María Ángela Holguín
Colombia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs
In June 2017, Colombia’s Foreign Minister María Ángela Holguín made a reciprocal visit to Azerbaijan, meeting with President Ilham Aliyev and again with her counterpart Minister Elmar Mammadyarov in Baku. Foreign Minister Holguín then traveled to the regions of Azerbaijan to visit agricultural production sites of pomegranates and hazelnuts, a possible area of continued collaboration between the two nations. Azerbaijan’s Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov first visited Colombia in May 2017, traveling to the cities of Cartagena and Bogota. During the trip, Minister Mammadyarov met with Colombia’s President Juan Manuel Santos and Foreign Minister Holguín.
Since the opening of the Colombian Embassy to Azerbaijan in 2014, great progress has been made in bilateral relations. Some of the successes of the countries’ collaboration include a new interlinear agreement between Azerbaijan Airlines and the Colombian airline Avianca. The Embassy of Colombia in Azerbaijan continues to promote Colombian culture and the Spanish language through cultural events and language courses in Baku. Minister Holguín’s visit followed the June 2017 release of the first Azerbaijani-Spanish bilingual poetry anthology featuring the works of esteemed Colombian and Azerbaijani poets, which Colombia’s Charge d’Affaires to Azerbaijan, Dr. Marta Inés Galindo, views as an important achievement of cultural cooperation. At their most recent meeting in New York on September 21, 2017, the Ministers of Foreign Affairs of Colombia and Azerbaijan signed a declaration for the joint promotion of sport and culture. The countries are working together to strengthen cooperation across the spectrum, including in the political, economic, agricultural, education, tourism and energy spheres.
Following her June visit, Colombia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Dr. María Ángela Holguín, offered insights on bilateral relations with Azerbaijan in this exclusive interview with Azeri Observer magazine.
Question: How would you assess bilateral relations between Azerbaijan and Colombia and in what areas are there more potential for cooperation?
Answer: Azerbaijan and Colombia decided to bring dynamism to their bilateral relations with reciprocal visits, a political dialogue and the appointment of a charge d´affaires in each capital. We believe we both have opportunities and experiences we can share to improve our strategies for social and economic development.
Reciprocal visits have allowed us to have a clearer understanding of the realities and challenges facing both of our societies. We appreciated the visit of Minister H.E. Elmar Mammadyarov to Colombia in May2017. I was happy to visit Baku and other regions this past June. Apart from the high-level meetings, I had a chance to learn about the progress of Azerbaijan in terms of crop development and productivity. This is a very important issue for Colombia right now, as we are entering a phase of peace-building after the successful conclusion of the armed conflict that prevented us from really bringing development and opportunities to rural areas in our country.
In this context, traveling to Hajigabul, Kurdamir, Goychay and Zaqatala to see the pomegranate and hazelnut crops was a revealing experience, one that we can probably introduce in parts of Colombia. Rural development, without a doubt, is one of the areas in which we can work together, especially because Colombia has clear potential for food production and in a global context food security is becoming more relevant every day.
We have also developed cultural ties and programmed several activities for our people to get to know each other and to share cultural expressions that bring us closer together. We can share cultural expression in arts and music, and we deeply recognize the musical education background Azerbaijan has had for so many decades.
A bilingual publication of Azerbaijani and Colombian poets is one successful example of the kind of activities we can do to allow our citizens to discover each other. Colombia has also offered Spanish courses in Baku, working with the Minister of Foreign Affairs. These courses have been very successful, and they are pertinent when Azerbaijan is strengthening ties with Latin America.
Education and student exchanges are also an area of mutual benefit. We hope the exchanges will increase shortly. The field of oil and gas is of interest for students, and I have to say that part of the Colombian community living in Azerbaijan work in that field, and they have done so for many years.
Now we are focused on promoting economic and commercial investment in both countries. Private sector meetings, rounds of trade identification and joint ventures will increase the ties and opportunities we find in both countries. Both countries could open up the markets in their respective regions of Latin America and Central Asia, as both are regional hubs.
Q.: What are your goals for trade between the two nations?
A.: Trade so far is incipient. We must encourage our private sectors to identify products of interest in both markets. From the Colombian perspective, selling more flowers or coffee is a good place to start. Considering Azerbaijan both for its own potential as well as for being a regional hub, we are also interested in promoting tropical fruits, confectionary products such as sweets and candy, cosmetics and halal certified meat.
In this context, our Embassy in Baku has concentrated on market research, participated in international fairs in Baku, and promoted visits from the business community interested in developing such trade. Additionally, we are ready to support Azerbaijan in identifying products that could be exported to Colombia.
Q.: After your visit to Azerbaijan, which areas of collaboration do you think will be the easiest to develop? Which areas will you focus on developing first and why?
A.: We need to strengthen our areas of cooperation. We have started and should continue promoting the negotiation of bilateral instruments, trade, investment and tourism agendas and the contactbetween our peoplethrough cultural and education exchanges.
In this regard, in September 2017 we will have the fifth Spanish course for Azerbaijani public servants. We will support the Baku Jazz Festival for the second year and will participate one more time in the International Book Fair in Baku.
Agricultural development will be one of our key areas for the enhancement of our economic cooperation and possibilities. Currently, technology transfer in the cultivation of pomegranate and hazelnut from Azerbaijanto Colombia is a concrete step in the right direction because it opens up opportunities for business communities in both countries.
Tourism indeed is an important area for development. With the direct flight from Turkish Airlines – Bogotá to Istanbul – our connectivity has improved, and now we can develop tourism to and from both countries. The visa waiver and facilitation also helps students, the business community and tourists to consider visiting both countries. Moreover, AZAL and Avianca are negotiating ways to cooperate. They just signed an Interlinear Agreement and are working towards having a code-sharing system.
Q.: What role will Colombia have in Azerbaijan’s efforts to diversify its economy?
A.: Both countries are concentrating on diversifying their international trade and finding new partners in different regions. That is one of the reasons why each of us decided to open diplomatic representations in the other’scapital city. This allows us to identify opportunities, to make contacts and to better understand each other’s countries and the regions they belong to.
Colombia has 50 million people, a stable and reliable legal system, and the fourth largest economy in Latin America,and therefore may be of great interest to the private sector willing to discover Latin America. Moreover, as part of the Pacific Alliance with Peru, Mexico and Chile, we can offer a hub for Azerbaijan to engage and find business opportunities in these other countries. The Pacific Alliance represents the eighth largest economy in the world.
We also have a well-established network of free trade agreements with the United States, Canada, the European Union, the EFTA countries, Israel, and Korea, apart from the countries in Latin America. Together with the Pacific Alliance, we will start block economic negotiations with Australia, New Zealand, Singapore and Canada. With the Pacific Alliance, we are also engaged in a dialogue with ASEAN. Therefore, Colombia is fully committed to working with different strategies to develop quality engagements with the major economies and blocks around the world. Azerbaijan finds in Colombia a true and reliable partner in this part of the world.
Q.: In your meeting with Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev you discussed Colombia’s recent success negotiating a peace deal with the FARC to end the long on-going conflict within your country. What lessons can be shared between your country and Azerbaijan about peace-building and rebuilding after conflict?
A.: After more than 50 years of internal armed conflict, Colombia celebrated the demobilization and disarmament of the oldest guerrilla organization in South America, the FARC. In a long process of negotiation supported by the international community, the Colombian Government pondered and weighed the needs for justice and for building peace, always setting the victims at the center of the discussion.
I shared with President Aliyev the satisfaction of President Juan Manuel Santos and our government related to the signing of the Peace Agreement with the FARC guerrillas. We have entered into our post-conflict phase, and although the challenges ahead are great, we remain positive about our future.
President Aliyev and I also shared the interest in our two countries working together to develop the agro-industrial sector. We coincide with Azerbaijan that the welfare of our people depends upon their having opportunities to develop their crops into agribusiness. Economic growth is important for sustainable development and improving the quality of life of our citizens.
Q.: What was the most interesting thing you learned during your visit to the regions of Azerbaijan?
A.: In Azerbaijan, I found a country with 9 million people, a good per capita income and a very dynamic economy that is a relevant player in the South Caucasus region.
I was very happy to visit Hajigabul, Kurdamir, Goychay and Zaqatala. I was impressed seeing the pomegranate crops and their efficiency. This crop could bring, if replicated, prosperity to some of our most vulnerable rural communities that finally have a chance to thrive now that Colombia is starting to live in peace. Likewise, hazelnut cultivation and industrial processing is of great interest for us.
I would like to take advantage of this opportunity to express my profound gratitude, once again, to the mayors and their teams in Lahij, Qabala and Shaki for their hospitality and for sharing their knowledge and experience with me.
I would like to reiterate my gratitude to Minister Mammadyarov for engaging with Colombia over the last few years, for his tireless work in promoting a constructive agenda and for his always impeccable hospitality, allowing us to see this great nation that is becoming ever more familiar in Colombia.