Colombia’s Interior Minister Luis Fernando Velasco (Popayán, 58 years old) faces several major challenges: rebuilding the legislative leadership of a government that shattered its legislative coalition six months ago, and building a less strained relationship with the mayors and governors to be elected on October 29th, reduce the recent security problems across the country… He takes care of EL PAÍS in a cold and classic office in the La Giralda headquarters, a late 19th century mansion in the center of Bogotá, just a few steps from the Nariño Palace and the Capitol, a few minutes before he presented to Congress the bill that will bring one of the few legislative achievements of his five months in office: the constitutional reform that creates an agrarian justice system, adopted with the support of the opposition.
Velasco, a veteran Caucano politician who represents the bridge between today’s Colombia’s first left-wing government and part of the traditional political class of liberal origins, seems hopeful. “Colombia needs a collective dream,” he says, giving an example: “In La Guajira I see the richest corner of Latin America.”
Questions. How do you see Colombia currently?
Answer: We are at a turning point. If we manage to overcome our challenges together and look clearly into the future, we have enormous opportunities. I explain them with two anecdotes.
I was recently in La Guajira, in a remote corner of Uribia. There is no water, it is semi-desert, so everyone can see the poorest area in Colombia. I, on the other hand, have seen the richest corner of Latin America. There are already windmills producing energy, the cheapest form of energy production, and the Ministry of Mines told me that this area could generate 25 gigawatts, while all of Colombia generates 18 today. I also saw natural harbors that don’t require dredging and are nearby. of international sea routes and beautiful beaches for tourism. I imagine a Wayuu Riviera, less than 150 miles from Aruba, where tourists arrive from all over the world.
Another example. Less than ten days ago I was invited by indigenous communities to the Huila Reserve at the foot of the Nevado del Huila volcano in Cauca. There they gave me a kilo of fertilizer enriched with coca leaves. The indigenous communities, through Dutch and Canadian collaboration, have managed to synthesize a coca tree that contains no alkaloid but is so useful that they tell me they can pay twice as much for its leaves as drug dealers pay for the leaves of the usual trees pay. They gave me an energy drink made from this cola, spectacular, and a really good cola whiskey.
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Q What is your conclusion?
R. That Colombia has potential everywhere. We are often stuck in the tough fight for power, and when we have the power, we don’t know what to do.
Q And what does the government do with the power?
R. We focus on the economic model that has led to the country’s stagnation. 30 years ago we took energy away from the industrial sector and decided that what mattered was getting a cheap shirt, whether it was made in a labor paradise where people were being exploited or whether we were fetching corn from wherever. We did not prepare our manufacturing sector for this indiscriminate opening, and now, when the cost of dollars or fertilizer skyrockets due to conflict, our lives become more expensive.
We believed that we could live on oil revenues, which is important but not that important, and we didn’t develop the country. Many people want to live off the state and do not understand that the state must create the conditions so that the performance of citizens can skyrocket so that entrepreneurs can advance. We failed to carry out serious agrarian reform; On the contrary, we have witnessed violent land reaccumulation in recent decades. We are rethinking this model.
Q Sounds ambitious…
R. We’re making progress. Some importers were very upset when we proposed the 40 percent tariff on clothing from countries where there is no free trade agreement – we respect what the state has signed. But in the first semester, the clothing industry remained in the midst of a decline, and in this second semester, I heard from clothing manufacturers an increase in employment and demand. I see that corn cultivation is growing, that they have grown cotton again. We want to restart our industry. Peace is closely linked to the growth of tourism. We are postponing the model to bring it back into production.
Q How does the energy transition fit into this?
R. This is not the problem of some crazy environmentalists wearing hats and eating butterflies: the world needs to make a gradual transition. For cars and industry, there is one thing that is no longer science fiction: green hydrogen, produced by electrolysis of water. Clean energy investments are increasing day by day and are almost at the level of fossil energy investments, so there is an opportunity. We have clean energy to make this process environmentally friendly. Colombia can become one of the first producers of green hydrogen in the world and be the equivalent of what today’s oil producing countries are. We would take a huge leap. That is what we are betting on, and it is clear that things will work out better if we as a nation are able to reach agreements.
Q We come to the question of national unity.
R. Yes, political debate is necessary, but even in the most polarized societies, agreements are reached. In Spain, for example, it was thanks to an agreement that ETA was deactivated. In Colombia we have reached agreements by force, but we live with great distrust among everyone: the opposition distrusts the government, and there are parts of the government and the democratic left that do not want to negotiate with the right because they believe that they are just avoiding any change want. So we are in a process of gaining trust.
Q How can Congress be involved?
R. While this trust-building goes some way, we need a much broader agreement than just legal reforms. You have to talk to people. Well, I would be more in favor of minimum agreements than trying to convert the whole country into one agreement.
Q We already have a country agreement, a constitution of pluralistic origin…
R. Yes, it was a very important agreement. What we are proposing is not: “Come and let’s vote on everything.” There may be agreements on points like health care, pensions and labor reforms, and we resolve the rest by voting, a way that democracy resolves its differences Are defined.
Q And what would be the methodology for the agreement?
R. I presented some ideas on methodology to the President; I’m waiting for him to tell me what the way is. But I think we shouldn’t do extra-institutional activities. If we need a law, we have to pass it in Congress. Of course, listen to the citizens. With the development plan, we have carried out such an extensive process, with binding regional dialogues. There we see leadership that serves this listening.
Q This conversation is about the growing security problem…
R. Colombia did something monumental, the peace agreement with the FARC. But we lacked a cent for the peso: we made the agreement with the armed people, but not with the unarmed people. This is why when Duque won there were four years of opposition to implementation and today we are seeing a resurgence of violence. The bet is to achieve peace before we outgrow it. This time we asked the opposition to sit at the negotiating table. There’s Valencia Cossio, Lafaurie… we don’t want to do anything hidden. It is a process of the state, the nation, not the party.
Q Is this a criticism of the Santos government?
R. Yes, he did something spectacular, but that was what he was missing. The right will not end, it also lives in this country and has ideas, suggestions and successes.
Q Do you think the elections will be positive for the government, even though there are few candidates for the top positions in the Historical Pact?
R. Yes. Many current mayors and governors campaigned on a different shore last year. Those who arrive want to have a good relationship with the government they will live with for three of their four years. There will be a very fluid relationship. Regardless of who arrives, we are interested in working together.
Q And how does a national agreement emerge if there are no established parties that enable an organized dialogue?
R. Although there are no parties, there is a defined ideological spectrum and it can be structured that way. The times are ripe to put the pedal to the metal on national unity after the election and to gather a lot of strength in the coming months. You don’t have to waste a second. Colombia needs a collective dream, something that identifies us beyond the football team. The idea is to build each other up and listen to each other.
Q And what contribution is the government making to this?
R. Part of the difficulty is that this is not just any government, but one that is out of the ordinary because it is left-wing. This is the starting point: this government wants to make some changes, it was elected with this proposal, so no agreement not to make changes can be proposed. Now we can discuss what changes we will make, how far we will go, and how we will implement them. But the arrival of a democratic left in power is doing the country very good.
Q In the sense that it allows us to reflect on these changes?
R. Of course, and it allows those who have always had the government to think and notice that something is wrong. Something, not everything, because as Mario Benedetti says: “When we arrive, we must remember that the world we left had Paris, Claudia Cardinale and champagne.” Interesting things have been done before too.
Q In fact, you or your party have been involved in several governments recently.
R. My party. I served in Congress as a liberal for 24 years, but almost always in opposition. He came from the rebel sector. When the party said it supported Duque, I didn’t. I was against Uribe when a large part of my group supported him, even though we were supposedly in opposition. I voted for Serpa, not Pastrana; and I didn’t vote for Santos in 2010, I voted for Mockus because Santos was Uribe’s candidate. Then, during the peace process, I started helping him. Actually, as a congressman, I only won a presidential election once: the re-election of Santos.
Q And Samper in 1994, as the Liberal candidate?
R. I haven’t been a congressman yet. I’m old, but not that old!
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