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Heads up – Embassy 22 – January 2010

Gaining ground

Mauricio Rodriguez is the voice Colombians used to wake up to. Now the radio news commentator and founding director of Colombia's leading financial newspaper finds himself in London as the country's Ambassador - and the tables have turned.

Now he is the one in the hot seat fielding the questions. "But that is my obligation as an ambassador," he smiles. "No question should be left unanswered nor any criticism left without comment."

His job is perhaps harder than most with Colombia fighting a war on two fronts – an ongoing battle against an entrenched drug trade that fuels both a left-wing insurgency and the paramilitary backlash.

But in recent years the government has gained much ground. Whereas eight years ago, Colombia was what the Ambassador describes as a "failing state", today 55,000 guerrillas and paramilitaries have laid down their arms, investment has increased five-fold and the annual murder rate, while still unacceptably high, has almost halved.

This progress the Ambassador credits to the policies of President Alvaro Uribe. Fearful that the gains made in recent years may be reversed, the President is seeking permission from the Constitutional Court to run for another term in office.

But whichever candidate is elected in May, no single president can win the war on drugs alone says Rodriguez. "We need support from the international community: more action on the prevention of drug consumption and more support for our fight against the producers, including financial and technical assistance, intelligence and anti-money laundering measures."

Most of all, Colombia wants the world to understand the corrosive impact of narco-traffic, he says. "For years we have carried the stigma of a narco-state which has been very costly. The drug trade fuels the guerrillas and the paramilitaries, it corrupts the judicial system and democratic institutions. It destroys lives, the economy, even our rain forests: for each gram of cocaine consumed, four square meters of rain forest are destroyed."

Colombia's close association with the US in the campaign against the drug trade has also stoked "serious and worrying tensions" with neighbouring Venezuela and Ecuador, he admits. First was Colombia's attack on a guerrilla base in Ecuador - close to the border, which the Ambassador insists was an "accidental exception", and more recently Colombia gave the US military permission to use some of its bases, which Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez regarded as an act of aggression and imposed a trade embargo.

However, the Ambassador says Colombia harbours no hostility towards its neighbour: "Colombia will never attack Venezuela." He remains hopeful the dispute can be solved diplomatically and the embargo lifted.

Not only does the toxic mix of narco-traffic and insurgent groups fuel regional tensions, it also poses a growing threat to international security, warns Rodriguez. "Terrorist groups are increasingly financing their operations through narco-traffic and there is a real danger that these groups could form strategic alliances all over the world."

On the home front, the Uribe administration has tried to persuade combatants to demobilise under the Justice and Peace programme, in which armed groups lay down their weapons and confess to their crimes in exchange for leniency in the courts.

While the programme has been criticised by human rights groups, the Ambassador says it is important to strike a difficult balance between truth, justice and reparations. "If you want justice at any cost you will not have people surrendering. If there is not enough justice or truth then the victims will feel that the criminals were pardoned with too lenient a penalty. You also have to compensate people but public finance has limitations as well."

Reintegrating combatants back into society is also complex and costly and inevitably some - hopefully a small portion – will fall back into a life of crime, he adds.

Despite these shortcomings the Ambassador is convinced Colombia is moving fast in the right direction, giving him time to focus on Colombia's "positive agenda" with the UK. As a writer and classical music aficionado, he wants to bring musicians and writers to Britain. The Embassy is also planning a packed cultural programme as part of Colombia's bicentenary celebrations.

As an academic, he will focus on academic exchange of professors and students. Colombia, which has the highest concentration of biodiversity in the world, also has a lot to offer science and research, he says.

But his main focus will be on helping to secure a Free Trade Agreement between Colombia and the EU. It won't be easy as some critics have misgivings about Colombia's human rights record, but the Ambassador disagrees: "A trade agreement is the ideal way to promote human rights and raise standards."

It's a tough brief, but one that Ambassador Rodriguez relishes. He won't be out of the hot seat for long.
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HE Mr Mauricio Rodriguez Munera

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