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Christine Balling on Colombia’s Minister of Defense

In this podcast edition of Foreign Affairs Unedited, recent author Christine Balling discusses Colombia’s minister of defense and her newest article, "The Difficulty of Being Bueno," with Foreign Affairs Deputy Web Editor Rebecca Chao.  This interview has been edited and condensed. A rush transcript is below.

Rebecca Chao: How did you come to meet Pinzón, the Defense Minister?

Christine Balling: Well, I met Pinzón basically through my work with my foundation. I started working with kids who lived in areas where the FARC, and a teeny bit where the ELN were still operating. They would... I sort of started a community relations project where kids would use the democratic process to execute small-scale community projects. And then I would bring a group of kids from one tiny mountain village to the next one, and they would teach the kids the same model, and we would do things like build playgrounds, have marches for peace, a medical brigade, etcetera, etcetera.

And basically what happened was, about a year and a half in, the more I worked, shall we say in the more remote region, it was very obvious that the only thing between the kids and the guerrillas, were actually either the military police or the Army, because the local mayors and so on had no way of resisting the guerrillas. So I started overtly working with the Colombian military, and doing exact same thing, which was totally cool. It was just that they were there, they were making sure we safety belt the playground, that the kids could hold the public debate as to where the playground should be and why.

And then I was contracted by special operations command, in 2013. And so, I worked with our special operations soldiers down here. So they were also watching me do this community relations work. So, anyway... So Minister Pinzón has been aware of my work over the years, and about a year an a half ago, he actually... I gave him a presentation, and he'd heard from some of his Generals with whom I had been working, about the success of the projects. So he mandated that actually every Colombian Army division in 2014-2015 timeframe, execute a certain number of these projects.

Rebecca Chao: Oh, wow. Is it common for defense ministers to implement these type of projects?

Christine Balling: I couldn't speak to different defense ministers. I would say that our own military, one of the main objectives in recent years, certainly not in the '90s, that was a whole different ball game, was what they call 'civil affairs', which is essentially community relations. So that has always been a part of the, let's say the war plan for the Colombians, but I don't think they had ever been thinking about building playgrounds before.

[chuckle]

Rebecca Chao: That does sound a little unusual, but very, very cool. So when you met Pinzón, how long were you able to interview him for? And where did the interview take place?

Christine Balling: I interviewed him in his office, we spoke for about an hour. Additionally, I'll say that he, in the past, over the past few years, had invited me along to certain military community events.

Rebecca Chao: What was your impression of the minister? I know this isn't your first time meeting him, but the general impression you had after the interview.

Christine Balling: Well, for one thing, I'll have to say he was quite gracious to even insist that we have the interview because his very well-meaning secretaries were sort of saying, "Oh Ms. Balling, he's too tired," because we originally I think scheduled for 3:00 in the afternoon, and then we finally ended up talking from 7:00 to 8:00 at night.

Rebecca Chao: Oh, wow.

Christine Balling: He has great respect for foreign affairs, of course, which is not the only reason he wanted to do the interview, but, now that I know that he is going to be the new Ambassador to the United States, I can understand even more why he wanted to go on record. But he is very dedicated. I have met many government and military officials over the course of my time in Colombia, and he strikes me as, obviously a very intelligent man, but very well-meaning. He has been, and I'm putting this in air quotes, "criticized" for caring too much about the troops and the national police and his country.

But again, he has had to be incredibly disciplined about his own politics and his own emotions. And he's very, very confident, and again, given... Politics in every country, of course, are tough, but down here, they're very, very tough. And as I mentioned in the article, three was a lot of pressure from the left to get rid of him, because basically, he was not anti-military, which they are. But he stayed on, and as far as I can tell, this is, I think his last... He has maybe two weeks left before he goes to Washington.

Rebecca Chao: Very interesting. Going back just a little bit. What is Pinzón's background? How did he... What's the path he took to become Defense Minister?

Christine Balling: Well, originally, his path he thought was to become an officer. I guess, an army officer, and... Or I should say that was the path that was expected of him. And then he decided not to. He worked in, let's see... I believe it was the Ministry of Public Credit. He did some work in the private sector, I can't remember which bank, and then he was Deputy Minister of Defense when President Santos was Minister of Defense. So that's kind of the start of the path. For example, it might surprise those outside of Colombia, that the incoming Defense Minister Villegas does not have any military or defense background whatsoever. So it's actually not that atypical here to have a defense minister who had been doing other things previously.

Rebecca Chao: Then do you see a difference between Pinzón as Defense Minister, and, perhaps, the preceding defense ministers, say, Santos himself, in terms of how they've perhaps dealt with FARC or other defense issues?

Christine Balling: It was more in terms of the context in which they were ministers of defense. Probably more than different military tactics. In other words, it was really how the politics were defining how they could act. President Uribe made tremendous strides against FARC, and Santos was his minister of defense. So, despite the fact that there were, at one point, brief talks with the Uribe administration, I think the big difference between Santos and Pinzón as ministers of defense, is that Pinzón has had to navigate the politics of being a minister during serious peace talks that have lasted for some time.

Rebecca Chao: What would you say is, maybe Pinzón's biggest achievement over his time as defense minister?

Christine Balling: He's continued to reduce the capacity of FARC and ELN. And there are many who argue that essentially he kept up the momentum and he maintained to the best of his ability, as I wrote, and this is very important, the morale of the troops. In other countries, he himself wanting to explain the Colombian story to show the world how far they've come given how little they actually have as a nation in terms of resources. So, I think that was also a very important achievement of his is to be giving Colombia international exposure which one doesn't typically get from a Minister of Defense.

Rebecca Chao: How do you think his experience as Defense Minister is going to affect his role as the new US Ambassador?

Christine Balling: Well, I think in two important ways. One is, obviously he's clear as a bell in terms of the nature of the US and Colombian partnership, and kinetic and non-kinetic. So I think he will be very adept at communicating the successes, and then arguing for how the United States and Colombia could partner best, going forward.

Number two, sort of following that point, he is very well-versed in the politics of the region, and I think he will be able to explain to lawmakers, for example, in Washington, and other interested parties, the importance of an ongoing alliance.

Most people don't spend a lot of time here, so they don't realize what enormous importance is placed upon a US relationship with any given Latin American country, because unfortunately, the United States, we're not really focused on that region right now. So I think he will be someone worth listening to in terms of regional politics, certainly.

Rebecca Chao: What do you think are some policy areas that Pinzón will focus on?

Christine Balling: Well, he, obviously, by nature of being the Ambassador, first and foremost, is he will carry out the wishes of the Colombian Foreign Ministry, and of course, the Colombian President, the Santos administration. So, certainly he won't be dictating any sort of policy, or suggesting it on his own. Having said that, as I said, I think he will be a very valuable source of information in terms of, perhaps, giving his opinion based on his personal experience as Minister of Defense. But I think that the ongoing peace talks will still be one of the top priorities, in addition, the trade between the two countries, and then certainly, international security in the region. I think those three, which in a certain sense were his priorities as Minister of Defense. I think those will certainly be on the top five list as the Ambassador, as Bogotá dictates.

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