ASSISTANT SECRETARY JACOBSON: Good morning, everyone. Thank you for being here. I would like to introduce Secretary of State John Kerry.
SECRETARY KERRY: Thank you. Thank you very much, Assistant Secretary Jacobson. Let me say that I’m pleased the ambassador – Colombia’s Ambassador Villegas – thank you for joining us, and good morning, everybody.
Shortly after I was elected to the Senate in the 1980s, I served as chairman of the Western Hemisphere Subcommittee. And we spent a lot of time focused on Colombia, which was at the time facing some incredibly difficult circumstances and some very tough choices. I’ve had the opportunity now to visit Colombia twice since becoming Secretary, and I have gotten to see firsthand the extraordinary transformation that has taken place in Colombia. In the 1990s we worked very hard on Plan Colombia, and it was controversial at the time, but it resulted in assisting this transformation to take place, together with the extraordinary courage of the people of Colombia, who really fought to reclaim their country. And it’s a great success story.
Today, Colombia is a critical ally for the United States. And we are working hard together to promote security and economic prosperity throughout the Western Hemisphere and the world. But despite Colombia’s remarkable story and all that it has achieved as a nation, the country has continued to suffer the tragic effects of one of the longest running wars on the planet, a war that has lasted half a century and left millions of Colombians dead, wounded, or displaced.
For 20 years the United States has been Colombia’s steadfast ally in this conflict, and in the two years since President Santos first embarked on a courageous effort to negotiate an end to the war, our support for the peace talks and for a peace process has been unwavering. We know that if the parties were able to reach an agreement, if they could finally bring peace to a country that has seen war for decades now of internal conflict, this would unleash enormous potential for the Colombian people and it would have an impact throughout Latin America and perhaps even beyond.
In December I met with President Santos in Bogota, and he asked me directly whether or not the time had come for the United States to perhaps take a more direct role, and be more directly supportive of the peace process. I queried whether he was absolutely committed to that track and whether in fact he thought the United States could be helpful. And he said yes to both questions.
After careful consideration, President Obama has come to the conclusion – which I share, needless to say – that first, while significant obstacles remain, a negotiated peace in Colombia is absolutely worth pursuing and absolutely worth assisting if we are able to; and second, as Colombia’s close friend and ally, the United States has a responsibility to do what it can in order to help Colombia to achieve that peace.
We also recognized that we needed somebody who had the ability to ensure that the United States is effectively contributing to the process and helping the parties come closer to the peace that they seek. Needless to say, we wanted someone who knows the region inside out and who has experience in negotiations like these. So it is with our confidence and the confidence of the Colombian Government, and the men and women in Colombia who have been working tirelessly and for far too long for an end to this war, that I am today pleased to announce that Bernie Aronson will serve as the United States special envoy for the Colombian peace process.
Now Bernie’s experience in this region is significant. It’s extensive. In addition to being a former assistant secretary of state for western hemisphere affairs, his well-recognized hard work in helping to resolve the conflicts in El Salvador and Nicaragua is really a lasting achievement in American diplomacy, and it earned him the State Department’s Distinguished Service Medal and the admiration of all those who followed those talks and who have worked in the region since.
Anyone who has worked with Bernie knows that what he has accomplished in terms of diplomacy and in his career has not come by accident. His success is a direct result of his creativity, his judgment, his deep commitment to the region. And President Obama and I have asked him to serve in this role because we know he will bring all of those attributes to the Colombia peace process.
And we also know that he will have his work cut out for him. These negotiations are not easy, and we know that. Negotiations like this never are. They’re reasons that this has gone on for years and years. If it was easy, it would have been done already. The Colombian Government and the FARC have been fighting for longer than most Colombians have been alive. And after so many years of violence, emotions always run strong, and that’s understandable.
But with courage, with determination, with a just and lasting commitment to peace, we think that the courage shown by President Santos and the people of Colombia in pursuing these talks could actually find a resolution. With the help of Special Envoy Aronson, the United States is going to continue to stand by Colombians’ side in this journey, and we hope that 2015 could possibly take a step forward in helping to bring Colombia the security, the prosperity and, most importantly, the peace that it deserves. And with that, I introduce Bernie Aronson.
MR. ARONSON: Thank you, Mr. Secretary, for those very generous words and for the trust you and the President have placed in me. The best thing that I did in my professional life and the most fulfilling, as the Secretary alluded to, was to join many other people in trying to help end the war in El Salvador.
To be honest, Mr. Secretary, I kind of thought I was done after that. But Colombia is a country I care about and have many friends there, and when the Secretary of State asks you to serve your country, I believe you salute and say, “I will.” So you made me an offer I can’t refuse, and I’m very grateful.
As you said, for 50 years Colombians have sacrificed their blood and treasure to defend their democratic institutions. Now the Colombian people have a real opportunity for peace, and you have made it clear and the President has made it clear if President Santos believes the United States can help this administration, we’ll spare no effort, and I’ll take that as my charge.
Peace can only be made by Colombians themselves. We have no blueprint made in Washington to offer. We will not take a place at the negotiating table, but we can push, prod, cajole, and clarify and help wherever we can. The parties have made substantial progress, but the hard, knotty issues have been left to the end as they usually are. Now the parties must resolve them, because windows for peace, as all of us know, can close without warning, and sometimes they never reopen.
The Colombian people are ready for peace, and President Santos has shown great courage and political will in moving the peace process forward. Now it is time, long past time, for the FARC and hopefully the ELN to demonstrate their courage by renouncing violence forever so Colombians can heal the wounds of war and live in peace with justice under the law.
Colombia declared its independence in 1819, and the United States had consulates in Cartagena and Santa Marta by 1823. So we have been friends and allies for a very long time. Colombian and American troops fought side by side in South Korea, worked to help the Afghan Government combat drug trafficking, and both of us are helping our friend and neighbor, Mexico, confront cartel violence under the Merida Initiative which this Administration pioneered and which my former colleague, Secretary Jacobson, negotiated.
So any party to this conflict which is still debating whether to choose the path of peace or continued violence should know the partnership between Colombia and the United States will continue in the future, whichever path it chooses.
Colombia is a land of world-class entrepreneurs and magical realism, high-tech startups and coffee farms. It hosts the greatest rainforest biodiversity per square meter of any country in the world. No nation has done more to protect the land and sacred sites of its indigenous peoples, and the World Bank says it is the best place to do business in Latin America. Peace, as the Secretary has said, can open the doors to an unlimited future in which all Colombians can share. That is our hope and our prayer and our commitment.
John F. Kennedy inspired many members of my generation to seek a life in public service. I suspect you may be one of them. And I’ll close with something President Kennedy wrote, because I think it could be written for this occasion. He said: “When history rights its verdict, let it be said that we pursued the peace with all the courage, all the strength, and all the resourcefulness at our command.”
Again, Mr. Secretary, thank you for this opportunity. Thank you very much.
SECRETARY KERRY: Thank you all very much. Appreciate it.
QUESTION: When will you go – are you going to Havana? Are you going to Havana?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY JACOBSON: Thank you for coming. Thank you very much for coming.
QUESTION: How close are you (inaudible)?
QUESTION: When are you going to Havana?
MR. ARONSON: Thank you very much.
SECRETARY KERRY: When we get our work done.