The agenda of the ambassador of Colombia to the United States, Luis Carlos Villegas, was tight during his recent four-day visit to Tampa: He received The Gloria — the flagship of the Armada de la República de Colombia (the Colombian Navy) — and met with businessmen, listened to the needs of their peers and visited with media.
“What I found most interesting is that for years I have visited the United States when I was in the private sector, and the perception about Colombia has changed for the first time,” Villegas said.
“There is great recognition for the achievements Colombia has had in the economy, politics, art and even soccer,” he added.
Villegas, who was president of the National Association of Entrepreneurs in Colombia before becoming ambassador, among other high-level management positions, cited several statistics during a meeting with The Tampa Tribune Editorial Board. He said that Colombia was No. 7 in the Latin American economy in 2000. Now it is third, after Brazil and Mexico.
“We went from 12 percent unemployment to 8 percent. It’s dramatic for a country that was isolated for 20 years due to organized crime and zero investment,” Villegas said.
The ambassador expressed that his country still has challenges to overcome, among them that Colombia has 6 million people who live in rural areas, which need to be modernized.
Q: How did you achieve so much progress so quickly?
Luis Carlos Villegas: Because we have all the ingredients. We are in the middle of the exploration of business in oil, coal and gas; we have a solid infrastructure and [are] diversified. ... Foreign investment is $18 billion and is sustainable because our prosperity does not come from grants or gifts from the public budget; it comes by the growth of the household income.
Q: What kind of economic relationship does Colombia have with Florida?
LCV: Florida is the second-largest buyer of Colombian products and perhaps the third investor in Colombia. The principal purchaser is the state of New York.
Q: Has the Free Trade Agreement between the USA and Colombia had a great impact on your economy?
LCV: Yes, of course. We have 350 new products coming to the United States because of the trade agreement, and 2,000 small companies have been exporting for the first time to the United States. In the case of the USA, you have replaced Argentina in grains. We usually bought wheat and barley from Argentina at high prices. We buy now from the USA at a reasonable price, and the poultry industry has benefited.
Q: Is Florida noted for some sort of trade in particular?
LCV: Tampa is a very active port. I can say that 85 percent of the goods pass between here and Miami. From Tampa we receive quite a few electronic products.
Q: Why don’t you use the Tampa port as a tourism destination in Colombia?
LCV: We have made a request. From Miami we have carried 500,000 tourists on cruises to Cartagena and Santa Marta, but it wouldn’t surprise me that Tampa will cruise to Cartagena soon. There are no direct flights to Colombia, but they could occur in the next year or two...
Q: You have a lunch with local businessmen. What do you hope to accomplish in the meeting?
LCV: I will meet with more than 20 companies that are already in Colombia or that will make the decision to invest in Colombia or expand their operations, such as the Hard Rock, the port of Tampa, Tampa International Airport, consulting firms and investment firms.
Q: What opinion do you have regarding Cuba?
LCV: It is a sensitive area. In Colombia we say that there should perhaps be a new look at the relationship between Cuba and the United States, but we also know there are many people who have reasons to believe this time has not come.
Q: One of the points of the dialogues about peace is that the guerrillas can be a part of the future government. What do you think about it, and why would you want the fox in the hen house?
LCV: It is a legend. I was at the negotiation table for a year and a half, and I continue to be part of the government delegation. There are legends that we are negotiating the democratic system, the system of free enterprise or that there would be two ministers of the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) or 20 senators. None of that is happening. …We are negotiating the end of the conflict, not the participation of FARC in the government. They have to earn that in the future under a popular vote.
Q: Knowing your daughter was kidnapped in 2000 by the guerillas (and later released safely), how has it influenced your position in dealing with them?
LCV: When (Colombian) President Santos invited me to be part of the commission, I thought about it and I talked to my wife. We thought that we had reasons to say no, but at the same time this type of participation would give the message that reconciliation is possible because peace is not enough. Peace has to come from the heart and minds of Colombians. If that hatred does not come out of the hearts, nothing would happen. I hope my attitude will help convince people that reconciliation is possible even if it hurts or if you have terrible memories — memories of what happened to you or your family. If we reach that point, we will have peace.
Myriam Silva-Warren is a reporter for Centro Tampa, a sister publication of The Tampa Tribune.