Cablegate: Ambassador's Visit to Meta, June 12, 2008


DE RUEHBO #2328/01 1782019
R 262019Z JUN 08 ZDK



E.O. 12958: N/A

1. SUMMARY: The Ambassador traveled on June 12 to the historically
conflict-plagued Department of Meta to meet with local political,
security, and civil society representatives and highlight USG
efforts to assist the GOC in consolidating security gains made in
territory previously occupied by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of
Columbia (FARC). Interlocutors emphasized the improved security
situation in the region and the need for more resources to support
education and internally displaced persons (IDPs) and increased
private sector investment in Meta. In Villavicencio, the Ambassador
visited United States Agency for International Development
(USAID)-supported programs such as education for IDPs and providing
telecommunications connectivity and justice sector services to
isolated, rural areas of the country. The Ambassador also traveled
to Vista Hermosa in western Meta, until recently a FARC stronghold,
to meet with Colombian military officials and inaugurate a U.S.
funded dining facility for the elderly. The visit received
extensive and positive press coverage and underscored the improved
security situation in Meta. END SUMMARY.

USAID Focuses on Education and the Judicial Sector
--------------------------------------------- -----

2. The Ambassador began the day with a visit to a regional
processing and registration center for IDPs where USAID supports a
program to provide literacy services. The center is the first stop
for IDPs seeking humanitarian assistance and access to social
services. The Ambassador, joined by the Meta Governor Dario Vasquez
and Villavicencio Mayor Raul Franco, toured the facility and was
briefed on the center's IDP registry system and available services.
The Ambassador concluded the visit by interacting with program
beneficiaries and making a book donation to support the center's
literacy activities. The USG supports this literacy initiative in
alliance with the Ministry of Education, the Pan-American
Development Foundation, and Citibank to provide literacy services to
some 11,000 IDPs and vulnerable youth and adults in seven
departments in Colombia.

3. In a ceremony with Governor Vasquez, Mayor Franco, the President
of the Villavicencio Chamber of Commerce, and the President of
Avantel Colombia, the Ambassador launched USAID's education-centered
Last Mile Initiative for the Department of Meta. This initiative
will provide telecommunications connectivity for underserved and
rural populations, as well as education to support economic and
social development. Major contributors to this public-private
alliance are Avantel, Intel, Cisco, Microsoft, Google, the
Department of Meta, the City of Villavicencio, and the Ministry of
Communications. Overall, the USG-provided equipment and training
will connect 50 municipalities in the Departments of Meta, Huila,
and Magdalena, including 21,000 small businesses and 325,000
institutions such as schools, hospitals, justice houses, and local
government offices.

4. Highlighting USG justice sector assistance, the Ambassador
visited a virtual courtroom in Villavicencio supported by USAID's
Justice Sector Reform Program. Virtual courtrooms use video
conferencing technology to extend formal justice sector services to
isolated, post-conflict areas of the country by connecting judges in
urban areas with police, prosecutors, and public defenders in remote
areas of Colombia. The Ambassador met with the Chief Magistrate of
the Meta Superior Council and representatives from the Prosecutor's
and Public Defender's offices and participated in a demonstration of
the virtual courtroom technology. Installed this past February, the
Villavicencio virtual courtroom connects the main courthouse in
Villavicencio with smaller municipal courts in Puerto Carreno
(Vichada), Puerto Inirida (Guainia), Mitu (Vaupes), and San Jose Del
Guaviare (Guaviare). To date, judges sitting in Villavicencio have
conducted approximately 50 virtual criminal hearings with officials
in these municipalities, including criminal appeals trials,
evidentiary hearings and pre-trial detention hearings. USAID plans
to install 14 additional virtual courtrooms to serve rural locations
across Colombia in the coming year.

Meeting with Local Mayors and Governor of Meta
--------------------------------------------- -

5. The Ambassador met privately with Governor Vasquez, Mayor
Franco, and Granada Mayor Juan Carlos Mendoza Rendon. The
Ambassador recalled his previous meeting of March 3 with Mayor
Franco regarding education and again committed to support education
initiatives in Villavicencio and throughout Meta. Mayor Franco
stressed that the low education level in Villavicencio schools is
causing high levels of unemployment in Villavicencio and the region.
Mayor Franco asked for USG assistance to enhance educational
capacity in Villavicencio and throughout the Department, through
English programs, technical assistance, and help with providing
computers to schools and students.

6. The Ambassador also reiterated his support for the Coordination
Plan for Macarena (PCIM) currently being implemented by the GOC's
Center for Coordinated Integrated Action in six municipalities of
southwest Meta. Governor Vasquez thanked the Ambassador for his
support, but highlighted the need for additional coordination, not
just within the GOC, but among other actors in the Department, such
as the United Nations High Commission for Refugees and
non-governmental organizations. The Governor and Mayors
acknowledged the importance of PCIM, but continue to be concerned
about security threats in the Department posed by the FARC and
criminal groups. Similarly, all expressed concern over the high
levels of IDPs in Meta, among the highest in Colombia, and asked for
USG assistance to help respond to the problem.

Meta: Seeking U.S. Investment

7. Villavicencio Chamber of Commerce Board President Martha Isabel
Plazas and Executive President Carlos Alberto Lopez briefed the
Ambassador over lunch on Meta's economic potential and challenges.
Plazas, Lopez, and attending Chamber Board members agreed that
significant improvements in the security situation have provided new
opportunities for investment in agriculture, fisheries, and tourism.
Citing Meta's favorable climate and soil and abundant water
resources, Chamber representatives identified sugar and tropical
fruits as particularly strong investment prospects for the
Department. They also requested USG assistance to encourage
investment in tourism and biofuels, including potentially sponsoring
a trade and investment delegation. The Ambassador applauded Meta's
progress and affirmed the Embassy's interest in assisting economic
development efforts with available resources such as English
language training, USAID alternative development programs, and
assistance to Colombian security forces. The Ambassador also
underscored USG commitment to achieving approval of the
U.S.-Colombia Trade Promotion Agreement, which he identified as an
important tool for further sparking Meta's economic growth.
Finally, the Ambassador encouraged Meta's private sector to support
vocational education, including offering internships to local
students, as key to building a long-term base for development.

Vista Hermosa: Visit to Former FARC Stronghold
--------------------------------------------- --

8. Following lunch, the Ambassador traveled to Vista Hermosa, a
small town located near the Macarena mountain range in western Meta.
The Ambassador's visit to Vista Hermosa received heavy press
coverage and is notable because it is the first visit made by a
foreign ambassador to a town that was a FARC stronghold only three
years ago. It was one of the towns in the original FARC "despeje"
(demilitarized zone) from 1998-2001.

9. In Vista Hermosa, the Ambassador visited the headquarters of the
Colombian Army's 12th Mobile Brigade where he received a briefing
from General Padilla, the Commander of the Colombian Armed Forces,
4th Division Commander General Quinones and Joint Task Force Omega
Commander General Navas. General Quinones briefed on FARC
infrastructure and colonization of the region, the success of
military operations to push the FARC out of Vista Hermosa and other
municipal centers and the continuing problem of coca cultivation in
the nearby Macarena range. The Ambassador queried the generals on
lessons learned from the Coordination Plan for Macarena and
emphasized that aerial spraying is an efficient way to eradicate
coca and should accompany voluntary and manual eradication efforts.

10. The Ambassador concluded his visit to Vista Hermosa by
inaugurating a dining facility for the elderly funded by the U.S.
Military Group's Civil Affairs program. The $97,000 project
responds to a request made by the Mayor of Vista Hermosa and
supports the GOC's consolidation efforts in the Macarena region.
The dining facility will assist some 80 elderly from the
municipality of Vista Hermosa. Much of the town of Vista Hermosa
attended the inauguration.

Positive Press Coverage

11. (U) The Ambassador's trip to Meta saw the turnout of many more
local broadcast and print journalists than had been anticipated. An
Associated Press photographer also accompanied for the Vista Hermosa
portion of the visit. Media viewed this as an historic first: the
sitting U.S. Ambassador traveled to the former heart of the war
against terror in Colombia. El Tiempo (Colombia's largest and most
influential daily, centrist, circ. 1,198,000/Sunday 2,247,300) ran a
front page, above-the-fold picture of the Ambassador dancing the
local step - el joropo - with a young girl from Villavicencio with
the caption, "The U.S. Ambassador doesn't miss a step." RCN TV (the
largest private Colombian TV network, audience 9,467,300) reported
on the evening of the visit that "U.S. Ambassador William Brownfield
arrived in the former war zone and from the municipality of Vista
Hermosa, Meta, sent a message directly to the FARC: 'The moment is
now for the FARC to liberate all of the hostages without conditions,
to put down your arms and to end this cycle of violence.' " Upon
the inauguration of the dining facility in Vista Hermosa, broadcast
outlets, including RCN TV, Caracol TV, CM& Noticias (independent
news broadcast, audience 507,000) and various radio stations,
carried this quote from the Ambassador: "Three years ago, this
event would have been impossible. We're seeing the light at the end
of the tunnel."

© Scoop Media

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