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21 June, 2024
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Maria Angela Holguin Cuellar: From the jungles of Colombia to Cyprus

Almost five months after her appointment, the UNSG's Personal Envoy has completed three rounds of contacts on the island, having gained a full picture of the current stalemate of the Cyprus problem

Yiannis Ioannou

Yiannis Ioannou

When, just before the beginning of the year, the name of Colombia's former Foreign Minister, María Ángela Holguín Cuéllar (in office from 2010 to 2018), was heard in the corridors of New York as a potential appointee for António Guterres' personal envoy for the Cyprus problem, UN headquarters staff knew she was a diplomat from the UN's "top shelf" pool. Ms. Holguín was not only recognized for her successful involvement in the Colombian peace process (2012-2016), which led to an agreement to disarm the FARC rebels in 2016 but also as an official within the UN who understood the complexities of her role.

Cyprus, with an unresolved conflict spanning over half a century—parallel in duration to Colombia's civil war (1964-present)—is often dubbed the "graveyard" of UN special envoys due to their persistent failures and the deadlock the Cyprus issue entered after 2017. Five months after her appointment and three visits to Cyprus, whether Ms. Holguín, transitioning from Colombia's humid jungles to Nicosia's dusty streets, will be yet another UN diplomat to falter or the catalyst to break the stalemate remains to be seen. But who is María Ángela Holguín Cuéllar?

An Illustrious Career

María Ángela Holguín Cuéllar, 60, married twice, with a son from her second marriage, was born in Colombia in 1963, just before a fragmented civil war erupted in her country. This period defined Colombia with troubled Cold War-era Latin America, Marxist guerrillas, and notorious cocaine traffickers like Pablo Escobar. Ms. Holguín, born the same year the Green Line was drawn in Cyprus, comes from a prominent Spanish Catholic landowning family (the Mallarino family) that produced two Colombian presidents: Carlos Holguín (1888-1892) and Jorge Holguín (1909 and 1921-1922). Both ancestors served as interim presidents due to political instability and were regarded as technocrats, with Jorge Holguín known for the Holguín-Avebury Treaty (1905), which economically rescued Colombia with London’s help, bringing it into the West’s sphere of influence, particularly the UK, until the post-war primacy of the US.

Given her background, Ms. Holguín built her career in Colombia's diplomatic service, holding top positions (permanent UN delegation, ambassador to Venezuela) before being appointed Foreign Minister in 2010. She managed both the Andean crisis (2008) and the challenging peace process to disarm the FARC guerrillas. The 2016 agreement placed her among the elite of successful international mediators/negotiators, earning Colombia's then-President Santos the Nobel Peace Prize.

What She Demonstrated in Cyprus

Ms. Holguín was described by her experienced interlocutors in Cyprus as a personal envoy who exhibited three key qualities in her effort to break the Cyprus deadlock. She traveled extensively, visiting Greece, Turkey (twice), the UK, Germany, France, the EU headquarters in Brussels, and Moscow before returning to Cyprus for the third time, and engaged extensively with business people and organized groups from civil society. She maintained discretion and seriousness regarding the messages she conveyed, being sparing in her public statements. Only in an interview with "K" after her third visit did she signal the difficulties faced by both sides (the refusal of Turkish Cypriot leader Ersin Tatar and President Nicos Christodoulides' capacity to do more). Finally, she demonstrated persuasion, emphasizing to her interlocutors the crucial turning point of the Cyprus problem after seven years without dialogue.

Although the UN Secretary General's personal envoy has not yet secured a joint meeting between the two leaders, it seems she both desires and can push further in this direction. She appears to have the experience—similar to the Colombian process—to overcome obstacles, particularly the negative attitude of Turkish Cypriot leader Ersin Tatar.

Future Plans

After three visits to Nicosia and twice meeting with Turkish Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan, Ms. Holguín is said to have a comprehensive understanding of the current stalemate on the Cyprus problem and how it is evolving on the ground and within each community's internal political situation. This was crystallized in her statements last Monday after her second meeting with President Christodoulides and in her exclusive interview with "K." She will explain this framework to both the permanent members of the Security Council (P5) and the UN Secretary-General António Guterres, with these insights expected to be detailed in her report for the UN.

According to "K" sources, barring any unforeseen events, Holguín's pressure will be directed at the Secretary-General, whom she will urge to take some initiative in the autumn—during or shortly after the UN General Assembly in New York. This paves the way for her return to Cyprus before the year's end and potentially for a trilateral or quintilateral meeting on the Cyprus problem. Given the current status of the Cyprus issue, Ms. Holguín appears to be a pivotal figure, potentially one of the last to engage as a personal envoy or special mediator if the deadlock persists.

[This article was translated from its Greek original]

Cyprus  |  profile  |  UN envoy

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