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Cablegate: Embassy Public Affairs Sponsors Conference On


DE RUEHBO #8692/01 3622017
R 282017Z DEC 07




E.O. 12958: N/A


1. Embassy Public Affairs sponsored the 12th Houston Series
seminar with a focus on "Social Justice: Reducing Poverty,
Building the Economy and Peace." 110 leaders and officials
from the private sector, academia, government and NGOs
participated in the three-day conference held in Cartagena
from November 16-18. The conference fostered a lively
debate, productive discussion on the relationship between
inequality and conflict, and the roles of the government and
the private sector in addressing inequality. Despite a wide
diversity of viewpoints, participants reached general
consensus that security was fundamental to social justice,
that the government must be more active in combating
inequality, and that the private sector has a significant
role to play in strengthening social justice. End Summary.

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Security Critical for Growth and Poverty Reduction
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2. The Houston Series, begun nine years ago in 1998 through
the Public Affairs International Visitors program, brings
together influential American and Colombian policymakers,
press and academia to address key issues. Debate has long
been the critical format and topics traditionally relate to
the country's search for peace and democracy. Previous
topics have included the role of the media in promoting
peace, human rights, civil-military relations and private
sector issues. This year's conference attracted a
star-studded participants list including several members of
President Uribe's cabinet, U.S. Secretary of Commerce Carlos
Gutierrez, Medellin mayor (and Presidential hopeful) Sergio
Fajardo, high ranking Senators and representatives of Afro
Colombian and indigenous groups. Through debate sessions at
the end of each segment, the forum allowed a rare opportunity
for government and non-government players to address and
critique various policies and approaches.

3. Ambassador Brownfield underscored the importance of this
year's topic on Social Justice at the conference opening,
encouraging open discussion and debate among the
participants. Minister of Defense Juan Manuel Santos cited
improvements in economic, security and human rights
conditions in the country under President
Uribe's democratic security policies. Other high-ranking
officials who addressed the conference, including Minister of
Foreign Relations Fernando Araujo, Minister of Agriculture
and Rural Development Andres Felipe Arias and Minister of
Education Cecilia Maria Velez, echoed Minister Santos'
positive assessment of Colombia.
Secretary of Commerce Carlos Gutierrez lauded Colombia's

trade and social policy advancements and noted the positive
effects of the expansion in bilateral ties. He said the
U.S.-Colombia Trade Promotion Agreement was a "win-win" for
both the U.S. and Colombia.

4. Alejandro Reyes of the Rural Roots of Insurgence Group
agreed that the GOC's democratic security policies have
helped reduce conflict, and hence inequality, by weakening
illegal armed groups. Still, he said the GOC must do more
against emerging criminal bands and narcotraffickers. Fabio
Sanchez, Director of the Center for Economic Development,
also linked security and inequality, noting that illegal
armed groups create a separate "narco-economy" that
undermines the formal economy and weakens local government
authority. This reduces tax revenues that fund anti-poverty
programs and the ability of local government to effectively
implement such programs.

5. Andres Escobar, Deputy Director of Colombia's National
Planning Office, said that security is a prerequisite to
economic growth, which reduces inequality. Escobar noted
that Colombia's security situation has improved markedly from
2000 to 2007: homicides decreased 40 percent, kidnappings
decreased 83 percent, terrorist attacks decreased 61 percent,
and deaths of trade unionists decreased nearly 70 percent.
Guillermo Perry of the economic think-tank Fedesarrollo
pointed out that the causality between economic growth and
inequality: inequality leads to increased crime, reduced
human capital growth, and lower quality political
institutions, all of which reduce the rate of economic growth.

Policies to Reduce Inequality

6. IIP speaker Mark Schneider, Vice-President of the
International Crisis Group, said the GOC could must
effectively address inequality and poverty through reforms in
rural development, land titling and microcredit financing.
While some participants agreed, others voiced concern that
Colombia was not adequately confronting poverty through
specific government programs. Jairo Nunez Mendez of
Colombia's Mission Against Poverty and Inequality discussed
specific GOC programs to reduce poverty, including expanding
post-secondary education opportunities (from 1.2 to 2.7
million individuals), creating more jobs for vulnerable
populations, and developing micro-finance programs. Still,
he noted that the GOC needs a more unified social protection
system in order to combat poverty.

7. In response, Accion Social Director Alfonso Hoyos
explained Accion Social's anti-poverty efforts which will
include 1.5 million families in the "Families in Action"
program by 2010. Diego Molano of Accion Social also
explained how the GOC addresses the needs of Colombia's 2
million internally displaced people (IDP). He noted that the
number of registered IDPs dropped 50 percent from 2005 to
2007, in part due to Accion Social programs. Accion Social's
programs to help IDPs include socio-economic stabilization
projects in 32 focus cities and 170 municipalities. Molano
said that over 600,000 IDPs received subsidized health care
in 2006, over 200,000 received education assistance, and
65,000 received housing subsidies.

8. Mauricio Cardenas, Director of the economic think-tank
Fedesarrollo, cautioned that some government policies aimed
at reducing poverty could worsen the "vicious cycle" of the
informal labor market in which populist social policies lead
to higher labor taxes, driving workers into the informal
labor market because employers cannot afford the benefits
packages for its the workers. This, in turn, creates
pressure for additional government-funded social safety nets
which leads to higher taxes and perpetuates the cycle.
Cardenas also noted that Colombia's fragmented Congress makes
it difficult to enact social programs that address economic

The Private Sector and Social Justice

9. Luis Carlos Villegas, President of the National
Association of Industries, pointed out Colombia's positive
economic indicators across the board as progress towards
expanding economic opportunity and social justice. While
increased security has contributed to Colombia's improved
economic situation, pro-market policies and regulations were
essential to attracting foreign investment. Foreign investor
confidence has helped raise the GDP and lower the poverty
rate, affecting the larger population. Villegas said the
private sector's corporate social responsibility programs
could play a critical role in reducing poverty. Claudio
Loser of the Inter-American Dialogue said that Colombia has
done better than most of Latin America in terms of per capita
income growth, poverty reduction, income distribution, health
and education. Still, he said Colombia needs to work on
improving government regulations and institutions in order to
have the continued economic growth.

10. Karl Lippert, President of Colombian operations for the
international beer giant SABMiller, highlighted the role of
the private sector and free markets in promoting peace.
Lippert said Colombia must continue to accelerate economic
development but also target that development towards peace.
While Colombia has improved economically, a slow judicial
system and poorly defined property rights remain obstacles to
economic growth. Lippert argued for more infrastructure
investment which would reduce transportation costs and
facilitate internal trade, thereby
increasing rural employment and creating more security.

Reaching Out

11. In subsequent weeks the media addressed the value of the
Houston Series, and its contribution to Colombia's struggle
for a stronger democracy. Media coverage included two
reports in Cartagena's liberal daily El Universal
(circulation 65,000, commentary on La FM Radio (national
audience 210,0) and RCN Radio (national audience 723,000), an
interview on RCN Radio with conference speaker Mauricio

Cardenas, an op-ed by participant and former Minister of
Finance Juan Camilo Restrepo in El Nuevo Siglo (Bogota daily,
circulation 128,000), and an article by participant Claudio
Loser in the Latin Business Chronicle.

12. Post intends to continue building on the Houston Series
tradition by hosting the seminar in 2008. To offset costs,
Post intends to increase the level of co-sponsorship through
mechanisms such as private sector participation.


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