María Ángela Holguín, former Colombian Foreign Minister, in Bogotá on May 18, 2022. Vannessa Jimenez
More than anyone in recent Colombian history, María Ángela Holguín (Bogotá, 58) has occupied the office of the Palacio de San Carlos, a 16th-century building that serves as the headquarters of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in downtown Bogotá. At the end of a long diplomatic career, she was Minister of Foreign Affairs during Juan Manuel Santos’ two terms of office, from 2010 to 2018. After being ambassador in Caracas and before the United Nations, she received the portfolio for relations with Venezuela from Hugo Chávez and Ecuador from Rafael Correa were destroyed after the government of Álvaro Uribe (2002-2018).
Not only did she manage to rebuild relations with her neighbors amid ups and downs as head of Colombia’s diplomacy, she was also the chief negotiator in Havana for the peace accords with the extinct FARC guerrillas. Last year he published La Venezuela que viví (Planeta), a sort of memoir of the turbulence he navigated during his diplomatic career. For three years, Holguín has also been a partner of Sergio Fajardo, the candidate of the Centro Esperanza coalition in the presidential elections on May 29. Over the weekend he accompanied him in Cúcuta, the most important Colombian city on a more than 2,200 km long porous border.
Although he has been spotted smiling with the former Antioquia governor at other campaign events over the past month, his presence has been discreet so far. He explains it in this interview in EL PAÍS, in which he criticizes President Iván Duque’s foreign policy and the “diplomatic siege” he promoted against Nicolás Maduro’s government. “It was pointless,” he says in his Bogotá apartment, which is adorned with artworks, including Venezuelan and Cuban artists, reminiscent of his days in Caracas and Havana.
Questions. He just got back from Cucuta. What did you find on the border with Venezuela that shaped your career as a diplomat?
Answer. I was struck by the imperative of bridges [binacionales] open up more than ever Those four years of these closed bridges were a disaster for Cúcuta. Economically illegal everywhere. Entrepreneurs and ordinary people are screaming to please open them up, let people pass and that the trails aren’t the horror they are today. The situation is dramatic because there is no authority on either side. I was also struck by the level of informality in Cúcuta that is related to this lack of commerce. The limit left to crime.
P With you at the helm of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Colombia reestablished relations with Hugo Chávez’s Venezuela. Now they are completely broken. How should Colombia’s next president deal with Nicolás Maduro’s government?
R Communication channels must be set up. There are issues to certainly work on because they are also keen that the border is not the mess it is today, full of crime, smuggling and murder. It is a point that can be worked on without having to recognize a government that since May 2018 we have been saying we do not recognize. In any case, some transition is emerging in Venezuela, with the approach of the United States, they will already relax certain sanctions.
P Not even in the worst moments of relations between Colombia and Venezuela were all consulates closed
R Never. Today, nowhere in the world do we have a border relationship, no matter how difficult it may be. There are always lines of communication between Americans and Cubans. What this government has come to is really absurd.
P How do you assess Iván Duque’s foreign policy?
R lousy I understand that the pandemic were difficult years for foreign policy, but I don’t see what the priorities were and what was achieved, other than the image that Colombia had, in which we had made great strides to bring an end to it. Today they are giving one speech about peace outside and another inside. And the international community is neither ignorant nor naive. The highlight seems to me to have been last year’s decree that shared the functions of the State Department with the chief of staff of the Palacio de Nariño. The institutionality of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has lost enormously.
P Would the peace agreement have survived these four years without the support of the international community?
R That’s what saved the peace deal. The United Nations and the international community played it out for Colombia. There is no conflict in the world that is resolved peacefully, they all have tended to get worse and that hope was very important. If it hadn’t been, the peace deal would have collapsed more than it is. Let’s hope that a government will come that is convinced that we have this violence everywhere again, partly because we have not honored the agreement.
P Has this government ideologized Colombian foreign policy?
R In relation to Venezuela total. He believed that they would put down Maduro from the first moment. And well, Maduro will fire him.
P At the end of his tenure, Juan Manuel Santos didn’t recognize Nicolás Maduro’s last election, but tension has only escalated since then. Has the “diplomatic siege” promoted by Duque worked?
R Absolutely none. The President explained in an interview that thanks to the diplomatic siege, the opposition is now sitting with the Venezuelan government in Mexico. Nothing but the truth. They sit there for the Americans. The fence was useless.
María Ángela Holguín with Sergio Fajardo at a campaign event in Cúcuta on May 13, 2022. Courtesy
P. What is your role in Sergio Fajardo’s campaign?
R I’ve been a little far, first time I’ll put it in black and white for fear of being branded a saint. Coming from Santo, I worked for President Santos, super confident, grateful to him for being able to be in the external relations portfolio at times that I felt were unique to the country. Another thing is that Sergio is a saint, which is not the case. He recognizes the peace process and many things, but he has many differences. But well, I’ll accompany him, and above all we talk a lot. That was my contribution, more than a very visible thing.
P Did he jump in the water, as Fajardo said last month during the first campaign activities he accompanied him on?
R It was just that I was in a bad mood because I jumped in, it made me covid and I had to lock myself up again. I am convinced that Colombia and the world in general have found themselves in a situation where very big economic and social decisions have to be made. This will not be achieved by a government of extremes. Polarization will not reach us, there will be no governability. I do believe that a person like Fajardo does that: reflexively, impulsively, who thinks about problems, who calmly searches for solutions, who knows the country. The one in this campaign impressed me more. Study, devotion, the desire for a country outside of hate, anger and polarization.
P What is the quality that defines Sergio Fajardo?
R The discipline. I guess it’s your education, you have a PhD in mathematical logic, so you double-check everything you say. His education prevents him from promising what is not realizable, all his proposals are realizable, which is a very important value for a politician, but it is difficult for him to be recognized in the election campaign. It amazes me how one grows in the face of adversity. At no time was he intimidated. He will not give his arm to turn.
P You are clearly whispering in his ear. What topics do you advise him on?
R In foreign policy at all. We talk a lot about Venezuela, Latin America, the relationship with the United States. We talk about that a lot.
P “Diplomacy is about dealing with people who are different, it’s not about taking pictures with friends,” Fajardo said in Cúcuta. Do you share this appreciation?
R In total. Why diplomacy? In order to avoid wars, diplomacy is born. The thing is that you can calm the waters and take advantage of unfavorable situations. The Venezuela issue had to be salvaged through diplomacy.
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