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Colombian diplomats spill the beans on 'destroyed' US State Department in secret recording

Miami Herald logo Miami Herald 11/22/2019 By Jim Wyss, Miami Herald
Francisco Santos Calderón wearing a suit and tie: Colombian Ambassador to the U.S. Francisco Santos speaks on Oct. 10, 2018 about pieces of an indigenous art collection that were seized by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and returned to the Colombian people during a handover ceremony at the Colombian Embassy in Washington, D.C. © JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images North America/TNS Colombian Ambassador to the U.S. Francisco Santos speaks on Oct. 10, 2018 about pieces of an indigenous art collection that were seized by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and returned to the Colombian people during a handover ceremony at the Colombian Embassy in Washington, D.C.

Two of Colombia’s top diplomats — caught in a moment of candor in a surreptitiously taped conversation — declared the U.S. State Department “destroyed” and said a Washington-backed effort to force humanitarian aid into Venezuela earlier this year was “a fiasco.”

Colombian newspaper Publimetro earlier this week released a 24-minute audio of Colombia’s Ambassador to the U.S. Francisco Santos and the country’s Foreign Minister-designate Claudia Blum. The paper said the pair had been recorded last week in a Washington, D.C., cafe by an unnamed third party.

In the animated and muddy recording, Santos — the country’s former vice president and a longtime diplomat — offers Blum advice about navigating the Washington power structure.

“The U.S. State Department, which used to be important, is destroyed, it doesn’t exist,” he said. In particular, he said Trump’s first secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, “salio con un chorro de babas” — a colorful expression that translates literally to “let out a stream of drool,” and which means, roughly, he was all talk and ineffectual.

Santos said that a decade ago, when he visited Washington, “it was predictable. You knew how things worked. Now that’s all over.”

As an example, Santos said that the ambassador from Singapore to the U.S. had confided that during the Obama administration he used to visit the State Department once a week, but now hadn’t been there in eight months “because it doesn’t count.”

While he said that U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo still carried weight in Washington, his underlings had no power, and that real policy decisions were being made by the National Security Council.

The pair also talked on the recording about the fate of Venezuela, where opposition leader Juan Guaido has been trying to oust Nicolas Maduro with Washington’s backing.

More than 4.5 million Venezuelans have fled their country in recent years amid the deep economic and humanitarian crises, and some 1.5 million are thought to be in Colombia — often overwhelming its public services.

Santos has often described Venezuela as an “existential” threat to Colombia, and he underscored that fear with Blum.

“If that man (Maduro) doesn’t leave, there’s no future in Colombia,” he said. “If that man doesn’t leave, he’s going to make our life impossible.”

Talking to Blum, Santos initially said he didn’t think Washington would ever invade Venezuela, but then suggested it might happen.

“If Trump thinks the (2020 presidential) election is going to be tough, he’ll go into Venezuela,” he says, while Blum tells him she thinks that’s unlikely.

Santos also worried that Washington might lose interest in the Venezuela issue. As he has for the last several months, Santos said he plans to keep leading delegations of U.S. lawmakers to the Colombian-Venezuelan border, so they can see the crisis firsthand.

“We’re going to do that (so) Washington doesn’t forget how important Venezuela is,” Santos said. U.S. lawmakers “need to understand that that sh--show is going to destabilize the entire continent. Here (in Washington) there is no memory, within 10 minutes they’re bored and on to the next issue. I have to keep inventing things so that they will keep Venezuela top of mind. That’s my job when it comes to the Venezuela issue.”

But Blum also suggests that Colombia and the region need to think outside the box. She called a failed attempt in February to force humanitarian aid overland from Colombia into Venezuela “a fiasco” and admitted that Maduro seemed one step ahead of Colombian efforts.

“Help me think,” she says in the recording. “The solution is not a military coup, because the (Venezuelan) military is never going to oust him. The United States (ousting him) also won’t happen.”

Later she suggests that some sort of inclusive dialogue — an option that many in the Venezuelan opposition have rejected — might be a solution.

“Colombia has to take a gamble, because the way things are we’re running behind Venezuela,” she said. “People have quit believing. They don’t believe in the (Colombian) government’s actions.”

Colombia is Washington’s staunchest ally in the region and the audio is unlikely to change that. But it is raising hackles in Bogota. In one section of the audio, Santos accuses former Foreign Minister Carlos Holmes Trujillo — now minister of defense — of “not doing anything, not having a strategy.”

President Ivan Duque called Santos back to Bogota this week to explain himself.

The leaked conversation comes as Colombia was gripped by a national strike Thursday that had paralyzed large swaths of the country and Duque’s popularity continues to slip.

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©2019 Miami Herald

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