Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Assistant Secretary Valenzuela in Ecuador and Colombia

This week Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Arturo Valenzuela is visiting Ecuador, Colombia and Peru. According to the State Department's press release, the Assistant Secretary will "meet with senior officials to discuss issues of mutual interests, including security cooperation, social inclusion, economic competitiveness and inclusive prosperity, democratic governance, and human rights."

Assistant Secretary Valenzuela was in Ecuador on Monday and Tuesday, where he met with President Rafael Correa, Ecuadorian Foreign Minister Ricardo Patiño, and other government officials. Valenzuela also took time to speak at a conference organized by FLACSO, where he was to speak about Obama's foreign policy (watch video of event here).

On Tuesday afternoon, the assistant secretary continued on to Bogotá, Colombia, where he met with Colombian Defense Minister Gabriel Silva and other top Colombian officials. Today, Valenzuela spoke with over 300 students at the Universidad de los Andes about U.S.-Colombian relations (watch event here), and held a bilateral meeting with President Álvaro Uribe at the World Economic Forum in Cartagena this afternoon.

The Department of State has not released much official information about the trip on its website, and the Assistant Secretary's Twitter account and Facebook page have been relatively quiet.

Below is the information we have gathered about the official meetings in Ecuador and Colombia from press releases issued by the Government of Ecuador, the Government of Colombia, and the media.

In Ecuador

On Tuesday morning, Assistant Secretary Valenzuela met with Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa and some of the top members of his cabinet, including Foreign Minister Ricardo Patiño and Defense Minister Miguel Carvajal. Foreign Minister Patiño spoke to the press after the meeting, and said the dialogue between Valenzuela and President Correa was "very positive." According to Patiño, the two spoke about the relationship between the United States and UNASUR (which Ecuador currently chairs) and bilateral relations between Ecuador and the United States.

At the start of the meeting, President Correa said that several media outlets had reported that Valenzuela's visit was meant to "fix bilateral relations," however, he said he didn't "know what is broken."

During the meeting, Ecuador spoke about trade, counternarcotics, and security, among other topics. In terms of trade, Ecuador asked that the United States not renew ATPDEA trade preferences annually, but instead renew for several years to allow for the country to make long-term plans for its trade activities. In terms of security, President Correa told Assistant Secretary Valenzuela that his government is in complete agreement with the United States: "We think that organized crime, be it narcotrafficking, money laundering, ... etc., are the scourge of humanity and we are the first in line in this fight." The President continued, "In the Andean region we are the only country that does not produce drugs. We have trafficking and we are arduously fighting against it. But here, there is zero tolerance, not because it is a priority of the United States, but because it is also our priority. Whatever child that is victim of drugs, whatever crime that is committed in the name of drugs is a crime against us all."

The BBC reported that Assistant Secretary Valenzuela mentioned the United States' concern about Iran's nuclear program during the meeting. In response, President Correa said his government is not interested in entering into talks about Iran's nuclear program, and asked "What does this have to do with selling bananas to Iran? What does this have to do with Iran wanting to finance certain hydro-electric plants?"

Assistant Secretary Valenzuela also brought up concerns about freedom of the press in Ecuador, saying, "it is very important to be sure that effectively there is a dialogue, and a good capacity for expression in all sectors of society." Correa responded that in Ecuador "whoever can say what they desire, when they desire," and freedom of expression in Ecuador is "absolutely guaranteed." He continued, "what happens is that, as it does all over the world, one must be responsible for what they say, and this is what many people do not want."

After the meeting, Assistant Secretary Valenzuela told the press, "we covered many international, hemispheric and, at the same time, bilateral topics ... it was a very amenable and respectful dialogue between two governments committed to seeing how we can advance our bilateral relations."

In Colombia

Upon arriving in Bogotá on Tuesday afternoon, Valenzuela was asked about his statements on the military agreement being negotiated with Brazil. According to the Associated Press, Valenzuela said, "No one, not even I in the declarations that I made in Ecuador, has talked about bases. What I said is that the United States, in its collaboration with other countries....has a series of agreements that are made in regard to security."... "We are negotiating agreements of this type in many parts of the world, I don't want to speak more about this topic. ... The United States is working on this, as it always is part of our normal and daily politics of a country."

Valenzuela also said during the press conference with Colombian Defense Minister Gabriel Silva, "The subject of organized crime is of grave concern to us, the subject of narcotrafficking ... is of grave concern to us. Without a doubt, we are worried about possible threats that could make one country's sovereignty vulnerable in the face of another country."

On Tuesday afternoon, Assistant Secretary Valenzuela met with Minister of the Interior and Justice Fabio Valencia Cossio. During the meeting, Valenzuela ratified the United States' commitment to working with Colombia to fight narcotrafficking. "The message of the United States Government is that it continues to be and will be committed to Colombia. We want to continue collaborating in the fight against narcotrafficking, since it is still not over; therefore we have to continue working in a joint way in the framework of co-responsibility." The Colombian Presidency's press release continued to note that Valenzuela proposed "the creation of a center for the prevention of terrorism with five central themes concentrating on nuclear terrorism, terrorism and narcotrafficking, terrorism and illegal groups, and the empowerment of victims on the subject of preventing terrorism."

Valenzuela's itinerary included speaking to over 300 students at the Universidad de los Andes about U.S.-Colombian relations (the video of the event is available here). Although not much press coverage of the event has emerged, El Tiempo reports that during the event Assistant Secretary Valenzuela said "'we cannot tolerate at these levels military threats between countries,' 'intervention,' or support to terrorist sectors." This was a response to a question about tensions between Colombia and Venezuela. Assistant Secretary Valenzuela also noted that the United States welcomes "'initiatives' that UNASUR suggests to help 'lower the temperature' between countries in the region."

This afternoon Assistant Secretary Valenzuela met with Colombian President Álvaro Uribe in Cartagena. El Tiempo reports that the two will talk about "trade relations between the two countries and some economic elements of a bilateral nature for the two governments."