Colombia and Azerbaijan: Two Cultures Discovering Each Other

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By ARSLAN ABBASOV

AZERI OBSERVER EDITOR-IN-CHIEF

HEAD OF MISSION OF THE EMBASSY OF COLOMBIA IN AZERBAIJAN, MARTA GALINDO PEÑA, IN AN EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW WITH THE AZERI OBSERVER MAGAZINE, SPEAKS ABOUT THE NOBEL PEACE PRIZE AWARDED TO FORMER COLOMBIAN PRESIDENT; THE SHARP INCREASE IN BILATERAL TRADE; SIMPLIFICATION OF THE VISA PROCESS, CULTURAL EXCHANGES BETWEEN THE TWO COUNTRIES, AND WHAT COLOMBIANS KNOW ABOUT AZERBAIJAN.

Question: In 2016 the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to the President of Colombia, Juan Manuel Santos. Why are the initiatives of Mr. Santos so important for the country and for the world?

Answer: Eight years ago, President Santos initiated the negotiations that culminated in the peace agreement between the Colombian government and FARC, the abbreviation in Spanish Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (“Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia”), a guerrilla organization, ending a more than 50-year-long armed conflict. This has been one of the longest wars in modern times and the sole remaining armed conflict in the Americas. The process was characterized for the extensive international support and the deep national dialogue. Our country is taking advantage of the ongoing peace and reconciliation process; regions that were undeveloped, especially in the countryside, are working on productive projects. It has also changed the Colombian image to the world; today, 91 countries do not ask for visas from Colombian citizens. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development invited Colombia to become the 37th member of the Organization. This year the country also had a record of more than 6.5 million foreign visitors. Now, we can focus effectively on addressing major challenges such as poverty and social inclusion, among others.

Q.: The recent presidential election in Colombia ended up with the victory of Mr. Iván Duque, a hardline conservative who opposes the peace deal with the leftist rebel group. Could the new government shatter the peace agreement?

A.: The elected president, Iván Duque, and his party, Centro Democrático, as Colombians, have a strong desire for peace in our country. What they are looking for, is to strike a balance between the need for national reconciliation and ensuring justice for the victims. It is a difficult challenge, there are no simple answers on how this should be accomplished. In Colombia, all parties are participating constructively in a broad-based national dialogue aimed at consolidating the peace process, having the victims as the main interest.

Q.: You have been serving as the Head of Mission of the Embassy of Colombia in Azerbaijan since early 2016. What are the main achievements of the Embassy during this period?

A.: During these past two and a half years, we have worked to straighten the relationship between Colombia and Azerbaijan in all spheres: political, economic, educational, sports, and cultural and have achieved goals in all of them. As Azeri Observer had the opportunity to register, we had the honor to arrange several meetings at the highest level between the two governments, with the Presidents and the Ministries of Foreign Affairs of both countries, who had the opportunities of advancing in all different sectors of interest. Following the commitments of those meetings, I am glad to inform you about the results of one of the main projects, the bilateral cooperation for strengthening the pomegranate crops in Colombia. In May 2018, Azeri experts planted a pilot crop with 1,200 trees of Mina Shirin variety, from the Azerbaijani company, Red Valley, in La Union, part of the Valle del Cauca, Colombia. This project is shaping up as an alternative model of rural productive economic development for those areas of the country, whose geological characteristics will be more affected by climate change, as well as the territories that are transiting towards the post-conflict.

Another important duty we faced during this period, was providing an opportunity to this region to better know the Pacific Alliance. The Pacific Alliance is a Latin American trade bloc formed by Chile, Colombia, Mexico, and Peru. It looks for an economic integration, with the purpose to expand the presence in Asia without taking on high costs. In this frame, our countries decided to open up a joint diplomatic mission, sharing offices in Azerbaijan. Chile is arriving very soon and our four Embassies will all be working together.

I had the honor to welcome the Head of Mission of the Peruvian Embassy and we are arranging our installations, waiting for the Diplomatic Mission of Chile to arrive. This year we started our cultural agenda with the Latin American Film Festival in Baku, with the cooperation also of the other Embassies of Latin America accredited in Azerbaijan.

Q.: What is the amount of bilateral trade between Azerbaijan and Colombia? How has it changed over the last years? What are the main products of bilateral trade?

A.: Azerbaijan finds in Colombia a true and reliable partner in Latin America. Our country is the fourth economy in this part of the world, with a population of 50 million, and a stable legal system. Moreover, as part of the Pacific Alliance, the eighth economy in the world, we can offer a hub for Azerbaijan to engage and find business opportunities in other countries such as Peru, Mexico, and Chile, that combined have 210 million people and about 35% of the region’s GDP. On the other hand, it is our interest to take advantage of Azerbaijan as a hub in the region, to help bring the Colombian products to other countries such as Iran, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan.

Occasionally, Colombia exports flowers, cocoa, and pharmaceutical products to Azerbaijan. In the last two years, the Embassy of Colombia has been working on consolidating the market on these products and has identified the interest of Azerbaijani people in coffee, tropical fruits, sweets, premium Rom, and meat certified in halal. As our main results in bilateral trade, the Colombian Embassy managed to increase the export of Colombian flowers to Azerbaijan by 400% and to send Azerbaijani companies for participating in Business Forums in Bogotá, organized by the government agency in charge of promoting Colombian – Procolombia: Proflora and Expocafé, the most important fairs in Colombia regarding flowers and coffee, respectively.  Looking for bringing our famous Colombian quality coffee without intermediaries, we are working with the Azerbaijani company,

Kaffadan, in creating a coffee culture in Azerbaijan and establishing a stable relationship with the National Federation of Coffee Growers of Colombia. Continuing on this path, we consider it necessary to sign a Partial Agreement that allows for the decrease of tariffs for Colombian products of interest on the Azerbaijani market.

Q.: Azerbaijan and Colombia are oil-producing countries. What kind of cooperation could be of interest to both countries in this sphere?

A.: Both countries can exchange experiences and cooperate in oil and gas fields. Currently, with SOCAR we are studying the possibility to look for investments in the construction of two projects in the Colombian Pacific: the Pacific regasification plant and the Buenaventura –Yumbo gas pipeline. On the other hand, Azerbaijan and Colombia are also interested in the development of alternative energies. The two countries could cooperate within the framework of the BIO Program of the Scientific Colombian Institution –Colciencias.

Q.: In 2017 Colombia, for the first time, took part in the Tourism Exhibition in Azerbaijan. Do you have any other plans to attract tourists from Colombia to Azerbaijan and vice versa? How do you assess the prospects of cooperation in this sphere?

A.: We have simplified the process for Azerbaijanis and Colombians for traveling in-between our countries. Since 2012, Azerbaijani citizens do not require a visa for tourist visits to Colombia. In April 2017, the Azerbaijani Government simplified the procedure of issuance for tourist visas for Colombians, who can apply online via ASAN E-Visa. Regarding the connectivity by transportation, we contact our national airlines, AZAL and Avianca, who are negotiating the ways to cooperate. In 2017, they started negotiations for signing an Interlinear Agreement and works for having a code-sharing system. We are working as well in straightening the cooperation between the tourism industries of the two countries. In this regard, we are looking for the active participation of Colombian tourism agencies in the main tourism fairs that take place in Azerbaijan with a regional impact: Prime Travel Market (March); International Travel and Tourism Fair – AITF (April). Since our participation in AITF (2017), we are having focal groups and business-to-business meetings with the travel agencies of Azerbaijan, for presenting Colombia as a new destination.

Q.: What other economic spheres are promising for bilateral cooperation?

A.: Besides bilateral commerce and tourism strategies, Azerbaijan and Colombia could be partners in different investments. Right now, Colombia is improving its Pacific ports, has important transport projects in the Capital City, Bogota, and is developing Communication Technologies. We consider it important to sign an Agreement for the Promotion and Reciprocal Protection of Investments. In this regard, we are negotiating this document between the Ministries of Economy of both countries. Another cooperation project we are working on is transferring the technology for the cultivation of Azerbaijani hazelnuts in Colombia.

Q.: Could you tell us about the Spanish language courses which Colombia organized for Azerbaijani diplomats and officials?

A.: The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Colombia has designed this strategy for promoting our culture and positioning our country as a reference in learning Spanish as a foreign language. This program has been offered in 11 countries throughout Asia, Africa, the Caribbean, and Europe. The Embassy of Colombia, with the cooperation of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Azerbaijan and the University of Caldas of Colombia, since 2013, has made five editions of the Spanish Course as a Foreign Language, teaching more than 200 public servants of Azerbaijan. The first three years, the course was only for diplomats, and now we have opened it to all the Governmental Entities. The last two courses were attended by students from several public institutions of Azerbaijan, as Ministries of Internal Affairs; of Agriculture; of Education; of Culture and Tourism; State Migration Service; ASAN Service, and the Academy of Science. Each edition we have created has further improved the students’ learning, which has helped them in their professional environment. Currently, we are working to start the sixth edition this fall, waiting for this opportunity to continue the evolution and advances of learning the Spanish language in Azerbaijan.

Q.: The Embassy of Colombia supported projects on the translation of poems of famous Azerbaijani poets to Spanish and famous Colombian poets to the Azerbaijani language. What do such projects mean for the development of bilateral relations?

A.: Cultural exchanges are the best way to get different people closer. That is why we have presented our representative artists in the main sceneries of Azerbaijan, as the Book Fair, Jazz Festival, Theatre Festival, and Movie Festivals. In the educational field, we brought two students with the ADA University fellowships. As you rightly recall, with the Translation Centre of Azerbaijan, we published a Poetry Anthology of both countries in Spanish and Azerbaijani languages, in the frame of a huge literature program of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Bogotá. Now, Colombian citizens are able to read Azerbaijani literature in their own language, and vice versa.

We also developed a sports diplomacy, which I am grateful to Azerbaijani Ministry of Youth and Sports for inviting a female volleyball team with kids from San Bernardo del Viento, Colombia, for an exchange exercise. Together, we changed the lives of 14 girls who could travel around Baku and the regions of this amazing country.

Q.: Do you have plans for any other bilateral projects in the cultural and educational sphere?

A.: It is my dream to bring the exhibition of our main artist, Fernando Botero, for Azerbaijani people. I am talking with the Heydar Aliyev Foundation to show his works at the Heydar Aliyev Center. We are looking forward to our continuing participation in the multilateral scenarios developed in Azerbaijan, as the Dialogue of the Civilizations. We are also making the promotion for the possibility of supporting Baku candidature for the Universal Exhibition in 2025.

Q.: What do people in Colombia know about Azerbaijan? What do you tell them about Azerbaijan when you are back in your country?

A.: The Azerbaijani Government is doing a great job showing their beautiful country to the world, with such events as Formula 1, championships of different sports, and hosting important multilateral meetings. That is the reason why Colombians are aware of the international position of Azerbaijan, with its booming economy, geopolitical weight, and production in the field of energy resources. What I told my people is that besides the distance, Azerbaijan and Colombia have many things in common: welcoming people, regions with natural wealth, a goal of developing the agriculture sector, among others. I also encourage my country to learn Azerbaijani policies that were able to give the population of 9 million an income per capita that allows them to have a very good life.

Every day I tell my Government how thankful I am to the Azerbaijanis that make my work easier. In this regard, I would like to reiterate my gratitude to the Government of Azerbaijan, specifically the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Elmar Mammadyarov; the Ministry of Agriculture and its Director of International Relations; the Ministry of Culture and Tourism; the Ministry of Youth and Sports; the Translation Centre under the Cabinet of Ministers of Azerbaijan; Azerbaijan National Academy of Sciences, among others. I am proud of working with companies capable of shortening the long distance between our countries and bringing a little piece of Colombia to Azerbaijan, including companies like Fantasya (flowers); Kaffadan (coffee); Dreamlife (fruits); Azerimed (pharmaceutical products), and Ulduz (cocoa).

Finally, I want to make a special nomination to the owner of the Red Valley Company, Mr. Rashad Shirinov, who brought the king of the fruits of Azerbaijan, one of the fruits of paradise, the Pomegranate, to Colombia. This initiative, in the framework of our bilateral cooperation with all the possibilities for knowing our main sectors, in the fields that Colombia and Azerbaijan share their national interests, has been very successful.