Roundtable With Traveling Press

John Kerry
Secretary of State
Cartagena, Colombia
September 26, 2016

MR KIRBY: (In progress) – time, so I’m not going to eat it up with too much on the intro side. The Secretary is going to open it up here with a few comments about the importance of our time here in Cartagena and the signing of this peace accord, and then we’ll open it up for questions. We’ve got about 15 minutes, 20 for this.

We’ve got about 15 minutes total, okay?


MR KIRBY: But I want to make sure you guys each have a chance to ask a question, so please limit your follow-ups when we get around to that.

Mr. Secretary.

SECRETARY KERRY: Thank you. Thanks, Lisa. Appreciate it.

So listen, it’s a pleasure to see everybody. Thank you very much. Look, this is a very important day for Colombia. It’s a very exciting day for everybody who has been involved in and cared about Colombia for years. And it goes back to the 1990s for me. I served on the Western Hemisphere committee; was involved with Chris Dodd and others in helping to shape and pass the Plan Colombia out of the Foreign Relations Committee and ultimately on the floor of the Senate; worked very closely with the Colombian ambassador, Luis Moreno, back then – Luis Moreno.

And this has been long in the coming. There was a point of time where many of us were extremely, deeply concerned about the future of Colombia, where Colombia was a narco-state in the hands of the cartels and violence. I remember the supreme court members all getting assassinated – 13 of them, I think – in one moment. I mean, it was a time where a presidential candidate would stand up and you might get assassinated. It was difficult. It was really, really scary. And nobody quite was certain how you could pull the country back from the brink.

Well, a lot of people stood up and took it back – the people of Colombia, the police, the military. President Uribe deserves credit for that. We remember working with him, and he was courageous and the government was courageous, and they stood up and said we’re not going to let this country go down that road. And Plan Colombia came in and made an enormous difference in empowering people to be able to change things. So the United States really feels extremely – in personal ways – invested in today and in this future, because when things were at the worst, we were there. We were part of trying to help change things – with the Colombian people, I emphasize. The Colombian people, above all, were there.

And now President Santos has expended great political capital and been personally and deeply invested in this effort. When I first came here after – shortly after I was appointed Secretary of State, I met with the president and the president said to me, “Look, I want to make this push, and would you be willing to be supportive? And can you guys help us? It’s worthwhile and there’s a real possibility.” And we bought into it right away. We said absolutely, we will invest in it and we’ll do it.

And I went back to Washington and tried to figure out who could help us do it, and we found Bernie Aronson, who has great experience in the region. And I went to him and asked him if he’d be willing to do this, and he graciously indicated yes, and we secured President Obama’s approval and announced his participation and have been very much engaged in the talks. He’s met many times in Cuba, here, with the players. I’ve had a chance to meet here and in Cuba with the players.

And so we are very excited about what today represents for Colombia. Colombians have to decide for themselves. We’re not here to tell people what to do in the plebiscite. It is the decision of Colombians. But I am certainly here to say we support this agreement. We believe in it, and we believe it offers a unique opportunity to put the past into the past, into genuine history, and start to rewrite a new future – to write a new future for Colombia. We are committed to it.

I am the co-chair with Borge Brende of Norway of the demining initiative. We held an important fundraising initiative in New York last week, raised $105 million. I think we went in starting somewhere at 20-something or 25 – I can’t remember the exact number, but maybe slightly above that. But it was – we will provide technology, we will provide training, we will provide technical assistance, we will provide people. We’re invested in the education initiative, as I went to the Taller School today – Escuela Taller – and met with these amazing kids who are – range from 19 years old or 26 or eight or nine who have changed their lives through this kind of initiative. And they’re invested in peace and in the future, and they were part of FARC. I mean, these were young kids who either stepped on a mine or were holding a gun and were heading towards disaster.

So this is a fight – this is what being in diplomacy is all about, and I’m very proud to be here to share this with Colombia.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MR KIRBY: Yes, sir.

QUESTION: I’m Tracy Wilkinson from The Los Angeles Times. Two very quick questions. You just said that you’re not here to tell the people how to vote in the plebiscite, but if it fails – or how concerned are you about a return to violence, to all-out war? And secondly, is it time to talk the FARC off of the terrorist list?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, the first thing, I’m not going to contemplate failure. I believe in peace, I believe in fighting for it, and I’m always hopeful when you’re presented with an opportunity that you’ll make the most of it. So I’m not going to venture any speculation. I’m here to say that the United States supports this agreement and the people of Colombia in their wisdom will make their own decision in the next days.

On the terror list, we have a process of ordinary and regular review of those lists. And when new facts present themselves, we review. This is a new fact.

QUESTION: So it’s time for a review.

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, it’s – providing it’s – it gets implemented in the next days. I mean, just the announcement is a – it’s a – the announcement is an idea. The implementation are facts. So let’s see how it proceeds, but we clearly are prepared to review and make judgments about that as the facts come in. And I think we’ll know very quickly as the FARC reintegrates, as they go to the encampments, as disarming takes place, as the reintegration takes place and the reconciliation takes place, these will be the facts which motivate us. And obviously, just by what I’ve said to you a moment ago, we’re deeply invested in success. We don’t want to leave people on a list if they don’t belong on a list, so let’s see how things unfold.

MR KIRBY: Vivian.

QUESTION: Vivian Salama from the AP. So I have two questions, one about Colombia. I was wondering if you are trying to arrange any type of prisoner exchange, particularly with the guerilla leader Simon Trinidad. Has that been put on the table? Part two, on Syria, Walid al-Muallem today said that they’re ready to embrace a unity government – the Assad regime – and so I was wondering where that stands right now, where the U.S. stands on that issue. There was an interview that was published today where he said that they are ready to move toward a unity government.

SECRETARY KERRY: Yeah. Well, Simon Trinidad was not and is not part of this agreement. There are no promises or agreements. We are well aware of the concern about him. We’re well aware of the requests that have been made and the interest people have, but that’s really something that has to be dealt with through the Justice Department, not the State Department. And again, I think it’s quite premature to be thinking about alternatives at this particular moment. It’s just not timely, so to speak. But who – I mean, I can’t say what happens in the future. I don’t know.

On the Syria, the United States is always committed. I mean, this is why we have expended such energy. President Obama went the extra mile to try to see if we could get a ceasefire that would actually hold. And the Assad regime and the Russians seem intent on taking Aleppo and on destroying it in the process, which makes stopping the fighting even harder. So I don’t think that’s activity in good faith in keeping with the idea of trying to have a negotiation. I don’t think the opposition is going to be particularly excited about having a negotiation while they’re being bombed and starved.

So we’ll have to see what happens. The Assad regime statements are almost meaningless at this point in time. So we will have to see whether or not anything can develop in the next days that indicates a different approach from the Russians and from the regime. But while they’re pounding Aleppo, dropping indiscriminate bombs, killing women and children, talk of a unity government is pretty complicated.

MR KIRBY: Steve.

QUESTION: If I can – I’ll follow up on Syria. As you may have heard, Senator McCain, I believe it was last Friday, said that you were intrepid but delusional in negotiating with the Russians. And based on what we’ve been talking about that’s happened over the last few days and Lavrov’s comments at the UN, what do you say to people who say that the Russians basically took us for a ride?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, they didn’t take – I mean, they didn’t – we reduced violence for a period of time. If we hadn’t had the conversations we had, there would have been absolutely continued violence and many more people dead. So anybody who thinks that not talking to people is somehow going to advance a process, particularly one where the Congress is unwilling to vote to use force.

So I mean, John McCain wants to talk about “delusional.” Where’s the congressional vote for force? Where’s the congressional vote to go do something? They weren’t even willing to help support a vote to get the chemical weapons out of Syria. We got that out by talking to the Russians and by actually taking action.

So I just think talk is cheap and the important thing right now is to figure out what’s the alternative that the America people and the United States Congress will support. I have my own views about what we ought to do, but I’m not going to be arguing about them publicly.

MR KIRBY: Patricia.

SECRETARY KERRY: I mean, the cessation of hostilities, friends, is not the cause of what is happening. The cause of what is happening is Assad and Russia wanting to simply try to pursue a military victory. And it would be diplomatic malpractice not to try to pursue whether or not through some kind of diplomatic effort you could actually wind up reducing the violence. And what’s the alternative? Today there’s no ceasefire and we’re not talking to them right now. What’s happening? The place is being utterly destroyed. Okay? That’s not delusional; that’s a fact.

MR KIRBY: We’ve got time for one more. Patricia.

QUESTION: Hi, I’m Patricia Zengerle. I’m with Reuters. We understand that you’re meeting with President Maduro of Venezuela later today, and I wondered what your thoughts are now about any U.S. role, if possible, on the situation in Venezuela and what’s been happening with the outlook for a vote, et cetera. And what do you seek to accomplish?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, we’re deeply concerned about events in Venezuela. We’re very, very concerned for the people of Venezuela, for the level of conflict, starvation, lack of medicine. The humanitarian situation is of enormous concern. We have been working to have a dialogue with the Maduro government for some period of time. The Under Secretary of State Tom Shannon has had a couple of dialogues with him.

We want to be constructive. We are not looking for – we’re not looking for conflict. We’re looking for a solution here that works for the people of Venezuela writ broadly. And I welcome the opportunity to have a meeting with President Maduro, and – but I can’t offer you any sort of potential outcomes until I have that meeting. I mean, there’s no way to know what’s possible. Everybody knows we’re working towards this recall. It’s been delayed. That is problematic. And we need to find a way forward that can provide a consensus that provides relief to a nation under siege. And my hope is we can have a serious conversation.

QUESTION: Is there anything that the U.S. can do? I mean, it’s so delicate because they always – the Caracas government likes to blame Washington for everything.

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, that’s been the history. I mean, that has been the history. But once again, you don’t find out what’s possible if you don’t talk. You don’t have to say yes, particularly to something stupid or unacceptable. Nobody requires you to do that in a conversation. But if you don’t listen and you don’t have the conversation in the first place, a lot of people may die or things may get worse.

When Reagan and – we’re about to have the 30th anniversary of Ronald Reagan sitting down with Gorbachev. Did anybody think they would come out and talk about reducing nuclear weapons? No. It was improbable as hell until they sat down. When Nixon went to China, did anybody think we were going to wind up having diplomatic relations and wind up with a partnership 40, 50 years later that’s helping to deal with global climate change and resolve other problems? No – improbable. But that’s where we are.

So I’m a believer in diplomacy. That’s the job I do. And there are plenty of people around who could start conflicts; I try to prevent them or end them.

MR KIRBY: All right. Thanks, everybody.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MR KIRBY: We’re going to let the Secretary get back.

SECRETARY KERRY: Thank you all.