Colombian ambassador: New administration will find 'promising' relations with US

Colombian ambassador: New administration will find 'promising' relations with US
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Colombia's ambassador to the United States said he believes the country's president-elect, Iván Duque, will reap the benefits of the South American country's diplomatic work in Washington.

"I'm not their interpreter nor do I want to presume to know what the next government wants to do … but I would think the next government will find a very promising reality with a very ample agenda," Camilo Reyes, the outgoing Colombian ambassador, told The Hill.

Reyes said Colombia has remained the closest U.S. ally in the Americas because of a calculated bipartisan approach to Beltway diplomacy.

"In our relationship with the United States, it must be pointed out that the link between Colombia and this country has bipartisanship as its main characteristic," Reyes said.

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Beginning in the 1990s, Colombia relied heavily on U.S. aid in its long-term battle against drug cartels and left-wing guerrilla groups.

Outgoing President Juan Manuel Santos bet his legacy on a peace process with the largest of those groups, FARC. Many in Colombia, including Duque, have criticized the peace process for granting the dismantled guerrilla group too many political and judicial privileges.

The process took a political toll on Santos, who oversaw an election in which his favored candidate did not make the second round.

Duque, an ally of former President Álvaro Uribe — a strident critic of Santos and the peace process — beat former guerrilla member Gustavo Petro in June's runoff. He will be sworn-in as president on Aug. 7 for a four-year term.

Reyes credited the peace process with allowing more Colombians to express themselves politically.

"It's true that the candidate who won represented the right [wing]," he said. "It's also true, and this is incredibly important, never had the Colombian left had the votes it received [in this election]."

But Reyes said the peace process also took its toll.

According to the ambassador, the peace process was expensive financially and in terms of political capital for the incumbent administration.

"That has been the history of all peace processes, internal or external," he said. "They are only recognized with the passage of time."

The United States and Colombia have deep national security ties, which are likely to remain regardless of what happens with the peace process.

For instance, Reyes said the two countries will continue to cooperate in fighting drug cartels.

"We have to confront [narcotics trafficking] together because we know it's an issue of shared responsibility,” he said.

Reyes added that stability has helped Colombia diversify its priorities away from security. 

That stability is attracting foreign attention to the country in a positive way, he continued.

While tourism and direct foreign investment are growing, the Colombian government's reach into territories formerly controlled by the FARC presents unique challenges.

Petro's showing in the general election was an example of the state's reach into territory formerly out of its control, according to Reyes.

"Having obtained peace the state must be efficiently taken to many places where Colombia as a state was very weak," he said. "That's not something that happens from one day to the next, it's not easy."

Still, he said, new priorities come with new challenges.

"Once the core purpose of the nation ceases to be war, you remove war from the stage, and many small requirements and challenges appear that couldn't be seen before because they were covered by the war," he said. 

And, while the peace process remains fragile, Colombia is turning its attention to other challenges.

For the first time in its history, Colombia's education spending is greater than its security spending, according to Reyes.

Reyes said Colombia now needs to plan beyond war to strike a balance between regulation and growth.

"The great challenge in development is that we want to reconcile two purposes. On the one hand an efficient state, and on the other the possibility to be more productive and competitive. We need both things," he said.

Reyes added that Colombia's commitment to multilateralism — the country has taken an active role in regional and global bodies — makes the task that much harder.

Colombia is party to multiple treaties that range from human rights to labor rights and financial stability.

"That has become very difficult for a simple reason. First because I believe those institutions were created mainly after World War II, they're enormously valuable and they generated an international order, full of defects and complications, but an international order," Reyes said.

"What we're seeing is that, because of a series of circumstances, we're going through a moment where that conflict has grown, between the two purposes … to maintain that international order and to maintain the possibility of growing investments and wealth."