SECRETARY KERRY: Thank you very much, all. Sorry to keep you waiting for a couple of minutes. It’s a privilege, as I said earlier, for me to have Foreign Minister Holguin here and her colleagues with us in Washington today. And as I indicated when we opened this morning, I think this really represents a step forward in a significant way, a new day, if you will, for the relationship between Colombia and the United States. And from the comprehensive nature of our conversation this morning, we talked about everything from the cooperation on the peace process, the interests of the peace process, the visa program, Venezuela, obviously questions of the efforts on counternarcotics, really all the regional issues, and especially our joint efforts on trade and other kinds of things. So it was a very comprehensive conversation.
And I think it is clear that this relationship is not just important, but it’s a significant one in many ways. We are cooperating regionally and have come a long way from the difficulties of a number of years ago, which I mentioned earlier today. Whether on economic empowerment, which is critical to us, or social inclusion or energy development or environmental protection, or by encouraging, strengthening our cultural and educational exchanges and programs, scientific exchanges, we are really linking ourselves to a common vision about the future.
And above and beyond the shared work on areas of security, what we’re really doing is forging an agenda that is built around shared prosperity. And that’s critical for our people. When I think about how far Colombia has come and why it’s so important to bring a lasting peace to Colombia once and for all, I can’t help but think of where we began. I mentioned this earlier today. I don’t want to dwell on it too long, but I do have memories of really serious questions a number of years ago when I served in the Senate about the challenge facing Colombia. And it took very brave, courageous leadership to step up and determine that the leadership was going to help the people of Colombia to reclaim their country – literally – from a time where there were terrible candidate assassinations and sitting jurist assassinations and a challenge by cartels and narco traffickers and others to try to act with impunity.
That was a difficult time, and I remember even hearing stories that were heart-rendering of radio stations that used to offer time for people – mothers, fathers – to come and make messages that would go out to their sons, and try to find people who had disappeared or appealed to people to come back if they were held hostage. People would – a husband would reach out to a wife or vice versa. And people were held captive in the jungle. These were very difficult days. And Colombians would actually line up around the block to get on the air and be able to send these kinds of messages.
Today, while still some messages are sent, the lines don’t go around the block. And the day will come soon when radio stations will get back to simply broadcasting normal fare, and not have to help people in the way that they are today. And I know that for the promise of peace to be real, Colombians everywhere have to feel secure in their rights and feel confident to be able to participate fully as citizens.
And so I am particularly pleased that the United States is displaying its commitment to that effort to help Colombia in that transition, and today we’re making a contribution – an investment really – in those regions that are hardest hit by the conflict. And that is a four-year $15 million investment, and this initiative will help to provide many Colombians with improved access to justice and help local governments be able to combat human rights violations and corruption.
We’re also announcing an addition 7 million to support – to help implement Colombia’s landmark Victims Law, because we believe that addressing very difficult issues like land restitution is absolutely essential for an enduring peace to be able to take hold and to work.
Our very full agenda today, which covered virtually all the points of our relationship as I described it earlier, really is a sign of the strength of this dialogue and the way in which it is growing. And I think Colombia’s work with the United States and throughout our hemisphere shows the important level which this relationship has now reached.
So I am really pleased that the foreign minister is here. I thank her for her leadership. We appreciate her friendship, the way in which she has conducted these dialogues with us. I think it’s completely collegial, completely constructive, and we have been able to make progress as a result. And I thank President Santos and his administration for their dedicated efforts to help to address some very, very difficult issues.
We’re going to continue to build this partnership, and I look forward to continuing this work and this dialogue in particular with my counterpart. Thank you very much for being here with us today. Appreciate it.
FOREIGN MINISTER HOLGUIN: (Via interpreter) Thank you so much, Secretary Kerry. For Colombia, and especially for me, I have to say that it’s been a very pleasant meeting that we’ve had here at the State Department. Thank you so much, Secretary Kerry, for having organized a meeting in which we find ourselves at a very high level. I wish to emphasize this. The Colombian delegation is at a very high level. We have vice ministers, deputy ministers. As the Secretary was saying, many areas, many of these areas, are very important in this new stage in which we look for development, prosperity, and opportunity for all Colombians.
The United States was a very important actor in finding and working for peace in Colombia, and you have supported our peace. We talked about this, and we are eternally thankful to you for this. It’s thanks to the cooperation with the United States that we were able to find our security, our safety in Colombia. Without that, President Santos would not have been able to take that step to go into the process of peace. And in this stage, what we’re doing is finding – trying to improve the standard of living of all the Colombians in peace and prosperity.
So the topics that we have focused on are extremely important, and they are vital for the development of Colombia. And based on this, we want to thank the United States for being available in this sense. We talked about energy for the support to small and medium-sized businesses. We talked about education, science, technology, innovation. President Santos and President Obama in December reached the creation of a committee to deal with science, technology, to provide support to these entities.
And all of this is starting to work. We’re starting to see this come to fruition. We also talked about climatic change, natural parks. We are having an exchange with the United States on the entity of these parks so that we can start that type of cooperation, improving eco-tourism and the sustainability of the parks.
We will also sign something which is very important – we have signed this with many other countries – which is the agreement on human trafficking. We want to work hand-in-hand with the United States. This is a very important step that we will take.
Electrical interconnection – Secretary Kerry and I were talking about the importance of being interconnected in the Americas and how we will continue to work in order to achieve this, and of course, in the cooperation in terms of fossil fuels, hydrocarbons, and so on, finding new energy sources.
We also spoke about the Caribbean, about Central America, about the support that we have given the Central American countries and the Caribbean against drug trafficking and organized crime. This is a joint work that we do with the Ministry of Defense with the United States. And I have to tell you that this is our best bet for Central America not falling and for it to recover from the influence that drug trafficking has had in that area. We wish to continue our cooperation in this sense.
We also asked Secretary Kerry if we could have an extension visa so that we could start this journey. I know that this requires time. We have to abide by the law that has its provisions. But we have worked with Mexico. We have an information platform which has been extremely useful so that Mexicans would do away with visas for Colombians. And I think that the – oh, it was yesterday that the European parliament decided that we – they would extend visas, the Schengen visas, to Colombia and Peru. So this is how the Colombians, we think, will feel that they are welcome in the world and not associated to that difficult situation of the drug trafficking, and they’re not rejected because of this through visas.
We also spoke about the drug issue for Colombia. All these meetings are very important. And perhaps we’ll have more meetings in 2016 on the topic of drug trafficking, because aside from all the efforts that we’re doing – we’re working for peace, to eradicate poverty, for equality in our country – if additionally we could make progress in the field of drugs, how we can fight jointly against drugs, and how all this changes and how we have to adjust to present day reality, we are convinced that our country will be deeply transformed.
I’d like to reiterate our thanks for the support of Secretary Kerry, this permanent support for the peace process. We’d like to see how the post-conflict stage will be, how the United States will look to us, and how we’ll be able to work together once we sign everything. We hope to sign a peace agreement.
As always, Mr. Secretary, it’s very gratifying to come to these meetings with you. They’re always very interesting. And I do wish to thank you for all your hospitality toward me and my entire delegation. More than being satisfied, I think that it’s important to elevate this dialogue with the United States. We are working to improve the development of our country, to give our country the opportunity to come out of suffering due to conflict, violence. In this sense, we have been successful, and I’m sure that it must be very gratifying for you to see how successful your policies toward Colombia have been. We wish to continue to work in this sense, because we’re convinced that the new aspects of the agenda will strengthen our relationship, and a country like Colombia will be strengthened further, and so will the region.
Thank you so much.
MS. PSAKI: The first question will be from Margaret Brennan of CBS News.
QUESTION: Thank you. There’s already a Russian military presence within Ukraine via their existing military bases. So technically, it wouldn’t violate territorial integrity for them to choose to use them, particularly in places where there are instability like we’re seeing in Crimea.
Today Viktor Yanukovych went public, said – he called on Russia not to be a bystander, warned that there could be uprisings, particularly in eastern Ukraine. I’m wondering if you feel that you have assurances that Russia is being transparent about its role in Ukraine and how it intends to use its military.
SECRETARY KERRY: Well, let me begin by saying that we as the United States totally supports the Ukraine’s territorial integrity and the sovereignty, and we expect other nations to do the same. It is accurate, as you’ve just said, that Russia has a base agreement in Ukraine, by which they have right of access and rules that regulate their presence.
I talked this morning with Foreign Minister Lavrov about the reports we are getting about Russian presence and what it may be choosing to do. And we raised the issue of the airports, raised the issue of armored vehicles, raised the issue of personnel in various places. And while we were told that they are not engaging in any violation of the sovereignty and do not intend to, I nevertheless made it clear that that could be misinterpreted at this moment, and that there are enough tensions that it is important for everybody to be extremely careful not to inflame the situation and not to send the wrong messages.
He reaffirmed to me that President Putin is committed and that as a matter of policy they do not intend to violate the sovereignty of Ukraine, but that there are obviously interests in Crimea, which were reflected in their local Rada yesterday where people feel a strong attachment to and affinity for Russia, obviously. This is the tension that exists within Ukraine itself. There’s an east-west tension right within Ukraine. And I emphasized to him our desire to diffuse these tensions, to work very constructively, to bring Ukraine together, keep it – to keep the respect for its sovereignty and its territorial integrity. And he reiterated their intention not to violate it. Now at the same time as we were talking, former President Yanukovych was holding a press conference and he articulated during that that he did not want to ask Russia for assistance and that he asked for the respect for the territorial integrity of Ukraine.
So we are continuing this dialogue. We will continue this dialogue. We believe – National Security Advisor Rice has made it very clear and I made it clear – that intervention would, in our judgment, be a very grave mistake. It would be completely contrary to Russian policies as stated now with respect to Libya, Syria, other places. And any acts – the question is whether or not what is happening now might be crossing a line in any way, and we’re going to be very careful in making our judgments about that. I think that we would overwhelmingly stress today that we urge all parties – all parties – that includes the new interim technical government and rightists and oppositionists and others, anybody in the street who is armed – we urge all parties to avoid any steps that could be misinterpreted or lead to miscalculation or do anything other than to work to bring peace and stability and a peaceful transition within the governing process of Ukraine.
And we are pledged to work with Russia and with the EU and others and especially with the new interim technical government in an effort to try to affect a very peaceful process. I did talk with Foreign Minister Lavrov about the urgency of focusing on the economy. And he indicated that they have indicated – Russia – that they are prepared to engage and be involved in helping to deal with the economic transition that needs to take place at this point – the economic help that needs to be presented at this point.
The primary focus of everybody should be on the creation of a stable transitioning process that allows Ukrainians to be able to make their choice in a free and fair election while we all work to help stabilize the economy. That’s in Russia’s interest, in the United States’ interest, in the world’s interest. And that’s what we’re working towards. And we do not want to get caught up in the historical or the more current tensions over association agreements or NATO or other kinds of things. There’s a place for that down the road if the – if Ukrainians want to have that debate but we do not believe that that should be part of what is happening now. Now is the time for transition and for respect for the pluralism and diversity and democracy that the people of Ukraine want.
MODERATOR: And the last question is from Carolina Ochoa of FM Radio.
QUESTION: Thank you for taking the question. Actually, if you would both like to comment on this we would really appreciate it. But as Secretary Kerry mentioned earlier, Venezuela was a topic that was discussed during the dialogue. So yesterday, both chambers of the Congress moved projects for the Obama Administration to impose sanctions for the Venezuelan Government. Is that something you are considering? And also, what are your thoughts on the request of – to waive visas for Colombians who are traveling to the U.S.?
SECRETARY KERRY: What was the last question? Visa –
QUESTION: Yeah, about the request to waive visas for Colombians traveling to the U.S.
SECRETARY KERRY: Sure, absolutely. Well, let me just say that with respect to Venezuela, Congress has urged sanctions. We are working very closely with Colombia and with other countries to try to see how some kind of mediation might be able to take place, because it’s obviously already proven very difficult for the two sides to bring themselves together by themselves.
We are open to – we’ve constantly indicated our willingness to develop a more constructive relationship with Venezuela. But unfortunately, Venezuela has spontaneously decided again and again to move in a different direction, and more often than not, to try to blame the United States for its own lack of governance and inattention to its economy and dealing with its own citizens. And so there’s a fiction that has been created where it’s easy to blame us even though we’ve had literally absolutely no intrusive engagement or effort or anything other than to try to have a normal relationship.
Now, it seems to me that what has to happen now is for Venezuelan leadership to deal with their own people. They need to reach out and have a dialogue and bring people together and resolve their problems. And it is not inappropriate for Congress or for others to be debating and thinking about those incentives or those measures that are appropriate for actions that have been taken or haven’t been taken that have a profoundly negative effect on people’s rights, on their freedom, and on their ability to demonstrate, and speak, and call for a responsible level of governance in their country.
So we will examine every aspect of what is available to us as an option here, but most importantly, we need a dialogue within Venezuela – not arrests and violence in the streets and persecution against young people who are voicing their hopes for a future. They need to sit down and come together and talk about the future of Venezuela and how they can best affect that future in a peaceful and responsible way.
I suspect that Minister Holguin would want to also comment on Venezuela, but let me just answer quickly on the waiver issue. We would very much like to be able to grant a visa waiver. It’s not a question of a lack of will, it’s that we have a law passed by the Congress of the United States, which we have to follow, which sets up certain criteria that have to be met in order to implement a visa waiver program. And it has a specific requirement with respect to the number of visa refusals and what the rationale is and so forth. We’re going to work together. We’re absolutely committed to make sure that as soon as possible we would be able to implement that program and we’re going to work as constructively as we can to help our friends in Colombia know exactly how to meet that and how we can be helpful, because there’s nothing that works better for both of us than to have quick and easy free access between us. So we’re going to do everything we can to meet those standards.
FOREIGN MINISTER HOLGUIN: (Via interpreter) On the issue of visa waivers, we deeply thank Secretary Kerry for his position. We know that there’s a law, we know that there are requirements related thereto, specifically on the percentage of visa refusals that stands at 3 percent. Colombia is way over that 3 percent level. We have a long road to follow on this, so we – and there’s a lot of work to do.
On Venezuela, I will make statements on Venezuela from Colombia. I have made those statements before, and I’d respectfully abstain from making any statements right now. Thank you.
SECRETARY KERRY: Appreciate it. Thanks so much. Thank you.