the size of the coca crop. They know that we're seizing more cocaine and destroying more laboratories than ever before and they know that this is a problem where there's shared responsibility, in the phrase of an official who was ambassador here.
On relations between the United States and Colombia, in no way are they being affected at their root. The situation is that there are relations that we are very privileged to have between the two countries.
How to you interpret, then, that message that he's sending you?
For internal political reasons there they're backing him against the wall and so he's saying that for his internal market, but relations are going very well.
Mr. President, speaking about drug trafficking, authorities in the United States are investigating an alleged "Cartel of the Suns" in Venezuela. Do you think that the weight of drug trafficking in Venezuelan institutions is making a solution to the crisis difficult?
Without a doubt, drug trafficking has created some very special and damaging conditions in Venezuela that are making any solution difficult.
It's said that the country would grow an additional 1 to 2 percent with peace. When is that going to be detected?
That is being delayed insofar as we're beginning to bring infrastructure to these regions that have never had a state presence, insofar as we're getting all that land that was completely unproductive into production, that will still take some time to occur, but the increase is already being seen, for example, in tourism, an important increase and we're going to have increases in investment. The fruits are already being seen, little by little they're being seen. It's taking a while but they'll be seen.
Did the scope of the Odebrecht corruption scandal in the country surprise you, the level of penetration in certain state sectors?
It is good that this is happening, because it means that the fight against corruption is yielding results. And it is not only (about) Odebrecht, you have seen that we are uncovering cases in many areas, but the state, the control entities and the government are working together to bring to justice any person involved in corruption.
In the Odebrecht case, fortunately there is no official of this government who has taken bribes or who has been proven to have taken bribes. If one crops up, the full weight of the law shall fall upon them. There's a second tier official in an institution who apparently received some money and they are already in jail.
Pope John Paul II prayed in the palace chapel on his visit to Colombia in 1986. Are you going to take Pope Francis to pray in the same chapel?
That hadn't occurred to me, but now it's just occurred.