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Coletta Youngers' Observations

What were your expectations before the trip?

I wasn't sure what to expect as this is my first direct experience with this sort of delegation. I had hoped that I would be able to bring myself up-to-date on the present situation in Colombia and get a feel for any possible change likely to come from the new government. On both of those counts, my expectations were more than met. We met with a wide range of civil society and governmental actors, which provided an excellent overview of what President Alvaro Uribe has accomplished in these eight years and the directions in which the new government would like to take the country.

What is the main thing or things that you have learned during the trip?

One of the most interesting issues discussed during our visit was the land issue and the proposal by the Santos government for a program to restore land titles to the displaced and a land distribution and titling program.  The issue of land gets to the heart of the conflict in Colombia; the fact that it is even being discussed is very significant.  There are clearly many obstacles for implementing this program – the most important of which is that it will be directly in conflict with the "mafias" (be they paras, guerrillas, or narcos) allied with local political and economic elites that also serve as an important source of political support for the Santos government.

I was also surprised at the extent to which President Uribe is seeking to tie the hands of the incoming administration. It was shocking to see declarations opposing possible cabinet ministers coming from present officials – and of course the Venezuela/FARC presentation at the OAS and the resulting break in diplomatic relations undermined Santos' efforts to reach out to Chavez.  It makes one wonder what role Uribe will seek to play when he is out of office. As one person said to us when asked why he acted like this, "because he thinks that he and the State are the same" (porque el crea que el estado es el).

Could you describe one moment that was eye-opening for you?

The most significant eye opening moment for me was the meeting with the foreign minister, Maria Angela Holguín, in which she made clear that her top priority is to improve Colombia's standing within Latin America and with its Andean neighbors in particular. Already, the Santos administration has sought to improve relations with Ecuador and Venezuela, both of which have complicated border issues with Colombia. All indications are that full relations with Ecuador will be restored soon. Venezuela will now take more time, but as a former Colombian ambassador in Caracas, Hoguín should be well suited to moving talks forward after the Venezuelan elections. She also indicated an interest in broadening relations with the United States beyond the focus on drugs and security. It appears that foreign policy under this government will be more practical and diplomatic and less confrontational. All of this bodes well for the role that Colombia will now likely play in regional forums – one that is less confrontational and ideological and much more collaborative. Hopefully, this will help allow for more constructive dialogue between the Andean countries and within forums like the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR).

Now that you have visited the country, what do you see as being the biggest misunderstanding/misperception between your country and the country you visited? What do you believe to be the source of this misunderstanding/misperception?

In the case of Colombia, there have been very good relations – rather than misperceptions – between the two countries.  The question for me is rather whether or not this moment (the change in government) can be used to change the nature of those relations (as noted above), moving away from a narrow focus on security and broadening the agenda to include an array of economic and social issues.

Now that you have visited the country, do you have any thoughts on what is the most important change in policy that is needed between your country and the country you visited?

My own view is that the United States should accelerate recent trends of moving from security to more economic and social assistance.  The large presence of U.S. troops in seven military bases around the country could frustrate the Santos government's efforts to improve its relations with other Latin American countries and should be reconsidered.  More transparency regarding the nature of the U.S. presence would also be helpful.  More cultural exchanges could also be a way of putting forward a different kind of relationship.

A major irritant in bilateral relations is the free trade agreement.  The foreign minister suggested that they may put a time-limit on that; i.e., if it is not approved by a certain date, to stop lobbying for it.  It is draining significant Colombian government resources and is the focus of too much of the discussion of Colombia on the Hill. Setting a deadline and then moving on is a good idea.

From the meetings that I did on my own related to drug policy, I also got the impression that the new government would like to make some important changes to drug policy, scaling back eradication significantly and focusing on destroying laboratories. Both sides are complaining about the high cost of the airplanes used for fumigation and the desire to use that funding for something else – they need to come together and reach a new understanding about drug policy in Colombia.

In your opinion, what are the main unrealized opportunities for engagement between your country and the country you visited?

I've covered this above – broadening relations beyond drugs and security and engaging on a range of social, economic and cultural issues.

Following this trip, have you gotten any more ideas on how the Andean-U.S. Dialogue Forum can contribute to to build a positive common agenda between the Andean countries and the United States?

As noted, given the new approach to foreign policy on the part of the Santos government, there are new opportunities for improving relations amongst the Andean countries and this bodes well for the forum. To the extent that civil society can play a bridge role in encouraging pragmatic discussions between countries – as has happened in the case of Ecuador and Colombia – the forum can be very useful.

I don't know if there is a role for the forum in this issue area, but the land distribution and titling program will need significant international support if it is to succeed.

Finally, the myriad of problems along the country's borders (and on the side of the neighboring countries as well) was a recurring theme in our meetings. Numerous individuals suggested the importance of promoting development and other economic and social projects along the borders (and on both sides) with Ecuador and Venezuela (particularly the latter) as a way of creating more stable bilateral relations in the long run. International support for such initiatives would be very important.

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