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Remarks to the Press Roger F. Noriega, Colombia

Remarks to the Press
Roger F. Noriega, Assistant Secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs

Bogota, Colombia August 4, 2004

ASSISTANT SECRETARY NORIEGA: Thank you for the opportunity to be here with you. I have visited Colombia on several occasions over the last ten years. It is a country that has changed in a very profound way. I am referring to the government's decisive policies and the will and commitment of the Colombian people to support their government in defeating the terrorism and narcotics trafficking that threaten the future of this country. The government also has a policy to jump-start the economy by creating jobs. It is important that Colombia's economy grow in order to create more employment opportunities, so that the people have the opportunity to participate in and contribute to Colombia's economic growth.

The United States is a partner with Colombia, with its government and with its people, in these areas of defeating narco-terrorism and expanding economic opportunities for the Colombian people.

I believe President Uribe's administration has produced impressive results. There is a lot of work ahead of us, but we are looking toward the future with a vision of progress and with a determined and decisive policy. We will continue our efforts to not only support the people and the government, but to also motivate international support for Colombia. Colombia is an important part of the Americas. It is important Colombia be successful in its economic growth as a trade partner with its neighbors and the United States. It is also important Colombia be successful in defending its democratic institutions against the menace of terrorism and narcotics trafficking.

QUESTION: My question is regarding the U.S. government's position on the creation of new special zones for the paramilitary groups, taking into account that there are leaders sitting at the table who are requested in extradition.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY NORIEGA: We understand the government's efforts to establish a state of lawfulness throughout its national territory, and its efforts to restrict the activities of illegal groups in the country. This is a part of the government's comprehensive, coherent policy. Obviously our concern is that the people in these zones fulfill their obligations to disarm, to end their involvement in illegal activities, and to fully respect Colombia's laws. We understand the government's plan to bring security to the country through the peace process. The people in the Colombian government also fully understand that we will continue pursuing extradition because criminals who have committed acts against U.S. citizens must face justice, must be judged by the law. The Colombian government knows we are going to insist on this topic of extradition.

QUESTION: Are the criticism and concerns expressed by the Ambassador, regarding the process with the AUC, a personal opinion, or are they U.S. government policy on the talks?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY NORIEGA: Our ambassadors speak as representatives of the U.S. government on any issue. That is why we nominate the best of our country to represent us abroad. What is important about his remarks is that he was noting the lack of remorse by the people. He has also described our concerns about the process. Obviously the Ambassador's remarks were well considered, coherent, and clear.

QUESTION: At this point, how do you evaluate the two years of the Uribe administration, regarding the economic, political and military aspects?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY NORIEGA: I already have mentioned our support for President Uribe's government. I want to repeat that support to emphasize our pride in being partners with the Colombian people. They have markedly demonstrated their national commitment to defeat terrorism and narcotics trafficking in this country and to defend their democratic institutions. I believe the government has produced impressive results. There is a significant reduction of crime, including murders and massacres. Even more importantly, the government works to enforce a state of lawfulness and to defend the people by maintaining a presence in areas, where before there was none. The government also has a commitment to protect human rights, while defeating the terrorist groups. This is an important step for defending human rights, because these groups have committed the majority of the human rights violations against the people. We also see a commitment by the government to steadily improve its respect for human rights through training and accountability, to ensure that members of the security forces defend and respect human rights of the people.

In addition, there has been an important reduction in illicit crops. It is important this progress continue. For us, it is a good investment in terms of defending democracy, economic development, and to prove that people of good will in this country can defend democracy and build a more just society. That represents a very good investment for U.S. assistance, and I look forward to continuing our efforts and our support to Colombia and its people.

QUESTION: I am under the impression that U.S. government criticism of the peace process with the AUC has changed. It has become more critical in the past few months. For example, in a recent interview with Cambio, the Ambassador said he was skeptical of the AUC's desire for peace and thought they were more interested in narco-terrorism. What is the reason for this change? The first question is, if I am correct in noting a change in tone, and the second question is, what is the reason for the change in tone?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY NORIEGA: I could never correct a journalist on any topic, particularly--particularly in a small room full of journalists. No, our position on the peace process with the AUC has not changed; neither has the tone, really. It often depends on the journalists' questions. There is skepticism of the process by the government, too. That is why it has clearly and strongly stated the need for the AUC to demonstrate their commitment and seriousness to the process and to fulfill their obligations. I have referred to our conditions, the way that we see the process, but our position has really not changed. As time goes by, obviously skepticism of the process increases--skepticism if there is a true will of the various groups, not just the AUC, but the other groups too, to take the opportunity to cease their illegal activities; a will to take advantage of the opportunity to reach an agreement with the government and end their actions against a state of law in this country.

QUESTION: Then are you more skeptical than a few months ago?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY NORIEGA: No, not necessarily. Our criteria in evaluating the process have not changed. The peace process continues. We will see what happens, but we will judge the process under the terms I have described, and that the Ambassador has described on various occasions.

QUESTION: Last night, the Peace Commissioner Luis Carlos Restrepo said to Congress that with regards to international support, he felt alone in the peace process, especially with the AUC, the illegal armed group. How much would the U.S. be willing to accompany or to change its position to accompany the process, and under what criteria?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY NORIEGA: I already have referred to our support to the process. I am not going to change my answer. I believe the process is important. It is a key element of the government's strategy. It is already in progress. The government has applied creativeness in various aspects of it. We will wait to see how it evolves. But as always, we are committed to the process of stabilization of this country. We will continue our support and will seek to work with our partners in the Colombian government so that the peace process may continue.

QUESTION: My question has to do with Venezuela. A referendum is coming up soon, in the midst of criticism by the minister of foreign affairs, who said that the U.S. funded the opposition. I would like to know how do you respond to these allegations, and what do you hope for from the upcoming referendum in that country?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY NORIEGA: The Colombians know better than others the importance of our support to non-government organizations that have the mission of defending representative democracy in a state of law. We have invested a lot of money in the democratic process because we have faith in civil society, which is a pillar of representative democracy. We have given money to similar types of NGOs in Venezuela by means of the State Department and USAID. Civic groups with the mission to defend their democratic institutions and demand basic rights for Venezuelans also represent a good investment. Other groups from other countries have given money and moral support to these groups.

Thus, the criticism by the Venezuelan authorities represents nothing more than an effort to distract the people's attention away from the problems the country faces. We are working with the neighbors of Venezuela to support the people's efforts, so that they can make use of their constitutional rights to participate in this referendum in order to decide the future of their country. We have not dealt with this problem, this challenge, strictly from a bilateral point of view. That is why we are working with Brazil, Chile, Spain, Mexico, and with the OAS to support and to accompany the process. This represents the solidarity of the inter-American community with the Venezuelan people. The referendum represents an opportunity for the people to overcome their problems and to improve the situation of political polarization that is threatening the stability and the future of Venezuela.

QUESTION: I would like to ask about the U.S. citizens held hostage by the FARC. Has there been any contact, any progress that leads to believe they will be set free?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY NORIEGA: It is a serious concern for us--to get them back safe, and soon. We have stated that we will not concede or make concessions with the terrorist groups holding them hostage. We continue our efforts with the Colombian authorities to ensure their return. The illegal groups must understand that they, the contractors, do not represent an asset, but a liability.

Thank you.

[End]

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