Colombia's Interior Minister, Luis Fernando Velasco (Popayán, 58 years old), has several major challenges on his shoulders: rebuilding the legislative governability of a government that dynamited its legislative coalition six months ago, building a less acrimonious relationship with the mayors and governors who will be elected on October 29, reducing the recent security problems throughout the country... He attends EL PAÍS in a cold and classic office in the headquarters La Giralda, a house of the late nineteenth century in the center of Bogotá, a few steps from the Nariño Palace and the Capitol, minutes before going to Congress to present the bill that will land one of the few legislative achievements of his five months in office: The constitutional reform that creates the agrarian jurisdiction, approved with the support of the opposition.
Velasco, a seasoned Cauca politician who represents the bridge between the first leftist government of contemporary Colombia and part of the traditional political class, that of liberal origin, is hopeful. "Colombia needs to have a collective dream," he says, and gives an example: "In La Guajira I see the richest corner in Latin America."
Question. How do you see Colombia at the moment?
Answer: We are at a breaking point. If we are able to come together to overcome our challenges and look clearly to the future, we have monstrously great possibilities. I explain them with two anecdotes.
I was recently in La Guajira, on a remote corner of Uribia. There is no water, it is a semi-desert, so anyone could see the poorest area of Colombia. I, on the other hand, saw the richest corner of Latin America. There are already windmills generating energy, the cheapest form of generation, and the Ministry of Mines told me that this area could generate 25 gigawatts, when today all of Colombia generates 18. I also saw natural harbors that do not need dredging and are close to international shipping routes, and beautiful beaches for tourism. I imagine a Wayuu Riviera less than 150 miles from Aruba, where tourists from all over the world arrive.
Another example. Less than ten days ago I was invited by the indigenous communities to the reservation of Huila, in the foothills of the Nevado del Huila volcano, in Cauca. There they gave me a kilo of fertilizer supplemented with coca leaf. The indigenous communities, with Dutch and Canadian cooperation, have managed to synthesize a coca tree that has no alkaloid but is so useful that they tell me that for its leaves they can pay twice what the narcos pay for those of the usual trees. They gave me an energy drink made from that coca, spectacular, and a really good coca whiskey.
Q. What is your conclusion?
A. That Colombia has potentialities everywhere. We have dwelt a lot in the visceral struggle for power, and when we have power we don't know what to do.
Q. And what is the government doing with power?
A. We focus on the economic model, which has caused the country to stagnate. 30 years ago we took the energy away from the industrial sector and decided that the important thing is to get a cheap shirt, no matter if it is made in a labor paradise where people exploit, or bring corn from anywhere. In this indiscriminate opening we did not prepare our productive sector and now, if the dollar or the costs of fertilizers skyrocket due to a conflict, our lives become more expensive.
We thought we could live on an oil income that is important but not so much, and we did not develop the country. Many people want to live from the State and do not understand that the State must create the conditions for the capacity of citizens to skyrocket, for entrepreneurs to move forward. We were not able to carry out a serious agrarian reform; On the contrary, in recent decades we have experienced a violent reaccumulation of land. We are rethinking that model.
Q. Sounds ambitious...
A. We are moving forward. Some importers were very upset when we introduced the 40% tariff on garments brought from countries where there is no FTA – we are respectful of what the State has signed. But the first half of the year the garment sector remained in the midst of contraction, and this second half I hear from garment makers a growth in employment and demand. I see that the planting of corn grows, that they replanted cotton. We want to relaunch our industry. Peace is intimately linked to the growth of tourism. We are moving the model back to production.
Q. How does the energy transition fit in?
A. That is not a matter of some crazy environmentalists who go around in hats and eat butterflies: the world has to make a gradual transition. For cars and industry there is one thing that is no longer science fiction: green hydrogen, which is obtained by electrolysis of water. Every day the investment in clean energies grows more and is already almost at the level of investment in fossil energies, so there is an opportunity. We have clean energy to make that process environmentally friendly. Colombia can become one of the first producers of green hydrogen for the world, and be the equivalent of what today are the oil countries. We would take a huge leap. That is what we are betting on and it is clear that it is better if we are able to make agreements as a nation.
Q. We come to the issue of national agreement.
A. Yes. Political debate is necessary, but even the most polarized societies reach agreements. For example, in Spain it was thanks to an agreement that they deactivated ETA. In Colombia we have made agreements on violence, but we live with a lot of distrust among all: the opposition distrusts the government, and there are sectors of the government and the democratic left that do not want to negotiate with the right, because they believe they only want to avoid any change. So we are in a process of gaining trust.
Q. How to include the Congress?
A. That is part of this confidence-building, but we need much broader agreement than legal reforms. You have to talk to people. Now, I would be more friendly with minimum agreements to start, than with seeking to transform the whole country into an agreement.
Q. We already have a country agreement, a Constitution of pluralist origin...
A. Yes, it was a very important agreement. The one we propose is not "Come and let's vote everything". There can be agreements on points of health, pension, labor reforms, and in the rest we resolve it by voting, which is a way democracy defines its differences.
Q. And what would be the methodology for the agreement?
A. I presented him with some ideas about the methodology; I'm waiting for him to tell me what the path is. But I believe that we should not engage in extra-institutional activities. If we need a law, we must make it in Congress. Of course, listening to the citizens. With the development plan we made such a massive process, with binding regional dialogues. There we detect leaderships that serve for that listening.
Q. That conversation will go through the growing security problem...
A. Colombia did something monumental, the peace agreement with the FARC. But we lacked the penny for the peso: we made the agreement with the armed, but not among the unarmed. That is why, when Duque won, there were four years of anti-implementation and today we have a resurgence of violence. The bet is to achieve peace before it grows on us. This time we have asked the opposition to be at the negotiating tables. There are Valencia Cossio, Lafaurie... We don't want to do anything hidden. It is a process of the state, of the nation, not of the party.
Q. Is that a criticism of the Santos government?
A. Yes, he did a spectacular thing but he lacked that. The right is not going to end, it also lives in this country and has ideas, proposals and achievements.
Q. Do you think that for the Government the elections will be positive, despite the fact that the Historic Pact has few candidates for the main positions?
A. Yes. Many current mayors and governors campaigned elsewhere last year. Those who arrive will want to have a good relationship with the government with which they will live three of their four years. There's going to be a very fluid relationship. Regardless of who arrives, we are interested in working together.
Q. And how do you put together a national agreement when there are no solid parties that allow an organized conversation?
A. While there are no parties, there is a defined ideological spectrum and so it can be structured. The time is right to put the accelerator to the national agreement from the election, and gather many forces in the coming months. Don't waste a second. Colombia needs to have a collective dream, something that identifies us beyond the national team. The idea is to build and hear each other.
Q. And how does the government contribute to that?
A. Part of the difficulty is that this is not just any government, it is one that breaks schemes for being leftist. That is the starting point: this government wants to make changes, it was elected with that proposal, so you cannot propose an agreement not to make changes. Now, you can discuss what changes, how far to take them, how to make them. But the arrival of a democratic left to power is very good for the country.
Q. In the sense that it allows us to think about these changes?
A. Of course, and it allows those who have always had the Government, to make a reflection, to notice that something is wrong. Something, not everything, because as Mario Benedetti says, "when we arrive we will have to remember that the world we left had Paris, Claudia Cardinale and champagne". Interesting things were also done before.
Q. In fact you, or your party, were part of several recent governments.
A. My party. I was in Congress 24 years as a liberal, but almost always in opposition. He was from the rebel sector. When the party said it supported Duque, I didn't. I opposed Uribe when a good part of my caucus supported him even though we were supposedly in opposition. I voted for Serpa, not Pastrana; and I didn't vote for Santos in 2010, but for Mockus, because Santos was Uribe's candidate. Then, with the peace process, I started to help him. Actually, as a congressman I only once won a presidential election: the re-election of Santos.
Q. And Samper's in 1994, as a liberal candidate?
A. I wasn't a congressman yet. I'm old, but not that old!
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