Colombian Foreign Minister Jaime Bermúdez assured Israel on Thursday that bilateral ties are “very strong,” and whoever wins his country’s presidential election next month will be supportive of the Jewish state.

“Colombia and Israel have had a very long relationship and a very strong partnership too,” Bermudez told The Jerusalem Post, in an interview in his suite at the King David Hotel.

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“I truly believe that Colombia today, regardless of who will be the most likely winner, is going to continue on the same track... I am very optimistic about the future of our relationship.”

He also expressed a desire to strengthen Colombia’s military relationship with Israel as well as trade ties, and develop what he termed “joint ventures on innovation, entrepreneurship and venture capital.”

Bermúdez, on an official three-day visit to Israel, met on Thursday with Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman after holding talks with President Shimon Peres on Wednesday. He also visited Yad Vashem and Jerusalem’s Old City.

The Colombian election to succeed President Alvaro Uribe, on May 30, is expected to be a tight race between former defense minister Juan Manuel Santos and former Bogota mayor Antanas Mockus.

Uribe, who gained popularity in his successful war against the FARC rebels, has served the maximum two terms as president and his administration has been tainted by corruption allegations.

Some of the arms that Colombia uses in its battle against the rebels were purchased from Israel, including Kfir aircraft, drones, weapons and intelligence systems.

Uribe recently accused Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez of meddling in the elections by suggesting that Santos’s election “could generate a war in this part of the world.”

“It is an insult to the Colombian people that a foreign government would try to impede its free political will to elect the next president of the republic, with intimations of war,” Uribe said.

The maverick Mockus, an independent candidate, this week retracted a comment he had made in a radio interview that he “admires” Chavez, saying he would like to change the verb to “respects.”

“I respect President Chavez because he was elected and reelected democratically, and anyone elected democratically is respectable,” he was quoted as telling W Radio.

The virulently anti-Israel Chavez has derogatorily referred to Uribe’s Colombia as “the Israel of Latin America.”

In his meeting with Peres on Wednesday, Bermúdez told him warmly: “I admire your people. I admire your country and I admire you. You have many friends in Colombia.”

Bermúdez, born in Bogota in 1966, is a lawyer-turned-diplomat who is married with two children. He served for four years as communications adviser to Uribe, whom he met as a student at Oxford University.

After receiving his doctorate in political science from Oxford, he was appointed an adviser to the Colombian Human Rights Committee. He later served as ambassador to Argentina and was appointed foreign minister in 2008.

An attractive, articulate and affable diplomat, Bermúdez plans to enter the business sector after the May election. This  exclusive interview with him was conducted in English on Thursday morning, in the presence of Colombian Ambassador Isaac Gilinski and Israeli Ambassador to Colombia Meron Reuben.

How would you sum up your visit to Israel?

Well, first of all, from a personal point of view, I’m so pleased to be here since this is my first time. It’s a wonderful experience.

Secondly, Colombia and Israel have had a very long relationship and a very strong partnership, too. Both countries and our peoples have suffered and have endured, in a way, similar difficulties. At the same time, I would say that we both are resilient and determined, that we share somehow a lot in common. I would say that for us, it’s very important to make a partnership with Israel in several aspects.

One of these aspects, which was part of the conversation with President Peres, is how we can come up with a joint venture between the private sector and public sector in Israel and Colombia, in projects on innovation, entrepreneurship and venture capital.

You are a well-reputed country, and you serve as innovative, entrepreneurial and so on, and we would like to learn about that, and we have certain experience. Colombia is well-rated worldwide in terms of professionalism, commitment and innovation too.

We’ve been talking with our delegation, which includes Luis Carlos Villegas, the president of the National Business Association, to make these joint ventures possible, and I think it could happen in the near future. So that’s the big idea of what’s going on in this particular visit.

Obviously, we have several other aspects in which we cooperate with each other, and we need to do more in terms of the fight against terrorism, the cooperation in agri-business, education and so on.

Do you think Colombia can learn from Israel in the fight against terrorism?

Oh, yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. And perhaps the other way around too. And the most important thing is how we both can cooperate with each other. Because we in Colombia truly believe that drugs and terrorism are multinational businesses and crimes, and the only way you can actually get rid of those for good is through effective international cooperation.

What is Colombia’s position on sanctions against Iran?

Well, we basically work hand in hand within the NPT framework, and in Latin America we believe it is very important for the entire world and particularly for our region to move ahead on this particular issue.

What have you heard from your meetings in Israel about the resumption of proximity talks with the Palestinians?

Colombia truly wishes that the situation will actually make some progress, for Israel and also for Palestine to achieve a final solution peacefully, and what I’ve heard and what I’ve seen in the media is that there are good signs, and we hope that progress can be made, in the coming future, for the good of the two peoples, for the good of Israel and for the good of Palestine.

There are a lot of Palestinians living in Colombia...

There are a good number, and we also have an important Jewish community, and they both get along fairly well, and in that particular sense, Colombia is a very open country.

You have elections coming up. Do you think Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has been interfering in the elections?

I think that Colombia cannot accept anyone from any other country making some comments or suggestions that interfere with our domestic political process, whether it is criticizing or supporting any candidate, whatever his or her name. So we cannot accept that.

On the other hand, I would say that Colombian democracy is a very strong one, and what has been shown, in this campaign and many others, is that we respect the independence of institutions. The political parties and the opposition parties have all the guarantees to run and to campaign, and we have a very strong and vibrant democracy.

I truly believe that Colombia today, regardless of who will be the most likely winner, is going to continue on the same track and on the same path in terms of improving security, promoting investment and social cohesion, and deepening our democracy.

Do you think whoever wins will be supportive of Israel?

Yes, I believe so, yes.

Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman visited Colombia last year, and you are meeting with him today. What is on the agenda of your talks?

We have a very open agenda. We have been having a candid dialogue. We normally talk about bilateral issues, and regional and multilateral issues.

What about the growing influence of Iran and Hizbullah in Latin America?

We talk about everything. Whatever his or our concern is. We are very open to many issues.

May I ask you about the military ties between Israel and Colombia? Do you see these expanding?

Yes. I’ll give you my particular view on that. I was so impressed yesterday by President Peres, because he mentioned one idea that I think is very, very strong.

He said we should share, regarding the military, and we should have not only camps but also campuses, meaning that people in the army should not only serve but also study, and we are going to have a meeting today with the staff to talk in deeper detail about this.

We would welcome this idea, and are more than pleased to learn about it. That’s a big issue.

Finally, how do you see the future of the relationship between Israel and Colombia developing?

I think it is a very strong and longstanding relationship, and I am very optimistic about the future of this relationship, particularly regarding these two new ideas that have come up during my visit.

The first one I mentioned came from President Peres regarding how the military could become not only a camp but a campus, service and study, but also the idea that I mentioned to have a joint venture between public and private sectors, between Israel and Colombia, regarding innovation, entrepreneurship and venture capital.


So we’ve been discussing with our ambassadors and our teams how we can make this happen in the near future.
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