Interview: President Juan Manuel Santos Calderón
To what extent have socioeconomic and structural reforms raised living standards?
JUAN MANUEL SANTOS CALDERÓN: We are starting to see significant results on many fronts. For instance, we are leaders in Latin America in reducing poverty. In the past five years, poverty has decreased by 12%, which equates to about 4.5m Colombians. We have taken another 2.5m out of extreme poverty, with the goal of ending extreme poverty by 2025. This also means Colombia’s middle class will grow from a third of the population to more than 45% in 10 years, a remarkable transformation.
In terms of job creation, we also lead in Latin America. We have reduced unemployment for 55 months in a row, creating more than 2.5m jobs; unemployment is under 10%, our lowest in history, and our goal is to create another 2m jobs over the next four years.
We have set out ambitious education goals. Colombia will be the most educated nation in Latin America by 2025. To achieve this goal we are undertaking massive efforts. We connected the entire country to broadband internet and have given away millions of free computers and tablets to the most vulnerable children. We have made public education free from kindergarten to high school, but most importantly, we have a 10-year roadmap to dramatically improve the quality of education through better teachers, stronger curricula and more substantial infrastructure.
We are also providing full scholarships to 10,000 of our brightest minds that come from low-income communities so they can attend the university of their choice. Large investments in science, technology and innovation have also been made so that we can call ourselves a scientific nation within a decade.
What steps is the government taking to ensure a balanced budget while enabling the private sector to remain competitive?
SANTOS: Colombia is well known for its responsible macroeconomic management. For instance, the fiscal rule signed into law several years ago compels us to decrease our budget deficit and is one of the reasons why we earned an investment grade rating.
In the current environment, we have put several initiatives in motion. First, we must lead by example. The government has implemented significant austerity measures, so that much-needed social programmes are not impacted. Second, we are undertaking very large projects in anti-cyclical sectors such as construction and infrastructure. Third, we are taking steps to increase our non-oil and non-mining exports; our companies are becoming increasingly more comfortable competing in the US, Europe and Asia, not to mention the large numbers of companies that are conquering regional markets. Lastly, my administration has made entrepreneurship and innovation two of its strategic priorities; we are seeing more new companies and new products and services being developed, creating jobs and diversifying the economy.
How can members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) be reintegrated?
SANTOS: This is one of the most difficult issues that any society must face once a peace agreement is signed. It is when the real work of peacebuilding begins and challenges associated with reintegrating former combatants into civilian life arise. Fortunately we have a national reintegration agency that has successfully incorporated thousands of former paramilitary and guerilla fighters. We have learned critical lessons and have been preparing for the demobilisation of the FARC. The system we have developed is considered an international model, in that it addresses a wide range of issues such as education, culture, reunification of families, health benefits and job placement. Also, we are working with the private sector and others in society in creating a consciousness that many of these people will need new opportunities. This is the only path to reconciliation and achieving a lasting peace.
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