Meeting With Staff and Families of Embassy Bogota

John Kerry
Secretary of State
Embassy Bogota, Colombia
August 12, 2013

AMBASSADOR MCKINLEY: Secretary Kerry, 42 U.S. Government agencies and departments, all of our Colombian colleagues who work with us, it’s terrific to have you here. Si podemos darle la bienvenida calurosael Secretario Kerry, por favor. (Applause.)

And I know we’re here to hear Secretary Kerry, so without further ado I’ll turn over the microphone to you, sir.

SECRETARY KERRY: Thank you. Muchas gracias. Thank you very much, Mike McKinley. I really appreciate it. Hello, everybody. Buenos dias. Estoy encantado de estar aqui en Bogota. Gracias. Que mas? (Laughter and applause.) Good? I don’t know. I want more energy out of all you guys. We have a long workday ahead of us. Get this going.

Thank you for coming out for a few minutes. And Michael, thank you. Where’d he go? He ran away. Oh, there he is. He’s over here with Fatima. Fatima, thank you for what you do and the kids and everybody. And Michael, thanks for your extraordinary leadership. He’s worn a lot of hats through his career, and now is heading off to beautiful Kabul and Afghanistan to help us, the important task of winding down. But I’m grateful, very grateful to you for the work you’ve done. And Andy Bowen somewhere – where is Andy? He’s somewhere over here. Andy, thanks for hanging in there in the interim while we got another Deputy Chief of Mission. And Ben Ziff is somewhere here. I haven’t met him yet.

Ben. I’ve got high marks on Ben because my brother-in-law was the Ambassador to Rome for the last four years, to Italy, and Ben worked there, among other places, in Baghdad and elsewhere. So Ben, welcome aboard. And I’m sure everybody looks forward to getting to know you. Bring your – well, maybe, maybe. (Laughter.) I don’t know.

Anyway – and to all of you, Foreign Service Officers, civil servant employees, local employees, political employees, whatever you may be – half-baked employees – thank you very, very much for being part of this extraordinary effort. This is one of our – it was amazing to me. I was not aware of this previously, but this is one of our largest missions. And it goes back to a time when I was in the United States Senate in the 1990s, when we were really desperately trying to figure out what’s the path forward in Colombia. And I was then Chairman of the Western Hemisphere Subcommittee, so I was very, very involved in Central and Latin America. Back in those days, we were dealing with the Contras and with Nicaragua and, ironically, the same person, Ortega, who is there today. So it goes around full-circle.

But it was a time of unbelievable, sort of, “How do you save this place?” Because the narcotics trafficking and the violence was so prevalent. And I remember back then – I think it was something like 13 members of the supreme court had been assassinated in one moment, and there was a challenge to civil authority, a challenge to the state. To his credit, President Uribe came in and stood up, and we came up with this thing called Plan Colombia, all of us, everybody working on it together. And you all, many of you were here, local employees certainly who were part of that amazing transformation. And today Colombia is, without exaggeration, one of the most important leaders in all of Latin America, one of our most important allies – most importantly, an enormous statement about the possibilities of what happens when people put their minds together with good diplomacy, good political leadership, good concepts, and you go out and you actually take the risks.

I just came from the high-altitude training center where I met a lot of the veterans, a lot of the people who have paid the price of this journey – police officers, military personnel who have been wounded by an IED or grenade or explosion of some kind. And they’re getting on with their lives and setting an example, but it’s never easy. And proudly, USAID is involved in helping to support that program, and we’re doing things. But what all of you are part of is one of very few success stories anywhere in the world right now. President Obama and I were talking the other day about the challenge that we’re facing in the Sahel, in the Maghreb, in the Arabian Peninsula, in the Levant, in South Central Asia, in other parts of the world, where you have either failing or failed states, none of whom have been able to make the kind of decision that was made here in Colombia.

So I just wanted to come and say – and my message to President Santos will be one of huge support. He is continuing on – and I think bravely and courageously – with the right track. What had to happen from 2000 and 2002 on for a period of time had to happen, a direct confrontation, a struggle to restore the credibility and viability of the government itself. But after that, you need to look beyond and figure out: How do we get away from perpetual conflict and actually make peace? That’s what we’re all engaged in right now and that’s what President Santos is trying to lead. And I think it’s the right decision and the right direction. And hopefully, we can contribute to that, all of us together, as we go forward in these next months.

Now, you know, obviously, it’s always difficult and you are engaged on the front lines. So I want to say thank you to you for moving from home, many of you, and for those of you who are local employees, for being willing to be part of this mission. I’m confident that sometimes some people say, “Oh, well, you work for the Americanos. What’s that all about?” And you take some flak for it and everything else, but we’re very proud and very grateful that you are part of this mission.

I want all of the local employees, raise your hands, and I want everybody else to say thank you to our local employees for their great, great work. (Applause.) We cannot possibly do this without your help, and so we thank you for it.

The fun thing is that I don’t think there’s better work in the world. I really mean that. I am privileged to get up every day and go be the Secretary of State in Washington and think about a lot of different places, but I love what you’re doing every day at this local level where we have the 42 agencies that the Ambassador talked about, and 3,500 people with contractors and all the people who are a part of this effort. It’s amazing. And every day we get to go out and try to make other people’s lives better, and every day we get to go out and try to make the relationship between the United States and Colombia and the rest of this region better.

And we do it in profound ways and different ways. Sometimes it’s by giving somebody a visa so there’s a family reunification or the chance to go to some special event or to go be educated somewhere else. And the numbers of increases in visas is extraordinary, given President Obama’s new efforts to try to increase the numbers of students coming from Latin America, and given the numbers of people who automatically want to try to do that.

And those ties are ties for a lifetime. You have no idea how many places I get to go as Secretary and I meet the leaders of countries who proudly say to me, “Oh, well, I went to Michigan State.” “I went to Stanford.” “I was at Princeton.” “I was in California.” “I went to University of Mississippi.” It’s amazing. And they carry the values that come from that experience with them for the rest of their lives. That’s what we’re doing. We’re sharing values with people and trying to improve people’s lives so that we can all get along a little better and look to a future that is more peaceful, and frankly, more shared by more people.

So I want to thank you on behalf of President Obama, on behalf of all American citizens. We are grateful for those of you who pack up your bags, move your families, go from mission to mission, and carry our flag and carry our values and our hopes and our aspirations with you. It’s really a privilege, I think, and I hope you feel the same way. So I’m grateful have a moment to come here. I apologize that it’s quick coming through Colombia and then tomorrow in Brazil and then back, because as you know, there’s a lot of turmoil going on. We’re trying to figure what’s going to happen in Egypt, in the Middle East, and other places. But we’re working hard at all of this, as you are.

So from all of us, muchas gracias. I wish you well and I look forward to having a chance to shake a few hands and say hello to everybody. God bless. Thanks for being part of this mission.

One thing, I know we lost a couple – we’ve lost a few people in the last days. Tom Watson[1], the DEA agent, I know, senselessly, after three tours in Afghanistan and 20 years in law enforcement, and senselessly his life was taken recently. And Meghan Aberle who was a resident of Massachusetts, I talked to her sister Kathryn. For those of you who did meet her in the two days she was privileged to be here – and that happens, unfortunately. And there’s a young fellow by the name of Fabio Artunduaga, I think, whose life was always playing sports.

So look, life is transitory and we all know that. It shouldn’t be as fragile as it is in some places because of violence. So whatever we do we will continue to do in memory of those people, too, who were as committed as all of us, to try to make a difference. And we’re going to continue to make that difference, and in the end, I think we will have contributed to a great enterprise. Thank you all and God bless. (Applause.)

One last thing. Where is she? Will you all – I promise this is the last comment. I want to introduce – what?

STAFF: (Off-mike.)

SECRETARY KERRY: She’s working on the phone? Jen Davis. Many of you know Jen Davis. She’s working – she’s one of my right arms up in Washington and she’s back here and she’s doing a heck of a job. And I want you all to welcome Jen back because she loves Bogota. (Applause.) Her kids were here right up until a couple of weeks ago. They just moved into their new home in Washington and she feels like this is home. So thank you. Anyway, thanks so much.

[1] Terry Watson

PRN: 2013/T12-02