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Elephants in the Room

Does Trump Have a Plan for Colombia?

A conversation with Juan Carlos Pinzoń, the Colombian ambassador to the United States.

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos addresses the opening the XXX International Book Fair of Bogota on April 25, 2017 in Bogota, Colombia.
The nation of France and its contribution to literature is the fair's guest of honor this year. / AFP PHOTO / RAUL ARBOLEDA        (Photo credit should read RAUL ARBOLEDA/AFP/Getty Images)
Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos addresses the opening the XXX International Book Fair of Bogota on April 25, 2017 in Bogota, Colombia. The nation of France and its contribution to literature is the fair's guest of honor this year. / AFP PHOTO / RAUL ARBOLEDA (Photo credit should read RAUL ARBOLEDA/AFP/Getty Images)

President Donald Trump’s decision to meet secretly with two former Colombian presidents this month at his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida — without having met first with current President Juan Manuel Santos — raised some serious questions. Is Trump holding aid to Colombia hostage to get Santos to renegotiate a deal with armed groups, or trying to force Santos to restart the aerial spraying of coca fields? Does Trump have a plan at all?

The two former Colombian leaders who met with Trump on April 14 — Álvaro Uribe and Andrés Pastrana Arango — have been outspoken in their criticism of the peace agreement between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). The agreement was rejected in a nationwide plebiscite on October 2, 2016, and after some changes, was approved in November by the Colombian Congress.

The agreement was not resubmitted to Colombian voters, ensuring that it would remain at the center of an intense domestic debate, with Uribe criticizing it for leading to an increase in coca production, granting “FARC kingpins and their aides impunity,” and “replacing the Constitution.”

If left unchecked, the enormous spike in coca planting over the last two years could sink the Santos government. The acreage under coca cultivation rose 18 percent in 2016 and 42 percent in 2015. It is at the highest level since at least 1994. Uribe accused the Santos government of having abandoned spraying “to please the terrorist FARC,” as well as reducing manual eradication.

“It’s no secret we have more coca now,” Juan Carlos Pinzoń, the Colombian ambassador to the United States, told Foreign Policy. “How to solve the problem is the biggest we have right now.” Human trafficking and extortion by armed groups also remain problems. “We need the capabilities, the strengths, and the modernization of our armed forces,” Pinzon said, “to confront these new realities.”

Colombian authorities are working with their U.S. counterparts to reverse the trend. Last month, William Brownfield, the State Department’s assistant secretary for international narcotics and law enforcement, met with his counterparts to work on a joint plan to reduce coca growing.

A failure to shut down the newly empowered drug traffickers would be disastrous. “Out of that money,” said Pinzoń, “comes all the terrible diseases of Colombia: corruption, crime, violence, terrorism, everything bad that has happened to the country.”

A White House attention deficit or a budget cut from the U.S. Congress could lead to political change in Colombia. In that case, Critics of Santos — well connected and influential on Capitol Hill — would argue that the flaws in the peace agreement helped to derail Colombia’s most important bilateral relationship. They would also say, and are already saying, that the agreement led to a reemergence of powerful drug traffickers — a threat that Colombians, and the U.S. government, thought had been defeated.

Pinzoń candidly acknowledged that the agreement remained controversial. “Usually an agreement like this won’t satisfy everyone or make them happy — many people would prefer to see a stricter or more stronger agreement,” he said, while “others would prefer to see a less restrictive agreement. But in the end, this is what we have.”

But Pinzoń, who previously served as minister of defense and chief of staff under Santos and who also has been tipped in the Colombian press as a future presidential candidate, also signaled that the government is open to changes. “Elements of the agreement will be tested for a long time. Nothing in politics or policy is permanent,” he said. “You test, you try, you have good intentions, and you see how it works. But if it’s not working, things will evolve over time, and we’ll see how we can do better.”

Trump’s views on the Colombian peace agreement aren’t known. But his meetings with Uribe and Pastrana may mean that Trump believes Santos is giving away too much to the FARC. This is a view shared by many House and Senate Republicans. How Trump ultimately comes down may be the deciding factor on Colombia’s $450-million request for aid under “Peace Colombia,” a mix of developmental assistance, institution building, and money for the Colombian military and security forces. The request adds to the roughly $10 billion in U.S. aid that Colombia has received since 2000 under Plan Colombia.

Given the stakes, Santos really needs to get on Trump’s good side. Pinzoń said that Colombia “wants to work with the Trump Administration [and] be partners of the United States.” He cited Colombia’s statement backing the U.S. raid against Syria, “probably the first Latin American country to come out and support the U.S.”

Pinzoń noted that Santos had already spoken three times by phone with Trump, and that a meeting was scheduled in “some weeks or months.” Pinzoń said he himself had “spoken with some senior officials,” and singled out Department of Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly for praise.

“This is no time to move away from Colombia,” said Pinzoń. “[Abandoning Colombia] is probably what the drug traffickers want. They want less resources for our military and security forces, and are create[ing] a political case so maybe we don’t get all the support we need. Who is going to win? Nobody but the bad guys.”

 Photo credit: Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos. RAUL ARBOLEDA/AFP/Getty Images

Richard G. Miles is the director of the U.S.-Mexico Futures Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. From 2007 to 2008, he handled Mexican affairs on the U.S. National Security Council staff.

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