The United States and Colombia are holding high-level talks Thursday as U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken wraps up a trip to the region that has included a focus on migration policy and upholding democracy.
Blinken told reporters Wednesday after meeting with Colombian President Ivan Duque that the two countries have many areas of potential cooperation, including in sectors such as cloud computing, health technology and agriculture.
He said such collaboration would be among the topics for further consideration during Thursday’s U.S.-Colombia High-Level Dialogue.
The United States is asking countries in the Western Hemisphere to step up pledges to tackle the immediate challenges of irregular migration as it expands eligibility for legal migration to the United States.
Blinken held talks Wednesday with more than a dozen officials from Latin America at a regional migration ministerial in Bogota, Colombia. Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas joined the gathering virtually.
The United States discussed options, including assisting with voluntary returns for migrants who do not have valid asylum claims to return their home country.
“We increase law enforcement cooperation against the smugglers and traffickers. … We improve protection, screening, referrals along the way that we strengthen asylum processing … and maybe more than medium term, expanding legal pathways to migration, existing ones and new ones as well,” Blinken said during a joint press conference with Colombian President Iván Duque.
Duque confirmed that his government had received resources from the U.S. to tackle what he called “the most complicated migration crisis in the world”: the Venezuelan migration crisis.
“We have seen more than 5 million people leaving the country with frozen bones, without access to food or medicine, that have moved to different countries, looking for opportunities. We have received in Colombia almost 1.8 million Venezuelan migrants. And we have created a policy framework to address this very complicated circumstance,” Duque said.
Protecting the displaced
Refugees International, a Washington-based advocacy group, said U.S. leadership is critically needed to enhance protection of displaced people as Venezuelans and Haitians flee their homes.
“Secretary Blinken should use this week’s ministerial conference in Bogota to engage with leaders on a myriad of policy opportunities, including creating a plan for addressing Venezuelan displacement in the region,” said Rachel Schmidtke, Refugees International’s advocate for Latin America.
“Secretary Blinken should also focus on supporting Colombia’s new efforts to offer regularized status to people seeking safety. This move and those like it are offering much-needed hope and stability for displaced people and their hosts alike.”
COVID-19 has hit Colombia hard. The country has seen a 7% drop in gross domestic product in 2020, leading to large-scale protests over issues such as socioeconomic inequality and trade relations with the U.S., according to Keith Mines, director of the Latin America program at United States Institute of Peace.
Duque, who has come under fire by U.S. Democratic Party progressives over a crackdown on protests, said that his government has a zero-tolerance policy concerning human rights abuses and that reforms are being made within Colombia’s national police.
Blinken said the United States is donating 6 million safe, effective COVID-19 vaccine doses to Colombia and more than $80 million to support the country’s COVID-19 response.
Challenges to democracy
In a speech earlier Wednesday in Ecuador, Blinken outlined several challenges that democracies face in the Western Hemisphere. He said he is optimistic they can be overcome and noted that the survival of a democracy driven by ordinary people is vital to the shared future of the region.
Those challenges include corruption, civilian security and the economic and social well-being of the people.
“The reality is, we’ve often put more energy into strengthening civil and political rights, as vital and important as they are — free and fair elections, the rule of law, freedom of speech and assembly — and less into strengthening people’s economic and social rights, like bolstering labor standards, expanding access to adequate education and health, providing more inclusive opportunities. People across our hemisphere are demanding that we do both,” Blinken said Wednesday in a speech at the Universidad San Francisco de Quito.
The United States has for the first time designated fighting corruption as a core U.S. national security interest, Blinken noted, as Washington cracks down on illicit financing and seizes and freezes stolen assets.
Since 2020, the U.S. has invested more than $10 billion in Latin America and the Caribbean through the International Development Finance Corporation. In Ecuador, the U.S. is working with the Banco de la Produccion to provide $150 million in loans this year to small businesses, especially those owned by women.
Blinken said these investments are done in a “transparent” manner, and they treat local communities as “partners,” as he drew a stark contrast with the authoritarian governments that mire countries in the region “in a pernicious cycle of debt.”
Ecuadorian President Guillermo Lasso declared a surprise state of emergency to combat violence late Monday, saying he would send troops to the streets to combat drug trafficking.
“The security forces to carry out these measures must abide by international standards and be held accountable when they are not doing so,” Blinken emphasized during his Wednesday speech.
Some information for this report came from the Associated Press, Agence France-Presse and Reuters.