By William Acero Arango, EL ESPECTADOR, December 22, 2022
(Translated by Eunice Gibson, CSN Volunteer Translator)
Colombia’s Ambassador in Washington, Luis Gilberto Murillo, says that the relationship is at its best time. It’s not trying to focus just on antinarcotics, and the Republicans are more receptive, although with expectations.
It’s clear that Colombia is a key ally of the United States and that there is a lot of expectation with Gustavo Petro taking power. What is the relationship really like right now?
It’s the best of times, and that has to do with the fact that Colombia is making some very important transformations. The phenomenon of Gustavo Petro’s election and that of Vice President Francia Márquez was very significant in the United States. Not only the Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, but also President Joe Biden, were the first to call him once he was elected. Then came a commission of the highest level, headed by Juan González, Director of Western Hemisphere Affairs for the White House, and Brian Nichols, Assistant Secretary of State for the Western Hemisphere, to dialog with President Petro. Many high-level officials have come to talk with him, in support of every step of the policies that are being implemented.
What has been your role in this new stage of this relationship?
My work is diplomacy. Now, the history of my relationship with the North Americans has been going on for 22 years, and my relationship with Members of Congress of the two parties is long and positive, as well as with many of the officials of the Biden administration. That helps a lot, undoubtedly, but the main thing is the interest that the U.S. government has in the Petro administration. That said, I have some tasks that began when I took on this responsibility, which have to do with the promotion of matters such as the environment and biodiversity, the protection of the Amazon jungle, the energy transition, “total peace”, the implementation of the Agreement with the FARC, and the negotiations with the ELN. Also, in areas related to immigration, and along with that, the subject of drugs: clarity in those adjustments, review in things that have to do with legal terminology, security, defense, and intelligence. We have to do a lot of interdiction to be able to dismantle the true owners of the criminal networks and the multi-crime gangs, the matter of money laundering, illegal enrichment, changing the links . . . Another point: the Free Trade Agreement has to be reviewed to make the best possible adjustments.
There have been declarations by some Republican Members of Congress opposing some announcements and positions taken by President Petro. For example, Senator Ted Cruz spoke of promoting the “National Security Law”, to place conditions on the funds that Colombia receives, in the interests of security and the United States war on drugs . . .
Our bilateral relationship is very broad, and occasionally very complex, because it covers almost every subject. The effort we are making is that we not center exclusively on antinarcotics, and that it better reflect the variety of the Colombian context and of the United States itself. We have to look at all of the challenges and their solutions. We know that the United States Congress has a great deal of interest in Colombia, and we can’t fail to recognize that this country has had very special treatment there. That’s why the proposal is to maintain the bipartisan character of the collaboration. Since I arrived at the Embassy, I have been talking with all of the political spectrums, Democrats and Republicans, and always in a very constructive manner. There are a lot of expectations and I recognize that in some sectors there is concern, as there is so much disinformation about who President Petro is and what his policies are, something that we have been clarifying with everybody. I talked with Senator Ted Cruz, a critic of the President, and he told me, “I’m interested in the subjects of security and immigration.” I made it clear that we share objectives, and he agrees with the peace that we both want and to be able to eliminate drug trafficking. We have many differences on the strategies, but what we do agree on is that we need to have more results.
Could you say that the Republicans are more receptive and have understood that Colombia has a new political dynamic?
The Republicans have been more grounded and receptive to the presentations we have made. After our discussion, Senator Cruz was more calm, more expectant. One of the Members of Congress, María Salazar, who has been very tough on President Petro, was also attentive and we think that she now has a different concept. She told us, “ Great if this “total peace” thing works for you; I will be the first to come out and recognize the achievements of the Colombian administration.” The most important thing is that we have a dialog and that is the most important step. In our conversation with Senator Lindsey Graham, one of the Republicans who made the most criticism, we talked about President Petro’s proposal to work with some sectors to substitute the illegal coca plantings for productive crops and thus support the defense of the Amazon and lessen climate change, and so that the families can continue to grow their legal products. He told us that he would support that, and that his aides would be working so that in 2023 these policies would receive more funds appropriated by the United States Congress. What we do believe is that it takes a lot of moderation, a lot of diplomacy. We need to be very prudent in the way we approach this relationship.
How have you approached the matter of the coca plantings, also keeping in mind the premise of no fumigation?
President Petro has proposed changes in drug policy in this country, and he has emphasized to us that we focus and concentrate on the owners and not the laborers in the business. They have no alternative for their subsistence, the campesinos and people that are living on this just to be able to eat.
But for now there won’t by any aspersion with glyphosate?
The Constitutional Court said in a decision: there can’t be aerial aspersion with glyphosate. That is prohibited.
And the United States government agrees with that?
They accept that it’s a sovereign decision for Colombia, and that there is a legal prohibition. What has been suggested is that there be a process of eradication, as proposed by Justice Minister Néstor Osuna in his visit to Washington. It could be agreed upon with the communities and could be manual. And in the locations where those agreements would not work, they would have to do forced eradication, just as they do with the industrialized plantings that they are going to classify.
President Petro has said that some families that are living on coca could be beneficiaries of funds equal to the amount they earn from their illegal plantings. We have already talked about that with the North American Congress and officials of the Biden administration; they agree with the necessity, and they want to help and support us, with the goal of having those families make the transition in 10 or 15 years to different crops that would allow them a decent life.
One area of interest to a lot of people is that of a visa to enter the United States. How would that work? Is it really viable?
We are able to show the world that we have received more than 2 ½ million people with Venezuelan nationality. They are here, and more migrants are coming from other countries, such as Haiti. What President Petro has said is that we are maintaining that policy, we have strengthened it and expanded it for those people. Therefore, Colombia is a model for the world and we have the moral authority to propose a new migration policy. We have complete flexibility in handling visas, and we are working so that there can be exceptions for a Colombian undocumented tourist to travel to the United States. And we have news for those more than 300,000 undocumented Colombians: we are working to get some immigration relief for at least 18 months so that they can live decently and can return to this country.
But is taking your visa away a real possibility? Because here they see it as a utopia . . .
I just gave you the answer: visas are taking two and three years and now it’s only 60 days. We are working so that, for the first time, the visas are much more streamlined. The Secretary of Homeland Security, Alejandro Mayorkas, who was just in Colombia, said, “You have to take advantage of all of the circumstances and of the good relations between the two countries and we are at a good time politically. Colombia meets the great majority of the requirements, a few are lacking, but we can work on that.” This is a long process, but we can do it. The rate of visa rejections is at 27% and we are trying to reduce it to 3%.
The Embassy in Washington and the United States Secretary of Homeland Security are working on these matters. Here in Colombia we are creating an inter-institutional committee coordinated with the Foreign Affairs Ministry so that all of the agencies related with these matters can go forward and fill the requisites that are necessary. That will take us a reasonable time, but we are very optimistic that if we carry out the tasks step by step, the Colombian people will not require a visa to enter the United States. The tourists will be exempt.
When will President Petro make an official visit to the United States?
The two governments are working on that. What we did establish is that the meeting with President Biden will take place in 2023. And I want to announce that Vice President Francia Márquez may have a meeting with her counterpart from the United States, Kamala Harris, in March. And don’t discount the possibility that President Biden, in one of his trips, could come to Colombia in the coming year, or that President Petro would do the same. We are working, and the goal is for this to materialize in the coming year.
You yourself had a discussion with President Biden at the White House. How did it go?
It was a very warm conversation. President Biden values Colombia and the first thing he said was that we now have an alternative President, the first Afro-Colombian Vice President in our history, and that our diplomacy is changing. Now we have an African-American Ambassador in Washington, the first time. He told me, “I know everything that’s going on,” and I said that we needed all of their support for peace. “I have supported Colombia and I’m going to keep on supporting it; tell President Petro to count on me,” he answered.