Colombia ambassador criticizes State Department in recording

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SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic (AP) — Colombia’s ambassador in Washington was embarrassed Wednesday by publication of a recording in which he trashes the State Department as a feckless institution subjugated to the whims of the White House.

The Colombian newspaper Publimetro posted the recording of a 24-minute conversation between Ambassador Francisco Santos and Colombia’s foreign minister-designate, Claudia Blum. The paper said the private conversation took place last week at a Washington cafe and was recorded by a third person it did not identify.

In the conversation, Santos complains that the State Department has lost the muscle as a driver of U.S. policy in Latin America that it had a decade ago when he was Colombia’s vice president. He says policy decisions are now primarily made by the National Security Council’s director for the Western Hemisphere, Mauricio Claver-Carone.

“I used to come to the U.S. because I was responsible for human rights ... So you would arrive to the State Department and you knew how things worked,” said Santos, who then recounts a conversation with an Asian ambassador who seemed similarly concerned.

“The State Department, which used to be really important, is destroyed. It’s non-existent, non-existent,” Santos continues.

Colombia has long been the United States’ staunchest ally in Latin America and Santos’ reflections about whom he refers to as the “gringos” are bound to irritate some of the country’s backers in Washington. There was no immediate comment from the State Department.

The office of Colombian President Ivan Duque said Santos had been summoned back to Bogota for a meeting with the president.

The ambassador, a former journalist whose kidnapping decades ago at the hands of drug boss Pablo Escobar was the subject of a book by Nobel Prize-winning novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez, apologized for his comments. He said the conversation was illegally recorded but offered no details to back the claim.

The conversation reflects the mounting internal frictions inside Duque’s conservative-led government.

Duque, a 43-year-old former senator, was elected largely thanks to the support of former President Alvaro Uribe, who remains the country’s most-skilled politician though one lionized and despised in almost equal measure.

Hard-liners within his Democratic Center party want to see Duque take a tougher stance against a 2016 peace accord signed by the previous administration with leftist rebels. They also urge him to strike harder against dissident guerrillas who reject the accord and resume aerial spraying of booming coca crops.

Santos is aligned with the hard-liner wing and known for having an independent streak.

The release of the recording comes as Colombia braces for major nationwide protests Thursday in which Colombians are venting frustration over tepid economic growth and what critics see as the haphazard implementation of the peace accord.

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