U.S. helped transform a violent Colombia into tourist destination, says former ambassador

Colombia is no longer the violent nation overrun by chaos caused by drug trafficking in the '80s and '90s, said Carolina Barco, former ambassador of Colombia to the United States in a talk at Goldwin Smith Hall Nov. 15. In fact, The New York Times recently named it one of the 31 places to visit in 2010.

So said Barco, who was ambassador from August 2006 to September 2010; she discussed the crucial relationship between Colombia and the United States as part of the Einaudi Center Foreign Policy Distinguished Speaker Series.

Colombia's recent transition from extraordinary violence to a popular tourist destination was largely due to the dedication of the Colombian people, the leadership of former President Álvaro Uribe and an invaluable partnership with the United States, Barco said.

She identified the FARC, a left-wing guerrilla group, as the foremost challenge to the old Colombia. Most guerrilla groups floundered when the Berlin Wall fell and funding disappeared, but the FARC harnessed the lucrative drug trade to buy weapons and communication technology more sophisticated than that of the military, she said. During the '80s and '90s, homicides and kidnappings were commonplace.

Plan Colombia, a counterinsurgency initiative implemented by Colombia and the United States, brought the nation back from the brink of failed statehood through a tripartite strategy of monetary aid, spraying coca crops and judicial reform.

"We're starting to see that we are making inroads, but it's almost taken 10 years," said Barco. The Colombian experience is both a message of optimism and patience to Mexico, which currently struggles with a dramatic increase in drug-related violence, she said.

"I always felt like I needed to talk about the drugs, because this is a challenge to our country and our democracy," said Barco, but she joked that she preferred discussing the country's biodiversity, pop culture icons Shakira and Juanes or Nobel laureate Gabriel García Márquez.

She also credited Colombia's turnaround to the country's enduring history of democracy. "Colombia is one of the oldest democracies in Latin America, with a very strong institutional and civil society," she said. "I think that is what has allowed us to address and be successful in moving away from the challenges posed by drugs and drug trafficking."

Now that the country has reclaimed its territory, it can move beyond issues of internal security and turn its focus outward. "This is an interesting moment to work together in a more regional way. What we are finding is that now Colombia, in a way, is above water. We are not drowning," Barco said.

Colombia is involved in a variety of international and domestic initiatives, including a free trade agreement with Panama and the United States, investing in education and encouraging foreign direct investment. Barco also emphasized the importance of making human rights a priority in efforts to strengthen Colombian democracy.

The return of Peace Corps volunteers to Colombia this fall after almost 30 years was one of the most important achievements, said Barco. However, challenges remain. Looking to the future, regional cooperation and sustaining the partnership with the United States are essential for progress.

"What is important is that we all stand up and move forward," she concluded.

The Foreign Policy Distinguished Speaker Series, which brings leading experts in international affairs to Cornell, is part of the Einaudi Center's Foreign Policy Initiative to enhance Cornell's intellectual contribution to debates on international affairs.

Erica Rhodin '12 is a writer intern at the Cornell Chronicle.

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