Q&A: Luis C. Villegas, Colombia's new ambassador to the U.S., discusses his changing country

By MIMI WHITEFIELD | The Miami Herald | Published: February 8, 2014

For his first trip outside the Washington Beltway, Luis Carlos Villegas — Colombia’s new ambassador to the United States — chose Florida.

Not only is Colombia South Florida’s second largest trading partner but it is also home to many Colombians.

Villegas presented his credentials to President Barack Obama on Dec. 3 — the same day that Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos met with the president at the White House.

Despite Colombia’s struggles with drug traffickers, criticism over the South American country’s defense of labor unionists and a civil conflict that has gripped the country for decades and claimed more than 220,000 lives, Obama said Colombia’s success in dealing with security issues has helped put other topics on the U.S.-Colombia agenda.

With the agenda shifting toward economic, political and social issues, Santos said U.S.-Colombia relations are “at their best moment ever.”

Before becoming ambassador, Villegas was president of the National Business Association of Colombia for 17 years and was a member of the Colombian government negotiating team during the ongoing peace talks with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, in Havana.

Since you were talking to a group of business executives during your visit to Miami, what can you tell me about foreign investment in Colombia?

Provisional figures from the Central Bank show that total direct foreign investment in Colombia last year was almost $17 billion, again breaking records. It comes mostly from the United States and Europe. But the news is we’re having growth in Brazilian, Chinese, Korean, Peruvian and Mexican investment. So foreign investment in Colombia is coming not only from the developed world but also the region — and that’s very interesting.

At the time the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement went into effect, there was the feeling that international companies might set up manufacturing operations in Colombia to take advantage of duty-free access to the U.S. market. Has that happened?

We’re starting to see this. It’s happening in the electronics industry, in the textiles and apparel industry and some in the food industry. What I foresee is with the recovery of the U.S. economy this year, 2014 will be a star year for that kind of investment.

In addition to that, we have the Pacific Alliance that is also attracting many investments. It’s an even larger market with common rules and like-minded economic policies.

Related to the FTA, we also have some new items of trade in Colombia — fruit and frozen concentrates — that have grown very fast. We also have new varieties of flowers, beyond traditional roses and carnations, that have grown very quickly.

If you look at the trade figures after the first year of the FTA, it appears U.S. exporters benefited more than Colombian exporters. Is that what you expected to happen?

No, there’s a very specific phenomenon. Wheat sales had moved from U.S. sources to Argentina. With the FTA, the U.S. recovered its competitiveness in wheat. So the U.S. competed against Argentina and won because we are buying wheat from the cheapest source. Just that one item counts for more than $500 million.

But in general, exports from the U.S. to Colombia are growing, and that’s what FTA is for. We’re getting more machinery, more capital goods at cheaper prices. We are modernizing our industry and infrastructure and we need these capital goods massively.

Many in the Colombian agricultural sector don’t appear satisfied with the FTA and have complained about U.S. agricultural subsidies. Is this something that you will be addressing?

No, I don’t think so. Because when you see the figures of what has been imported and the sectors that have protested, they don’t match.

I don’t think U.S. potatoes are a threat to Colombian potatoes. For those products like wheat that we don’t produce because we are a tropical country, everybody is benefiting from low prices.

What I think is going on is that Colombia has progressed to the moment of income that brings the need to debate what to do about agriculture, do you want to subsidize it or not? That’s a question that has been raised all over the world in the moment when countries become middle income. and that is now happening in Colombia.

The United States is now trying to negotiate a TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership). Is this something that Colombia would like to belong to at some point?

I think the answer is yes, but the question is when. Colombia belonged to the initial group of four TPP countries. The U.S. was not there. But then the U.S. entered the group and said, ‘You don’t have an FTA.’ So we got out. When we had the FTA with the U.S., someone said you are not members of APEC [Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation, a forum of 21 Pacific Rim nations]. We responded there is a moratorium on APEC membership. Maybe that will be resolved this year and we will be accepted.

I think in a couple of years Colombia will be invited to join the TPP.

Does Colombia’s image still suffer in the United States and for some people, is Colombia still all about guerrillas and the drug years?

Thank you for asking that. I have been coming to this country for nearly 40 years. This is the first time that I have found a generalized change in perception of our image from the federal government, in Congress, in the media, in the NGOs. They all feel the change in Colombia has been so dramatic that no one can deny it. There are people with issues over one thing or the other. But in general, the diagnosis of what has happened in Colombia is very positive.

Now we are cooperating in security with third countries. We have trained 20,000 public servants in Central America in the past two years. It shows the amount of trust the U.S. government has in Colombian institutions. This year we are going to triple the level of cooperation.

President Obama has talked about the need for global drug reform and said that Colombia isn’t in this alone. How can Washington help on the drug issue?

President Santos has said that any debate on drug issues, we have to be part of; there should be no debate on what to do about the war on drugs or organized crime or illicit drugs without Colombia. We suffered the brunt of the problem. But having said that, we have moved from 200,000 hectares (494,211 acres) of illicit drugs in 1999-2000 to 40,000 hectares (98,842 acres). The problem is where those hectares that we have eradicated moved to.

You were a part of the Colombian negotiating team for the peace talks in Havana. How are the talks proceeding?

I’m more optimistic today than I was 14 months ago. Why? I think many things have coincided to move the negotiation forward. First, the military balance is in favor of the Colombian state and FARC knows this. Second, the international community is supporting the process. And third, we are in a better state than we were in the 2000 negotiations. Why? We have more muscle to make change happen. I always give the figure of the public budget. In 2000, the public budget was $25 billion; this year’s budget is $120 billion. We can face problems — infrastructure, health coverage, quality of education, security — with a different capacity to solve them.

We’re currently discussing illicit crops and hope to have an agreement in the next weeks, and then we will move to the core of the negotiation: victims, disarmament, reparations and reintegration into society and the ratification and implementation of the agreements we have reached .

Many, if not all, FARC members are wanted in the United States on criminal charges. Do you think it would be helpful if the U.S. would drop those charges in the interest of peace?

It’s not that simple. In both countries there is an independent judiciary and it’s not only what the government says. The U.S. position, I’ve been told, is that the justice system will keep all the processes that are open before it, and that if crimes have been committed, they will keep asking for extradition. The Colombian position is that extradition is a tool that can be used with discretion by the president.

Human Rights Watch has repeatedly accused the Colombia government of sacrificing justice in its effort to make peace with FARC. How do you hope to convince Washington that this isn’t the case?

Human Rights Watch isn’t Washington. It is a very prestigious NGO... but theirs is not the only opinion around. The problem is that the peace process in Colombia is the first one around to be happening under the Statute of Rome [a treaty that established the International Criminal Court].

It is seen by international interested parties and some NGOs that have world coverage like Mr. Vivanco’s [José Miguel Vivanco is director of Human Rights Watch’s Americas division] as the precedent for other transitional justice applications in the future, so everyone wants to be very careful that the first application isn’t a mistake.

So what we have to find, as President Santos has said, is a good peace package with room for justice, no room for impunity, where there’s room for fighting illicit drugs but where’s there’s room for pardons, reparations for victims, where there’s space for disarmament.


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