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Politics making peace a reality

Interview - August 6, 2015

Tolima Senator Rosmery Martínez Rosales discusses some of the milestones and achievements being made in Colombia’s Sisyphean task to implement peace and effect change, and the results that united efforts can produce. 


Colombia is at the moment very close to finally achieving peace. Recently at the Forum for Peace, in Madrid, all the international experts and President Santos agreed that we’re witnessing the final steps in the peace process. What’s your opinion on this?

I think it’s very good that President Juan Manuel Santos has put his trust in the peace process. This process has not been improvised, as opposed to what the opposition wants Colombians to believe.

If we think about the peace process in El Salvador, it took several years of discussions where there were moments of distress in which the negotiations got delayed.

Nowadays there is a president in El Salvador who is a former guerrilla fighter, in a country where the guerrillas were overwhelming, just like in Colombia. I have been a victim of the guerrillas myself: on December 14th 2001, my daughter María Paula, my brother and I suffered an attack in which the blood of my family was spilled.

We’ve always worked for a more inclusive country, and in favor of the fundamental rights of all Colombians.

Because of this we are extremely grateful to President Santos for driving forward the peace process very carefully behind the back of the State, and I think it wouldn’t had worked in any other way.

If he had been open about it, he would have been heavily criticized; while today, looking back, we can appreciate the positive results obtained by several people.

For example, General Naranjo, who was in charge of the State Police and fought against drug trafficking and guerrillas, and Dr. Humberto de la Calle, an outstanding jurist with an unblemished career – they both made possible the direct negotiations with the guerrillas and with the entire team that the president has started paying attention to.

For example, women were originally not included at the negotiating table in Cuba, nor the victims, but now the president has seen the need for it.

President Santos is a man open to dialogue, and definitely peace is the way forward in that context. Even though the signing of the peace treaty will make him a likely candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize, he’s not motivated by that recognition, but by the true challenges that come after that achievement, because legislators and citizens will have to strive for the fulfillment of the four basic rights: health, education, housing, and dignified labor.

We passed the Law for First Employment during the last administration. Regarding housing, President Santos has given the opportunity to a great number of people who didn’t have access to a roof over their heads to acquire their own house with zero cost.

And not only that, our Vice-President Germán Vargas Lleras is also working with an impressive infrastructure as the author of the Law for Housing during his administration in that department.

We have achieved both employment and health.

Also, in the last administration we have passed the Statutory Health Law. Colombia used to have mishaps and deficiencies in the health sector, but now every person in our country can be attended to at a public hospital or healthcare provider.

This isn’t easy, today we may not have a full coverage, but we’re working on making it a reality. We’re working on the repair of places like the Federico Lleras Hospital.

And like that, there are many other key issues which will become essential when peace is signed, because the forests, the fields, the coastlines, have been mostly occupied by the guerrillas.

When peace is achieved, those areas will allow the tourists to come to our country. Colombia is highly admired in the whole world because of our fauna, our agriculture, our oceans, so I think Colombia has a great future in the tourism sector.

I’m sure we will accomplish that because I believe in the peace process, I believe that both parties in the conversations have been very serious, and since I’m a part of the Peace Commission in the Senate I know for sure that we’re being very careful in achieving it.

As you mentioned earlier, education is a key issue to reduce poverty and make Colombia the country with the highest education standard in Latin America as a goal for 2025. Minister Molano told us about how Colombia is, thanks to the internet, providing the same possibilities to a kid in the Amazon region as at the best school in New York. As a Co-Director of the Cambio Radical Party and an authorized voice on this matter, what can you tell us about the importance of education?

I’m an educator, psychologist, pedagogue, and also a mother and head of the household, so I lean heavily on education.

They say that “an educated people is a people that moves forward”. Now, we’re providing housing complete with internet. This has created the notion that every child, even those whose families can’t afford a tablet, can get access to technology at school thanks to the Ministry of ICT.

I went to the Tolima region, to the north of Santander, where we delivered 3,000 computers. We have given those children the opportunity to enjoy that technology, and also making sure that the schools provide the training for them to receive part of their education through those devices.

I was the author of the propaedeutics in a very important law we passed; now Colombians can go from technicians to technologists, and from technologists to professionals.

This makes it easier for them to get certified and have a second career through propaedeutic cycles.

Another key thing we did was taking care of the educators. Public school teachers in Colombia don’t get paid as much as they should.

Now, thanks to an initiative from Minister Gina Parody, there will be an incentive for schools and teachers so they can use that extra money to improve their way of life.

And not only that, but we have also included a higher budget in the national development plan for the teachers to travel abroad, or to renowned universities in the country, such as Santo Tomás, Javeriana, Los Andes, Nacional De Colombia, and continue their training.

In Colombia we have a deficiency when it comes to doctors compared to European countries; very few people have access to a PhD. I’m finishing my doctorate, but most people can’t afford it, either because of financial issues or because of tight work schedules.

So now there are agreements with very important universities in order to make sure more people, especially teachers, can achieve that degree of education.

In Germany, for example, children in kindergarten are taught by people with PhDs. In Colombia this is very difficult, but President Santos has set this as a goal.

Other areas that are growing steadily, and will change the face of the whole country in the short to middle term, are the infrastructure, construction, and housing sectors. For the first time, a vice-president has been given the power to coordinate these tasks, with a record investment of $790 million until 2018, which will also push forward employment and general growth. What’s your opinion on these infrastructure plans for the next few years? How are the housing projects helping to achieve equality?

I think it’s very important that the current Vice-President Germán Vargas Lleras gave the opportunity to many municipalities and departments to improve security standards through security cameras, when he was minister of the interior.

Together with Mr. Vargas Lleras we also established the Houses for Citizen Coexistence, where we will unify the town hall and especially the municipality.

That’s when we started to notice the importance of a minister who knew the region. Then he came to the Ministry for Housing, so we managed to pass the law together with the Ministry for ICT.

And it’s not only about housing, there are huge projects concerning schools, shopping malls, and homes like the ones in Soacha. We build high quality homes.

Through the building of bridges and roads we also drive the growth of tourism, the gastronomy sector, and agriculture – we help the farmers to sell their products to the manufacturers.

We have roads of the highest quality, for students, for transport in general. We must thank President Santos for this, and especially Mr Vargas Lleras, who has achieved a true milestone in the history of Colombian infrastructure.

The agriculture sector is also very important for the country. There is a strategic plan developed to, on one hand, encourage productivity and exports, and on the other to reduce poverty through agriculture. On your opinion, what is the importance of agriculture, and especially the importance of women in the sector?

I come from a rural area, I was born among the white of cotton and rice. I’m from El Espinal, the second city in Tolima. To the north of Tolima there is also Fresno, Mariquita, Honda, Armero, Venadillo, Guayabal, this is a region full of agriculture: corn, yucca, mango, fruits in general.

Believe me, President Santos has given a great boost to local agriculture. In the past there were conflicts, with demonstrations and pickets, because the activity was not being taken seriously.

Supplies are expensive, but President Santos has kept his word and managed to reduce them.

I have to say that as a woman who comes from the provinces, the FTA has really affected all producers in all scales. I think we must be careful, I think our excellent Minister of Commerce should take a good look at this issue, because I think that if we, for example, import rice, then we’re definitely not benefiting from the FTA.

If there’s reciprocity then the country will actually make use of the FTA, otherwise we’ll be taking away everything from the farmers, the joy of working and plowing the fields. So there must be a very serious way to manage the FTA.

Frankly, I personally didn’t vote for it, thinking about my own province. If the state does things right then I really respect it, we’re seeing a lot of progress being made in the banking and infrastructure sectors, which will allow us to bring foreign investment. But I’m still unconvinced about the agriculture.

Recently, the governor of Tolima said that there has been an investment of more than 10 billion pesos in the Plan for National Development, and now more than 13 billion have been announced for the next few years. What are the priorities for Tolima in your opinion, and do you think this plan will affect the region?

I can give you the exclusive that, in the last Council for Security with President Santos, the investment has reached 17 billion.

I think it’s very important, for example, to build the Cambao road, which connects Cundinamarca and Tolima, it will be very important for us. It will also take us closer to Manizales, La Dorada and Fresno.

It’s a huge step forward for the Tolima region, to have high quality roads it’s a dream come true thanks to the peace process. The Tolima department has been in the hands of the guerrilla for 53 years, actually that’s where the guerrilla started, at Cañón de las Hermosas.

They used to say that the government wasn’t taking care of the citizens and it didn’t even build roads for the peasants to reach the cities. Now the government is working on the peace process and at the same time making improvements in health and housing, passing laws for employment and providing road infrastructure. To have access is to make the dreams of peace come true.

Which sectors and stories of success and initiative would you highlight from the Tolima region?

In Tolima, in the city of Ibagué we were renowned because of the maquila. There was a real emporium, which has dwindled a bit, but it has regained some momentum thanks to the FTA.

We’re also known because of the rice and cotton industries, they have both contributed a lot to the local economy. We’re also internationally famous for our cuisine, especially our “lechona”, and for our handicrafts.

The Chamba is a crafts hub hidden in Tolima, many people from all over the world come especially to know it. We have rivers, we have the Flandes Airport which will soon operate as a public-private partnership, the botanic culture that was passed on to us from José Celestino Mutis, the scientist from Mariquita.

We have Honda, the city of bridges, with a huge cultural heritage. Armero Guayabal was affected by a well-known disaster, but we passed a law to rebuild it.

Bagué, our capital, is where most of the traditional music comes from; many famous songwriters come from there. Tolima is culture, cuisine, art, wonderful young men and women, and children who are still being raised with values.

Colombia can boast about having a president and vice-president who are not from the same political party, but who have a relationship of mutual trust and respect, a true model to show to the international community. As co-director of your party, what do you think it’s the secret to achieve this?

The secret is that a coalition was formed to come up with the candidates for president and vice-president. But it’s interesting to notice that, if we look at the personal histories of Vargas Lleras and President Santos, they’ve known each other since they were kids, and in a country where politics could have divided them, they were united by a shared childhood and teenage years together, and now they’re in the same government.

I think that’s a part of the values of Colombia. Here, friendship is what prevails, we vote for a friend, for a leader who serves the people, for the citizen who’s always in the media making sure that everyone sees he’s doing things right.

People really think about who deserves their vote, and that’s the reason why Santos and Vargas Lleras are united in the same government right now.

The United States is Colombia’s most important strategic partner, both politically and economically. President Obama has always looked after the Colombian peace process, and has appointed a delegate for the negotiations in Havana. What’s your opinion on the relations with the US, especially concerning Miami as the gateway to the country, and Colombia as the key to the entry of the US into Latin America?

The support of President Obama and his wife has been crucial for all the people of this country. This support has been so unconditional and profound, that he also started to pay attention to the situation in Cuba, and he understood that there had to be a process both spiritual and of governance.

By witnessing the process in which we’re finally coming to an understanding with a 50-year-old guerrilla group, which is not easy but it’s definitely a priority in the peace agenda, I feel that he’s already making a reflection on humanity.

It’s also very important that the president of the most powerful country in the world is fighting on behalf of the immigrants in Congress.

I was Consul for Colombia once, and I suffered firsthand what it feels like to leave behind your culture, your lifestyle, your everyday food, to pursue the golden dream of the dollar, and be crushed.

President Obama understands that he also was elected thanks to their vote, and I think that’s something a true statesman does.

It’s wonderful to see that President Santos has turned the Foreign Office into what it always should have been, a link of friendship with the rest of the world, instead of using it to fight with our fellow neighboring countries, as it was under the previous administration.

As a former diplomat it really hurt me to see that, instead of building relations and bringing us together, it was used for coups.

To fight against Venezuela is to fight against our own infrastructure as well as our fellow Latin American nations, the same as with Ecuador and other countries.

Although it’s true that there’s a synergy and good relations between Colombia and Miami, what advantages do you think Colombia has over Miami?

There’s still a lot we can learn from Miami, a lot of things that are still missing from our country, especially in terms of infrastructure.

But now we have a vice-president who knows Miami, who knows the entire world actually, and wants to use all his experience in Colombia. What is Miami lacking?

Probably our warmth, the love we feel and we give. But it’s still a wonderful place. There must be a fellowship between the two, we can bring their infrastructure and we can offer them our cuisine.

They are both true powers, Colombia has its rivers, the warmth of its people, and the will to improve, while Miami really has it all. I think we must consider each other as brothers and sisters.

At the end of the day we are all human beings.

In the international context there are more and more women in positions of power, such as Angela Merkel or Christine Lagarde. As a woman and as a senator, what is in your opinion, the added value, that unique touch you can offer to the world of politics?

I think position of women has really evolved; it was only 57 years ago since we were allowed to vote, and not more than 56 years ago the men in Colombia didn’t even let us out without their permission.

Now we have 53 women senators; we have fought a silent struggle to get here. Women, by definition, are always there to serve our community; we are born to grow, to create life.

I really respect my fellow female coworkers. We have achieved something very important. I was actually the creator of the Law for Female Legislators, the commission for gender equality and against abuse towards women.

Many women legislators supported me on this, we made a true team. So it has been very important to have been in Congress these 13 years, and be co-author of the Code for Children and Adolescents, and several other laws we have passed together.

It hasn’t been easy, it’s the challenge of a lifetime, but we will continue working in that direction, I dedicate my political work to the hope of achieving Colombia’s dream of peace.