The United States and Colombia: A Special Relationship
The world has changed for Colombia. For the first time in more than 50 years, we are a nation building a lasting and stable peace.
What has not changed is the special relationship Colombia shares with the United States. As the oldest and strongest democracies in the Western Hemisphere, the relationship between our two countries is deeply rooted in our steadfast commitment to the shared values of democracy, freedom and equality.
It is an alliance built on a solid foundation of bipartisan support, and that too will not change. Successive Colombian governments have worked with Republican-led congresses and those controlled by Democrats, and we look forward to continuing to engage with the new Administration and Congress as we work to build sustainable peace.
It was strong bipartisan support that made Plan Colombia the most successful U.S. bilateral initiative with a foreign nation—benefitting both countries and the entire region— and it is bipartisan support that will make the next phase of Plan Colombia—the Peace Colombia initiative—successful as well.
In the 1990s, Colombia was a nation on the brink. At that time, Colombia was by far the most violent country in the world, with two of the most violent cities—Medellín and Cali. By the end of the decade, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) believed they were strong enough to take control of the capital of Bogotá—something so inconceivable today.
By rough estimates, the FARC, the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional, ELN) and other illegally armed groups controlled more than half of the nation’s territory at the time. For a nation that is two times the size of Texas and two times the size of Germany, these were dark times. Violence, fear and insecurity defined everyday life in Colombia.
Our country’s future was uncertain, but we had a critical ally—the United States.
Launched in 2000 by Colombian President Andrés Pastrana and U.S. President Bill Clinton, Plan Colombia laid the foundation for Colombia’s remarkable turnaround and planted the seeds for peace.
Plan Colombia also set into motion the first of three phases in our fight against the FARC. The first phase, from 1999 to 2006, was focused on regaining territorial control. Plan Colombia was key during this period. It helped us increase military and police mobility and tactical capability. It also enhanced special operations, intelligence, counternarcotics efforts and cooperation.
The second phase of our efforts, between 2007 and 2011, was focused on taking the fight to where the FARC was based. During this time, I had the honor of serving as Vice Minister of Defense in the Uribe administration under the leadership of then-Minister of Defense and now-President Juan Manuel Santos.
We put in place a strategy of striking in every base area of operation the FARC and ELN still held. What made this new offensive so effective were the hard-won lessons of our experience.
The third phase of our efforts, between 2011 and 2015, when I served as Minister of Defense, was aimed at hitting the central nervous system—the leadership of these groups. Our military strategy focused on a ground-level offensive to combat these groups—dealing some of the toughest blows to the FARC.
Remarkably, over a period of about 15 years, our Armed Forces and National Police were able to severely degrade the FARC in terms of resources, manpower and weapons and pushed the terrorist movement on its heels.
Major credit goes to our Armed Forces and National Police. They are the ones who sacrificed so much—including their lives—to make Colombia a better place for their children and their children’s children. If not for them and the consistent blows they delivered to the FARC, we would have never reached the negotiating table.
Once the FARC was significantly reduced in power, negotiating peace was one of their only options. By all accounts, Plan Colombia was a success, and experts call it one of the most important foreign policy initiatives in a generation.
Today, Colombia is the second-largest economy in South America and is an innovation hub, a tourism hotspot and home to a competitive workforce.
All violence and crime indicators are down significantly to rates that once seemed out of reach. We now assist our neighbors in the region with their security challenges by sharing our experiences, expertise and capacity, helping to make the region safer. We have stepped in to help nations in Central America, the Caribbean and around the world confront security challenges—from regional initiatives to NATO.
On the employment front, Colombia has the highest job creation rate in Latin America, with 2.5 million jobs created between 2010 and 2014, and unemployment declining significantly. Growth and social development also have generated reductions in poverty, with 4.4 million Colombians lifted out of poverty and 2.5 million out of extreme poverty during the same period.
In 2000, the poverty rate was 50 percent. As of the end of 2016, it had decreased dramatically by 42 percent, to 27.8 percent. Certainly, we have much work left to do, but our significant progress in a relatively short amount of time demonstrates that we can continue to make serious inroads.
We know that to further move the people of Colombia forward on the path to prosperity, we must build a sustainable peace, continue to drive economic growth, lift more of our citizens out of poverty and generate increased opportunities for those at the bottom of the economic pyramid.
In 2012, the Government of Colombia embarked on a peace process with the FARC. On August 24, 2016, in Havana, Cuba, an historic and comprehensive preliminary peace agreement was reached—bringing four years of negotiations and a 52-year armed conflict to an end. On November 12, 2016, the final accord was signed.
The negotiations were focused—aimed at addressing an agenda comprised only of five topics: ending the conflict; justice for victims; rural development and agricultural reform; political participation by the FARC and finding a solution to the problem of illicit drugs.
The government approached the peace talks in a prudent, disciplined and firm manner, and the well-being and peace of mind of all Colombian citizens was at the forefront at all times.
Without the United States as our key ally and partner as well as our Armed Forces and National Police, we could not have achieved the unimaginable—peace in Colombia after a generation of conflict.
Colombia now faces the complex task of implementing the recently adopted Peace Agreement that ended more than a half-century of armed conflict. With the implementation of the Peace Agreement, we are positioned to take another historic leap on the path of sustained peace and prosperity.
The transition to peace will demand time, resources and leadership in Colombia— as well as the continued support of the United States and the international community. Here in the United States, there is an initiative called Peace Colombia, which will build on what our two nations have achieved together.
Peace Colombia is our number one priority, and we look forward to working with the new Administration and Congress to make it a reality. The initiative will reinforce security gains we have achieved together, further strengthen institutions and justice, generate more economic opportunities, reintegrate former combatants into society and advance counternarcotics efforts to protect Americans and Colombians from illegal drugs.
Peace Colombia will usher in a new era of cooperation that will deepen the U.S.-Colombia partnership and help Colombia become an even stronger partner to the United States over the long run. That is not only good for Colombia and our key ally but also for the region as a whole.
As with Plan Colombia, Colombian taxpayers will fund more than 90 percent of the initiative—but the U.S. role will be critical. Continued U.S. support will provide continuity to a diverse portfolio of bilateral issues, including cooperation in security, but also education, energy, technology and innovation.
With nations at war around the globe, Colombia demonstrates that even after more than five decades of conflict, peace can be achieved. Broader than that, Colombia’s story of transformation is a powerful testament to the importance of our strong bilateral alliance with the United States.
There is so much our two nations have achieved together, and much more we can achieve through our very special partnership.
Ambassador of Colombia to the United States of America