- By José R. CárdenasJose R. Cardenas was acting assistant administrator for Latin America at the U.S. Agency for International Development in the George W. Bush administration.
After more than a decade of close relations, the U.S.-Colombia strategic partnership is fraying under the Obama administration. Begun under the Clinton administration with the implementation of Plan Colombia and supported throughout the George W. Bush years, the partnership has brought manifold benefits to both countries: Colombian cities are now safe from narco–terrorist violence and stability has been restored in a strategically located South American country. Sadly, this alliance is now adrift.
The first blow was the Administration’s failure to move with any alacrity to secure congressional approval of the Colombia Free Trade Agreement, negotiated under President Bush. Recent stirrings on this front do nothing to mitigate the harm this has done to U.S. credibility in the eyes of most Colombians — not to mention the rest of the region. Hugo Chavez has a had a field day with the issue, telling anyone who will listen that this is where you will wind up when you put your trust in the yanquis: alone at the altar.
Unsurprisingly, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos has sought out new economic partners, which has forced him into a shaky détente of sorts with Colombia’s nemesis Chavez. As Defense Minister under former President Alvaro Uribe, Santos surely has no illusions about the dangers Chavez poses to Colombian sovereignty with his support for Colombian narco–terrorists. That Santos is willing to take the chance on seeking an accommodation with Chavez speaks volumes about his lack of faith in the current U.S. administration to stand behind him.
The distancing from the United States by our most stalwart ally in the region is currently being made manifest in President Santos’s decision to extradite drug kingpin Walid Makled to Venezuela and not the United States. The Colombians arrested Makled, a Venezuelan national, last August on a U.S. warrant. However, while the United States dithered, Chavez swooped in with an extradition request. The reason for Chavez’s excessive interest in Makled? In jailhouse interviews, Makled has made numerous statements detailing the level of official Venezuelan complicity in his drug trafficking operations. Clearly, if he is returned to Venezuela, not only will his secrets go with him, but U.S. law enforcement will lose a crucial witness to bring cases against scores of drug traffickers. In a recent Oval Office meeting with Santos, President Obama made no effort to press for Makled’s extradition to the United States.
A disturbing subtext to this depressing course of events is watching President Santos’s attempt also to distance himself from his wildly successful predecessor President Uribe, who left office with a 75 percent approval rating. (Santos recently took a public shot at Uribe for the latter’s support for sending Makled to the United States) Of course, any new president wants to establish his own identity, but there is something more afoot here.
For, despite the enormity of Uribe’s accomplishments, there has always existed a dogged passel of critics inside and outside of Colombia who have sought to tarnish the man and his legacy. They have always resented his success, his unabashed alignment with the United States, and his uncompromising, give-no-quarter stance towards left-wing guerrillas.
They are now seizing upon Santos’s current predicament to try and convince him to adopt a more "conciliatory" tone and work with Hugo Chavez to reduce "regional tensions." Santos risks answering this siren song at his own — and Colombia’s — peril. As if you could separate Uribe’s successes from the policies that achieved them.
With all that has been accomplished under Plan Colombia and the U.S.–Colombia strategic partnership, watching the current drift in bilateral relations is painful; but, more importantly, it’s dangerous. It threatens all the progress made in the past decade at the expense of many lives and much treasure. It’s probably too late for this administration to restore relations to what they were under the previous two administrations. The best hope is that House Republicans, who respect and understand what the two countries have achieved together, try in some ways to maintain close ties. However, even they are troubled by the Makled decision . Losing Colombia is no way to hit the "reset" button in U.S. relations in the Western Hemisphere; instead, it’s hitting the trap door.