Secretary Antony J. Blinken Conversation with Colombian Youth

10/21/2021 05:15 PM EDT


Antony J. Blinken, Secretary of State

Bogotá, Colombia

Grand Hyatt Hotel

MR GALLO:  Good morning, everyone.  Buenos dias casi tardes.  We are live from Bogotá, Colombia.  We are here with Mr. Antony Blinken, the Secretary of State of the United States of America.  My name is Luis Gallo.  I’m a Colombian American journalist.  It’s an honor to be here with all of y’all.  Hello, Mr. Secretary.  Welcome to Colombia today.


MR GALLO:  It’s even sunny for you in Bogotá.  It doesn’t happen very often.  Might rain, might change in the morning, we’ll see.

So you’re the United States’ top foreign policy advisor and in many cases the voice of the United States of America to the world.  You’re actually on your first official trip to South America as the Secretary.


MR GALLO:  Where you met Ecuadorian President Guillermo Lasso in Quito, and Iván Duque, President Iván Duque here in Bogotá.  And today we’re going to be talking about different topics, like migration and democracy, work with disadvantaged populations, and climate change.  To engage with the conversation, we have 20 amazing young leaders from all over Colombia we invited to have this discussion with you.  So we picked a few questions from them.


MR GALLO:  And I met them yesterday; they’re just brilliant.  And also we have some questions that we’re going to be taking from our virtual audience.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  I see we have some friends behind us, yes.

MR GALLO:  Exactly.  Because as a reminder, we are broadcasting live this session on all the U.S. embassy’s channels and also El Espectador newspaper here in Colombia, and we also have hundreds of young leaders watching from Colombo Americano spaces all over Colombia.


MR GALLO:  So we wanted to give you a warm welcome from Colombia.


MR GALLO:  And again, I know you’ve been to Colombia before, but it’s – I know this – sorry, I know you’ve been – this is your first trip to Colombia as the Secretary –

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  But I have been here before.  I have, yes.  And I was really, really looking forward to coming back, and even in the short time that we’ve been here, it’s – I was right to want to come back.

MR GALLO:  Excellent.  Well, welcome again, and do some remarks as well.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Thank you.  Well, hello to everyone.  Buenos dias a todos.  Thank you for being here today, and thanks to our friends who are joining us online.  And Luis, thank you very much for doing this, for being with us.

I really wanted an opportunity to come together with a younger generation of leaders, of activists, to talk about some of the issues that are shaping your lives but also shaping our futures and the futures of both of our countries, the United States and Colombia.  We both have a need and a stake to build a strong and durable democracy, and to make sure that we continue to defend it.  We both want to make sure that we are doing everything we can to create the conditions for peace and justice across our populations.  And these are challenges, issues that Colombians and Americans in different ways are grappling with.

And mostly I wanted to come to try to, in the brief time we have together, learn a little bit from you and listen to you.  I looked at the list of people who are with us today, and the diversity is really extraordinary in so many ways.  So we have, I know, among you a lawyer and organizer helping at-risk youth; we have an indigenous leader, preserving ancestral traditions; we have an LGBTQI rights activist, providing support for refugees and migrants; we have a talented musician – I’m a musician; the word “talented” does usually not apply to me – but we have a talented musician; an anti-racism advocate; and so many other inspiring leaders among you here today.

And each of you are already playing an important part in the future of your country.  And that is an incredibly exciting thing.  And I really want to get a chance to listen a little bit to your experiences and your ideas.

Let me just say quickly, before we get into it, I believe strongly that our countries – and especially our young people – can learn from each other.  There’s so much that you’re doing, that you’re experiencing, that you’re seeing, that is relevant and will resonate with Americans.

And similarly, we face some very big common challenges.  COVID-19 – we have to face that together.  Climate – we have to face that together.  I just came from the Botanical Gardens here in Bogotá, which are beautiful, but a reminder of the incredible heritage of this country that has to be a living heritage.

We have to deal with the inequities in our societies.  One of the things that we’ve seen is growth is very important, but it has to be equitable and better shared.  And of course, we have challenges of systemic racism, we have challenges of injustice that, again, I think we can learn from each other as we engage them

My conviction, my strong conviction, is that democracy at its best is the best way to solve these problems together. Governments, citizens, groups can make our democracies actually deliver results and make progress.  That’s what this is all about.

So thank you again for being here, and mostly I hope to hear from you and answer whatever questions I can.  Thank you.

MR GALLO:  Thank you, Mr. Secretary.  Okay.  So let’s jump into it.  And for that, our first topic today will focus on migration.  And first we have a question from Coralia Vásquez, who is a women’s rights activist from Venezuela.

QUESTION:  (Via interpreter)  Hello.  Good morning, Mr. Secretary, and everybody else who is here.  I’m Coralia Vásquez, and I’m from the island of Margarita, Venezuela.  And my compatriots from Venezuela want to thank you profoundly and give you a hug full of solidarity with a great deal of respect towards the U.S. embassy and everything that you’re doing for us, the migrants.  I’m here in name of all my compatriots who had – were forced to leave our country because the issue of the humanitarian crisis that we’re going through.

My question would be:  What hypothetical alternative do you have for us to change or look at migration from a different point of view?  And what are the benefits that my compatriots who are undocumented in the United States – how can they get any benefits?  Thank you.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Thank you very much.  I have to start with the generosity of Colombia and the Colombian people.  The action that President Duque has taken as well to grant temporary protected status to so many Venezuelan guests here in Colombia is remarkable, and I think Colombia set a very powerful example for many of us around the world.  So thank you to Colombia for that.

As you know better than anyone, the story of migration and irregular migration is an incredibly complicated one.  And in this moment in our own hemisphere, we’re seeing unprecedented migration.  We have many Venezuelans because of the very difficult and in many ways tragic situation in Venezuela who have left, and many are here, but many are in other parts of our hemisphere.  We have friends and neighbors from Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, who also – have also been on the move.  We have Haitian brothers and sisters who – some having been resident in Chile or Brazil for many years are on the move, or from Haiti itself.

And as you know, there are a complex series of things that – and maybe I’d be curious to hear about if you’re – if you are willing to share your case.  But what is it that causes someone to one day say I’m going to give up everything I know; I’m going to give up my country, my community, maybe my family, my friends, maybe my language, my culture, and make a very hazardous journey somewhere else?  There has to be something very powerful that’s driving that.  And in some cases, it’s conflict, repression, violence.  In other cases, it’s a lack of basic economic opportunity.  If there’s no prospect of having a job or putting food on the table or caring for your family, you’re going to try to do something else.  Sometimes it’s corruption and bad governance.  There are a whole host of things.

So the reason I say all this is I think we have two challenges, and we’ve been talking about this a lot the last couple of days, including at a migration meeting that we had with all of the foreign ministers in the region taking part, hosted by Colombia.  We have to deal with the immediate challenge; we have to do it in a humane, caring way that protects people.  But also, we have to find – we have to do it in a way that preserves law and order, that preserves the sanctity of our borders.  And that’s complicated, but we’re working on it, and we’re working on it together.

But even if we do that, it doesn’t answer the underlying problem.  So what we have I think is increasingly a sense of shared responsibility in our region among all of the countries that are affected – the countries that are seeing an exodus of people, the countries that are receiving people, the countries through which people are transiting – to try to work more closely together, both to deal with the immediate challenge, but also to deal with some of the underlying challenges.

So for example, we have to do more and we have to do better in creating a genuine opportunity for people in the countries that they originally come from.  One of our colleagues said that there should be a right to remain; but for that right to be real, there has to be opportunity.  And so there’s a lot that we’re doing now to try to build some of that opportunity to create opportunities for jobs, people who put money in their pockets to provide for their families.  It takes time, it takes investment, but – and by the way, one important way this happens is through small businesses, medium-size businesses.  We’re doing a lot.  Colombia is also doing a lot to try to support those.  But we also need to see – and this is hard, too – better governance, better security in some places, dealing with corruption, which corrodes everything.  So all of this is a long-term project, but one that we’re now engaged in.

Let me just say one more quick thing because it will tie a couple of things together.  We are facing a climate crisis, and we have to adapt our economies, we have to adapt our countries to deal with it.  Well, as we’re doing that, there is a tremendous opportunity to find new jobs in these new areas – of green technology, of building new infrastructure that’s environmentally sustainable, of working with indigenous communities in ways that both preserve the climate and create opportunity, and as a result, a desire to build the future where you’re from.  So all of that is important.

One last thing I’ll say, too:  We in the United States, maybe more than any country I can think of, have been the beneficiaries of immigration throughout our history.  It’s our secret to success.  Wave after wave of people from all over the world at different points in our history have come to the United States from Ireland, from Italy, from Asia, from Latin America.  And every generation has brought something new to the story that is our country and has helped move it forward.

So we also want to make sure that we are creating more legal pathways to migration, even as we’re dealing with the challenges posed by irregular migration, and we will always look for ways to support communities already in the United States who need it.  So thank you.

But – and I’m – I don’t know, and I don’t want to put you on the spot, but if there’s anything you’d like to share about what actually brought you from Venezuela to Colombia?

QUESTION:  (Via interpreter) Yes.  Thank you for this opportunity.  Thank you for answering me.  Thank you for everything that you’re doing for all Venezuelans, from the embassy here in Colombia and the presidency of Colombia, and also directly from the United States, because I know there’s also a big wave of Venezuelan immigration there.

I came for many reasons.  Unfortunately, yes, when you leave, you leave your friends, your projects, your career, your family.  The major reason that I came here:  Because there were no opportunities at home, and also because of political persecution because I was a leader of an anti-government movement because the dictatorship was stealing my future and the future of all youth in Venezuela.

We need to resolve all of the needs and the lack of opportunities for my family and all my friends.  I can tell you that 100 percent of my friends, 80 percent of us are migrants now.  It has been a very difficult decision to take, but sometimes we have to be a little bit selfish and put ourselves first.  But I hope that there’ll be – that our country will be what it was at some point, and we can go back.  Thank you.  (Applause.)

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Thank you.  Gracias.

MR GALLO:  (Via interpreter)  Thanks.  Thank you, Coralia.  Thank you, Mr. Secretary.

We have Juan – oh, no, we have Julián Sánchez González.  He’s a Fulbright alumni and art history doctoral candidate from Bogotá.  Julián.

QUESTION:  Hello, Secretary Blinken.  It’s a pleasure to meet you.  My name is Julián Sánchez.  I’m a Fulbright alumni.  I did a master’s in art history at New York University and I’m currently pursuing a doctorate program in art history at Colombia University.

So my question to you is:  You have traditionally been portrayed by the media as someone who is in favor of military and armed interventions abroad.  The recent pullout from Afghanistan, although chaotic, signaled an important shift in this step, perhaps calling attention to the need for further diplomatic efforts in the fields of culture and education.  Colombia, much like Afghanistan, has suffered the human and financial costs of a protracted armed conflict, and it seems that the current government is not entirely keen on respecting and honoring the historic peace agreement reached with guerrilla groups.  How is the U.S. Government thinking about addressing the resurgence of violence in Colombia’s urban centers and rural areas?  Could we think of a higher investment in culture and education as a long-term solution, rather than increased budgets – budgets for armed forces?  Thank you.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Thank you very much.  The United States has a long partnership with Colombia in many different areas, including, of course, going back to dealing with the terrible problem that still exists but in a different way of drugs and narcotrafficking through Plan Colombia, but critically as well through the peace accord.  We were, when the accord was being developed, strong supporters, and we tried to be helpful in bringing it to conclusion.  And since its conclusion, we strongly support its implementation.

And I think it’s a very complicated story because, first, when you make – when you actually make peace, and then you start to do the hard work of implementing an agreement and all of its components and all of its complexities and changing something, doing something different than what’s been done for the last 10, 15, 20, 25 years, it’s hard.  And then it’s sometimes easy to forget what life was like before you reached the agreement, and then all you focus on is the difficulties in implementing it and the frustrations that come with that.

So the first thing I’d say is it’s important to remember how far Colombia has come and what things were like before to maybe give further energy and inspiration to keep moving forward with the work.  But I think there have been tremendous successes already, dramatic demilitarization of the communities that were involved, the beginnings of political integration of the communities.  I think we’re seeing important steps taken on accountability for grievous abuses of human rights, a truth commission that will soon issue its report, work that we’re doing together to try to find missing persons as a result of the conflict.  All of that’s real and it’s important.  Not – it’s never perfect, but it’s real.

At the same time, I think we know that there is a lot of work that remains to be done on, for example, having a greater state presence in some of the rural communities that were most affected by the violence, but especially as well the ability to create greater opportunity for people.  So – and this goes back to what we were talking about.  Because if people don’t have an opportunity, if there is no ability for them to have a meaningful livelihood, to provide for their families, to have the dignity that comes with doing a job and doing it well, then it will be easy to be attracted to and feel you have no choice but to engage in some kind of illicit activity.

Also, if the state, if the government, is not seen as delivering some of these opportunities, well, those who say we should go against the state, they’ll find new adherents.  So there is a lot of work that remains to be done there, but I think it takes constant re-energization.  It’s also so important throughout this process that those who are standing up and pointing out problems, pointing out continued abuses, pointing out deficiencies are protected, that their voices are not only heard but protected.  And we know human rights defenders and others, they have to be protected.  That’s the responsibility of the state.

I will tell you that in my conversations yesterday with President Duque and with other senior leaders in the government, I heard a commitment to implementation of the peace accord.  I heard of some of the progress that actually has been made, and I heard a commitment to continue to move forward to implement it.

I do – I’m a very strong believer, though, in something that you referenced, and that is the ability of arts, of culture to bring people together, to create bonds, and to be part of what has to be, for lack of a better word, a holistic approach to these problems.  We may come to it, but when we’re talking about citizens’ security, for example, yes, law enforcement is important, it has to be done right, it has to be done effectively.  But unless you’re looking at the challenge comprehensively, unless you’re dealing with the needs of the people, unless you are creating real opportunity, it will never suffice.  And again, in the conversations that I had yesterday, that – I heard a conviction that that’s the right approach.

So all of this is a work in progress, and I hope that all of you and any of you who may be involved in it will continue to energize your leaders and encourage them, push them to continue to move forward.  Because again, remember the alternative.  It’s not good.

MR GALLO:  All right.  Thank you for that.  And I know you mentioned before about the importance of youth involvement.


MR GALLO:  And a follow-up question comes from our virtual audience, and I’m going to read it to you, and it is from Kewin Obando, another MLK Scholar, and he asks:  “What are the most viable ways to achieve youth engagement in the process of creating public policies that affect them directly?  And how can they participate in policies focused on education or employment which they are often unable to impact?”

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  So I think this starts in so many different ways.  It can start at a very, very local level, getting involved in trying to solve one particular problem – joining a group, working with others, speaking out.  And sometimes it’s just one seemingly small problem that’s affecting a community, but that is one way to get involved.

I have to say – we’ll see what happens, but I think what Colombia is doing now with this experiment with the youth councils and the first elections that will take place in just a month or so, I believe – that’s, I think, a fascinating and maybe very important experiment.  As I understand it, there are something like 46,000 candidates across the country for these youth council positions.  And if the government’s commitment to this carries forward, the young people who are elected – I think it’s 18 to about 24, 25 – that will be a possibly important vehicle for making sure that the voice of young people in Colombia is heard in the political system, and not just heard – is part of the political system.

The other thing I’d just say more generally is we need you.  We need you to be involved and engaged in whatever way you choose to be and find to be, because – we were talking about this a little bit yesterday in Ecuador – those of us who have been doing this for a while, especially those of us who have been in government for a while, as much as we try to keep open minds and try to constantly look for new and fresh ideas, the older you get, the harder it gets.  You get set in your ways sometimes.

And what we see again and again in country after country around the world, where progress is made, it’s often because young people have been a driving force in that progress, because new generations feel almost intuitively that just because something has been done one way for 25 or 50 or a hundred years doesn’t mean it has to be done the same way the next 25, 50, or a hundred years.  That if there are persistent problems that we’ve not been able to solve, well, maybe we should try something different.  And if that’s done within the framework of a truly participatory democracy where voices are able to be heard and, as I said, protected, then that’s really how you make progress.  And it starts with, I think, rising generations, and I see a lot of their representatives right here.

MR GALLO:  Thank you.  For those who are joining us online, we are here live with United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

And Mr. Secretary, now we’re going to transition to a new category regarding vulnerable and disadvantaged populations, and our first question comes from Juan Carlos Mindinero, who is a musician like yourself, and —

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  This is the talented musician?

MR GALLO:  Yeah, this is the talented musician – (laughter) – and anti-racism advocate from Tumaco on the Pacific coast of Colombia.  Juan Carlos.

QUESTION:  (Via interpreter) Hello. Good morning.  I’m Juan Carlos Mindinero, more known as Canquita on the Pacific coast.  I’m a traditional musician.  I compose and arrange music in urban areas.

Mr. Secretary, I’m convinced that culture is a very strong instrument to fight against racism, to promote peace, and to give economic opportunities to communities, especially to young people.  So my question would be:  How can United States promote culture in order to take advantage of the country and opportunities, especially in marginated areas of the country?  Thank you.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Thank you.  And I don’t see if you brought an instrument with you; maybe we can hear a demonstration.  But next time.

First, I very much agree with your premise, with your argument.  I don’t think there is anything that has a greater ability, a more powerful ability, to break down barriers between people, between countries, between communities, than arts and culture.  We see it every single day.  We see how people are moved by music and it creates a common bond that transcends everything.  It transcends race.  It transcends gender.  It transcends ethnicity.  It transcends nationality.  It brings people together.  It unites the world.  And a young person or a not-so-young person will be affected by that expression of human creativity.  And then we start to see the people behind the creativity.  And you’re a representative, too, of a community.  We start to see the community, and we start to see it in very different ways.  So I couldn’t agree more.

And look, we know this in our own country.  There was a soundtrack to the civil rights movement that had a powerful impact across communities in the United States.  So one of the things that I believe very strongly in is the United States doing what it can to promote arts and culture in different countries; to create exchanges between musicians, artists, and all of those engaged in creative enterprises; and to expose our own young people to creativity in one place, and to expose creative people, like yourself, to the United States.

And we have, I’m proud to say, programs that, as you know, do just that.  Our embassy works on these here in Colombia, but especially we want to put a focus on underserved communities, indigenous communities, Afro-Colombian communities, that don’t necessarily benefit from the same resources that others do.  And that’s a part of the work that we’re doing.

So there’s a lot that the embassy works on, supports, and it’s something that I very – believe strongly in.  We’ll try to do more of that going forward.  I know COVID, of course, has made things even more complicated.  But hopefully we are – we will turn the corner, and Colombia is doing very well, and that will allow some of the things that we want to do, to do even more of.  Thank you.

MR GALLO:   The time has been flying, so we have time for one more last question from our live audience.  And we’re going to invite Rosy Pacheco, who is an Afro feminist leader from Chocó, also on the Pacific coast.

Bueno, Rosy. 

QUESTION:  (Via interpreter) Good afternoon to everybody.  Good afternoon, Mr. Secretary.  As he said, my name is Rosy Pacheco, Afro feminist from Chocó.  And I’d look to tell you that being a leader is not easy, and to be a leader of a marginal community is even harder.

Today we wanted to ask you something very simple.  How can the United States help those young people from the LGBTQ community to take preventative measures to help us, and whether that’s a priority for you?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  It is a priority.  And I think that in the first instance, maybe the most important thing we can do is to speak up, to speak out, to stand up for the rights of minority communities, or in this case LGBTQI communities, around the world; to put the voice of our government – and through our government, our people and our country – in support of, defense of, protection of your rights.

And to the extent that our voice is heard and can – maybe it will help make a little bit of a difference – that voice can be expressed in different ways.  We express is publicly through the words of our government, through the men and women who speak for our government, starting with the President but also me and others.  Sometimes they’re expressed privately as we talk to governments around the world and press them, urge them, encourage them, to uphold the rights of different communities and minority communities that are being challenged.  And sometimes we have ways of putting some teeth into that by making it clear that if they don’t, there may be consequences in terms of the relationship with the United States, and then they have to choose what’s important to them.

But I was speaking to some colleagues from civil society in Ecuador just – we were in Ecuador before coming to Colombia – and like you, they were people who had in a sense stood up to defend and to protect and advance the rights of their community, and that had put a spotlight on them and maybe in some cases made them a target.  And one of the things that they told us that was the United States speaking out, sometimes raising their individual cases or the work that they were doing, had made a difference and had given them more space in which to do that work.  Now, that’s very imperfect, but it’s – I hope it helps.

Second, we need to bring countries together in terms of making real binding commitments to protect marginalized communities, marginalized groups, and there are different ways of doing that.  There are international conventions, international agreements, international statements where countries put themselves on the record and say we will protect communities, we will have accountability for those who abuse them.  And that’s an important first step, because if countries sign on to these basic understandings, then we have an ability to go back to these countries when we see them not living up to their commitments and call them out – call them out on that.

One of the things that is a challenge around the world and in so many of our countries has been violence against women, and COVID-19 has seen horrifically an increase in violence against women as well as against LGBTI communities and others.  One of the things that my boss, President Biden, has worked on for years is dealing with the problem in our own country of violence against women.  And I was saying to a group yesterday of all the things he’s done in his career, I think maybe the thing he’s proudest of is having written the law to give us tools and resources to combat violence against women in the United States, and there’s now an international aspect to that.

So this can be done in many ways, but I think the first step is to speak out, to put a spotlight on the issue, and to put whatever credibility the United States has behind the protection of those who need it.  Thank you.

MR GALLO:  Well, thank you, Mr. Secretary, for taking the time, for visiting Colombia – we’re very grateful – and coming to South America.  And thank you to the 20 young people from all over Colombia —


MR GALLO:  — who came today.  (Applause.)


MR GALLO:  And also those who submitted their questions online.  There were hundreds of them.  Also, if you want to rewatch this, you can do that on the embassy’s channels and on El Espectador, and I hope everybody has a great day today.  Buenos tardes and welcome to Colombia.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Buenos tardes.  Muchas gracias.  Gracias a todos.  (Applause.)