Juan Carlos Pinzón is the Ambassador of Colombia to the United States. On Monday, he sat down with The Daily Princetonian to discuss U.S.-Colombia relations, the role of democracy, and peace in Colombia.
The Daily Princetonian: How would you describe the United States’ relationship with Colombia today, and what is the significance of the status of this relationship as it pertains to Colombia’s pursuit of peace?
Juan Carlos Pinzón: I think it is one of the strongest relationships that Colombia has in the world, and I think it is one of the strongest relationships that the U.S. has in the world. It has become a strategic partnership and, according to some, even a special relationship. The United States plays an important role in support of Colombia through Plan Colombia to defeat terrorism and crime, to transform the country, and to promote recovery. The US has played an interesting role in supporting the peace and the efforts that we have been in the recent years. And now…the United States plays an important part as well in being the partner choice of Colombia in the process of, you know, making peace sustainable. Also, we work together, you know, in Central America, the Caribbean, South America, and parts all over the world trying to contribute with the Colombian experience on security efforts. Because of that, I think we have a very broad relationship. I will end by saying that the way these relations have been working is in a bipartisan way, and that’s a very, very strong element of our relationship. And second, it has been sustained a long time, so we have…change of governments in both countries, change of leaderships in Congress in both countries, but we always have been able to keep the relationship effective. And it works from issues of national security to issues of trade, to issues of economic development, to a broad agenda from location, science and technology, culture, etc.
DP: What has been democracy’s role in the process of reaching such peace, and do you believe that role is being played effectively today?
JCP: It’s very important to recognize that Colombia has been the longest standing democracy in Latin America. Even during Cold War time, in which most of the countries found some other kind of government resolution, Colombia was able to not only continue democracy but deepen its democracy to levels that, by the 90s, we were one of the first countries that elected almost every official, from governors, to mayors, to council members of townships, deputy members at the level of states. And, of course, this has happened for a long time, the executive, the president, and members of Congress, both the House and the Senate. So, Colombia has been a very strong country in terms of democratic culture and democratic development. And of course, democracy played a big role in the transformation of the country. It was the people that voted for alternatives to confront the terrorism and the crime and the violence that we were suffering. [It was] the people that voted for that transformation and that change. And more recently, it was the people that requested to give an opinion on how they wanted peace. So, for the presidential election of 2014, there was a strong mandate for a peace negotiation that was granted to President Santos as part of the campaign, and later on he honored his promise of that campaign of taking the agreements to the people. Those agreements were taken to the people. And by the way, the agreements were not accepted by the people. There was a parasite, there was a vote for a no. That obliged the government and the president to reshape the agreements, to make changes that were giving us input by position by different civil society sectors, and to get a new agreement. And then, for that agreement to be presented to Congress, and use the ordinary due process in Congress to establish a definition.
DP: While the signing of a peace agreement between the Colombian government and FARC [the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia—People’s Army] on Nov. 24 marked a major milestone in the process of achieving peace, are there other obstacles that you foresee hindering the country on its way to peace?
JCP: Well, first we are waiting for some procedural decisions that are not minor; they are very important. Like [whether] the definition of the implementation of laws on reform coming out of the agreement can be implemented in a fast-track mode into Congress, or need to be implemented through the ordinary process. The difference at the end is that on one side you can do it faster, and the other one will take time and debate into Congress. And, of course, what matters at the end is not what is written, but how we are going to make that happen in the realms of Colombia and how to make that peace sustainable. This is why we are seeking for international support, and in the case of the United States, we move from Plan Colombia — as I said, a very successful program to transform Colombia, to bring back security — to the new program that we call Paz Colombia, or Peace Colombia, which is a very important program to make peace sustainable, to bring development, to enhance justice, but also to keep the key priorities of Colombia to confront organized crime in Colombia, or to support objectives that are important for peace, security, and stability in the whole hemisphere.
DP: Please describe what you think the domestic and abroad stakes are in the Colombian movement toward peace. Do you believe Americans are clearly informed about what is happening in Colombia right now, and if not, why is it necessary that they are?
JCP: Well I think first, the United States has been looking into it very much this year. You know, it was a very intense election year, so we understand. I think it is very clear that it was a natural, internal democratic process. But those who follow Colombia — either from the administration, Congress, or think tanks and news, are very well informed and have a lot of interest and details. And this is not to forget that the US has not only been engaged through Plan Colombia, but also through a special envoy, Bernie Aronson, who was a very important person to the efforts of moving forward. Now, of course there are challenges, as I said, not only out of the process and procedures, but out of the effectiveness of the policies and how to implement those vis-a-vis long term. But also, it matters very much not only what happens to the group of the FARC, which is in relative terms very small as compared to the Colombian population, but how we can continue to pause this, to continue to reduce poverty, reduce inequality, and create jobs and opportunities of better income for Colombians. And that crosses many things from location, infrastructure, competitiveness, that are critical in the years to come to make the whole country, you know, more effective and to offer more prosperity to our own people. And that’s where the challenges are really relevant. On the other side, of course, there is a very high resentment from Colombian people to the FARC. Of course people have wanted peace strongly…but there is no doubt that FARC will have to prove that they are not only getting the benefits of signing an agreement, but also that they are absolutely committed to behave properly, to accept the law, to respect the Colombians, and not to harm anyone. That’s very important for that trust. And then also comes the challenge of reconciliation. There was so much crime made by FARC and all groups that the country requires an attitude, a sentiment, that facilitates this reconciliation as a key tool. And we’ll see how it works, but those are elements that cannot be discarded or underestimated as important.
DP: How has your background shaped your approach to events that have transpired since you became Ambassador and, more specifically, to the peace agreement? Does the fact that you spent time studying abroad have any influence on your career now?
JCP: First, on my own background, I come from a family that has been in public service for more than one hundred years on different levels of the service. Of course, that creates a personal strong commitment to the country and to serving the public. That was an important element on my own background. Second, I think having these international connections, both through my different jobs, but then being located in the United States at schools like Princeton and Johns Hopkins, of course gave me perspective, a perspective of how to apply policies and how to also be effective in the relationship with the United States as a partner. In order to be a good partner, you not only need to speak the same language; you also need to speak the same cultural language, the same pulse language. I think that was very useful for me to contribute and somehow enhance the partnership. And of course, you know, all of my personal background helped me to see how violence affected the country, never forgetting how members of our own family, as many Colombian families, were affected directly by the terrorists, by kidnapping, or by terrorist activity that resulted in killing one of them. And all of that contributed to the sense that the country needed change, that the country needed commitment. And more important…of course we have transformed the country, we have moved forward in a positive way, but still, there is a lot to [do] and still the challenges will demand very hard work, very hard effort, and a lot of commitment.
DP: Is there anything else you would like to add?
JCP: Well, maybe a final thought for those who are at Princeton. To tell them that, for me, coming to Princeton was a great opportunity, not only an opportunity but also a wonderful time, and that I would encourage those who are here to remember how blessed we are to be able to come to a school like this, to have access to the professors and the resources we have here at Princeton. Not to forget that we’re here for the purpose of studying, for learning, for acquiring more knowledge, and it’s only through hard work that you get that. The only thing that you miss when you leave here is all the things that you were hoping to [do] and by some reason you didn’t. So, that book that you have not read yet, read it. Because you will [regret] later not [reading] it. That paper you want to research on, you better research that because later you might not have the time. The knowledge and wisdom that comes out of Princeton will be joining you for life, and that’s an important message.