Interview: Consul General María Isabel Nieto Details the Efficiency, Community-Building Achievements of Colombian Consulate in New York
There were around 1.1 million people of Colombian origin living in the United States as of 2013, according to estimates from the Pew Research Center. While Florida, and mainly Miami, is home to the largest number, nearly one-third of the total live in the Northeast, primarily in New York and New Jersey.
María Isabel Nieto, consul general at the Colombian consulate in New York, is very familiar with this community and has been working to help bring them together and serve their general needs since taking over the diplomatic role in 2014.
Photo: María Isabel Nieto, consul general of Colombia in New York, appears on stage at an event in New York alongside Colombian Foreign Minister Carlos Holmes (center) and President Iván Duque. (Photo credit: Ministerio de Relaciones Exteriores de Colombia)
“We are a united community, we help each other, and many of the newcomers have a close relationship with the consulate,” she told Finance Colombia during an interview recently in New York.
Speaking with Loren Moss, executive editor and publisher of Finance Colombia, she detailed some of the most important work that the consulate has done over the past few years.
While some of the success has centered around streamlining the office’s visa and passport-issuing processes, she is very proud of the work she has done while serving as president of two separate consular associations and advancing the mental health services offered to Colombians living in the city.
Loren Moss: What are some of the achievements you have made at the consulate over the past four years?
María Isabel Nieto: When it comes to consular attention, there will always be space to improve. I can’t say it’s perfect. However, when I arrived, the lines for service here used to be very long. It was crazy. People didn’t want to come to the consulate. The processes took very long, the employees were rude, and there wasn’t enough information.
So what we did was create a system that made things faster. Before, every employee had a different function. Different people would, for example, issue passports, IDs, notary services, or visas. Now, every employee can do any process. That saved us time. Before, people had to spend about two or three hours completing the procedures. Now it’s much shorter — 40 minutes at the most.
Loren Moss: I know you have held some high-ranking positions in the consulate community in New York. What did you do in those leadership roles?
María Isabel Nieto: Yes, the second achievement makes me feel very proud and satisfied: We have improved Colombia’s image. Its name is now much better than it used to be. In that, we have worked jointly with the other consuls of New York. I was the president of the Coalition of Latin American Consulates, an organization in New York that includes 18 Latin American countries, from Mexico to Argentina. I held that presidency for a year.
What did we do in that presidency that was innovative and important? Colombians largely face the same problems as other Latin Americans, but many consulates, such as the ones from El Salvador and Bolivia, are small and don’t have the capability to provide additional services for their citizens, such as workshops to improve their quality of life or assistance with expensive construction licenses. Construction workers come from all countries, and they must have a license. And there are also those who want to start their business as an entrepreneur and don’t know how.
“I know foreign investment has been increasing lately since many more investor visas are being issued, and the big transnational companies are looking at Latin America.” – María Isabel Nieto
So we developed several programs when I held the presidency, and we used the biggest consulates to be able to better unite the community. The workshops took place in the bigger consulates: Colombia, Peru, Ecuador, and Mexico. These were entrepreneur workshops on topics such as digital marketing, for instance, and people from any Latin American country could attend. These services were opened for people that had never had the chance.
Additionally, we worked with the government of New York and Connecticut in exchange programs with different non-governmental organizations [NGOs]. We established an important number of relationships for the benefit of the Hispanic community. We helped in the creation of a program called “We NYC: Women Entrepreneurs NYC” using resources from New York’s city hall. They provide the resources and the training and we provide the people. Part of it is only for Latin American women, and I feel that’s a great achievement.
During that same time, I was offered the presidency of the Society of Foreign Consuls in New York, which is an association that was founded in 1925. It had never had a Colombian president before, and I was the president for a year. We established great alliances with the different actors of the local government, with the office of Governor Andrew Cuomo, with the office of Mayor Bill di Blasio, with assemblymen, and with senators. I believe that is one of the greatest achievements we’ve had.
Loren Moss: The consulate is of course active in the Colombian community in New York. What have you focused on in this area?
María Isabel Nieto: Because the Colombian community was somewhat divided and dispersed, we were able to organize it and create in them a sense of belonging towards the consulate. Here we don’t speak about politics. I was named by President Santos to represent a state and a government. The doors were always open here for all the Colombians, and we never inquired about their political preferences. We established very close relationships with many interest groups, even political groups, but always while understanding that this is democracy and that people have the right to differ.
I believe another important thing, was to achieve, for first time in history, having four women of Colombian origin win primaries while running for the New York State Assembly and the State Senate. This is not our goal per se, but we do feel somewhat responsible. Because, ever since I came here four years ago, I wondered how it was possible that many other Latin American communities have members in the local government and we weren’t present at all. So I decided we had to do something.
When we realized we had all these candidacies, we invited the Colombian community to come support them, including Catalina Cruz, who is the democratic candidate for 39th Assembly District in Queens, and Jessica Ramos, who is a democratic candidate for the Senate. We wanted to help Colombian community understand the importance of supporting someone specific, since the winner will be the one to represent us in the Assembly or in the Senate — and stand up for our interests and the interests of immigrants as a whole.
Another thing that I consider an achievement is that our very important work on mental health. Here at the consulate, we have a psychiatrist and two psychologists. People suffer domestic violence, labor abuse, even human trafficking, and many other hardships that Colombians face here. Here, we welcome them and help them with the different things they must process, including the death of their relatives or a relative being in jail. We don’t only provide consular attention in legal affairs, but also we understand their needs, their suffering, and their sadness. The consulate is not only an office for formalities. It’s also a human organization. It’s their home, and we are their family, and we are here to help them improve their life, both physical and mental.
Loren Moss: Recently there was a bureaucratic change to create a new visa system for foreigners in Colombia. Have you seen an increase in visa requests from foreigners who want to go to Colombia?
María Isabel Nieto: Yes, a lot. We have seen a very important increase in requests for investor visas, and we have also noticed an increase for spouse visas. This was not as common before, having Americans married to Colombians who want to settle in Colombia.
“We don’t only provide consular attention in legal affairs, but also we understand their needs, their suffering, and their sadness.” – María Isabel Nieto
Basically, the big change to the whole system was done to simplify the five types of visas that existed. The first thing that was taken care of was making it easier to grant visas to people from other countries who want to visit for tourism, for instance. We have not seen too many difficulties. We have not received complaints about the process. Some things have needed to be adjusted — for example, the information on our websites — but the change has been smooth. Here at the consulate, we issue visas very fast.
Here in New York there is an office of [the governmental investment promotion agency] ProColombia, and there is also one in Miami. ProColombia assists big companies that want to invest in Colombia as well as Colombian investors who want to bring their products to the United States. ProColombia also promotes tourism, and we have seen that traveling agencies are very interested in creating different tourism packages for Colombia. The New York Times published “36 Hours In …” articles for different cities of Colombia, such as Bogotá, Cartagena, and Medellín. People are speaking about Colombia in a very impressive way — it’s a cool place to go right now. Cartagena is a very-well-known place to travel for vacation, and a wide variety of opportunities are opening since the perception changed. The idea that Colombia is a now a safer place helps incredibly.
We have also issued many tourist visas, because there are still people from some countries that need a visa to enter Colombia, and we provide them all the information here. Tourists are definitely our best ambassadors since this is something that’s transmitted by word of mouth. Colombia is a country to be discovered. This is very interesting because it was absent from the scene for a very long time.
Unfortunately, 15 years ago people were afraid to go to Colombia. Now, the natural parks have become acknowledged as great places to visit, such as Caño Cristales, the Sierra Nevada of Santa Marta, the Amazon, and El Tuparro National Park. An ecological tourism industry is being developed, because Colombia is the second-most biodiverse country in the world, and the first country in terms of variety of birds. Many ecolodges are being formed for this type of tourism.
Loren Moss: Yes, I went to Nuqui recently to watch the whales, and I saw some amazing hummingbirds, too. Another good thing for Colombia is the process started by President Santos to eliminate the tourist visas for Colombians who want to visit other countries. How has that changed things for Colombians who want to travel abroad?
María Isabel Nieto: Yes, that was incredible. Before, showing the Colombian passport somewhere else was like a nightmare. When the Colombian airplane arrived, policemen, dogs, and everything appeared. That has been changing. Fortunately, now we can enter Europe and some Asian countries without a visa. That has been a great advancement. Even the extension of the North American visa from five years to 10 has been wonderful progress.
“Before, showing the Colombian passport somewhere else was like a nightmare. When the Colombian airplane arrived, policemen, dogs, and everything appeared. That has been changing. Fortunately, now we can enter Europe and some Asian countries without a visa.” – María Isabel Nieto
Colombia’s image internationally has improved in a systematic way. Obviously the country has problems like any other country. Now we are facing the Venezuelan crisis, which has affected us greatly in terms of migration. And there are still inland security issues. However, if we contemplate the situation in a historical perspective, we have never been as good as we are now.
And many people who have been in the United States for 20 or 25 years want to return. That group is divided. Some of them want to stay here because their family is here. Some others want to spend their last years in Colombia, so they are buying housing in cities like Barranquilla, Medellín, Cali, and Bogotá. So it’s very interesting, and this of course makes the economy more dynamic.
Loren Moss: There is also a free-trade agreement (FTA) between Colombia and the United States, which has progressed a lot in recent years. Can you tell me about some of the successes, the obstacles that exist, and how Colombia is taking advantage of the FTA?
María Isabel Nieto: I must be honest: I don’t manage this subject, and there is a business office here that takes care of these issues. What I can tell you is that the presidential visits help open markets for our products.
During previous visits, former President Santos helped open a way for Hass avocados to be exported from Colombia to the United States. Thanks to the management that has been done, our fruits, flowers, and coffee continue being an export product.
There are also other types of things that have become profitable for Colombia, especially in goods and services, making Colombia a great place for back office work and call centers, among others.
I know foreign investment has been increasing lately since many more investor visas are being issued, and the big transnational companies are looking at Latin America. The North American countries know that Colombia is a great ally in the region from any point of view — commercial, political — and our political stability gives them the peace of mind to invest. Venezuela was for many years a place where many companies performed their operations. With the crisis, these companies have transferred their interest to Colombia.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.