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Colombia’s Santos Heads to White House to Urge Closer Ties

Colombia’s Santos Heads to White House to Urge Closer Ties

In the middle of ongoing aftershocks from near-daily revelations in the Russiagate affair, and just a day before embarking on his first overseas trip, President Donald Trump will meet with his Colombian counterpart Juan Manuel Santos on Thursday.

For Santos and the entire Colombian administration, the trip isn’t just one more item on a packed agenda, but rather a critical visit to ensure continued U.S. support of Colombia — and of Santos in particular.

“Frankly speaking, most of the other countries will bring serious challenges,” Ambassador Juan Carlos Pinzón told a group of reporters earlier in the week when asked if the timing of the visit concerned him. “There are very few countries that will come and tell that we love the United States, and we want to partner with the United States.”

He added, “Maybe you don’t make the headlines because it’s not bad news, but maybe you get in the heart.”

Colombia and the rest of its neighborhood is hoping Santos can do just that. Take Venezuela, where societal meltdown and a vicious crackdown by the ruling party is driving more Venezuelans across the border to Colombia. Santos will perhaps urge the Trump administration to take steps to deal with what looks an impending explosion, after years of relative inactivity by the United States, or at least try to communicate the severity of the situation.

Or take Colombia itself, long a recipient of U.S. aid to help train police and military forces and to fight drug trafficking. But Trump’s first budget blueprint slashes aid spending, and includes a 21 percent cut in aid to Colombia.

“In policy, love is expressed through the budget,” Pinzón said, noting that U.S. aid to Colombia increased in the last budget, which was approved by a Republican-controlled Congress, a sign, he said, of bipartisan support for the U.S.-Colombian relationship.

That’s a case that needs to be made now especially because there is an increase in cocaine production — though, as Pinzón noted, more cocaine is also being seized, something that would get a lot harder without sufficient fiscal support from the United States. The problem: There are some in Congress and the executive branch who want to cut funding precisely because cocaine production has gone up.

But there is another, more specific point that matters greatly to Colombia: The beleaguered peace process between the Colombian government and FARC rebels. President Barack Obama was an outspoken supporter of the agreement, which ended over 50 years of conflict.

But Santos’s political opposition — led by former presidents Alvaro Uribe and Andres Pastrana — oppose the deal, and helped scupper the peace pact when it was put to a popular referendum in Oct. 2016 (the government and rebels reached a modified agreement in November, but didn’t risk putting it to another referendum). Uribe and Pastrana have been trying to drum up support for their cause in the United States — and perhaps even with the president. The two met with Trump in April at Mar-a-Lago, Trump’s Florida resort (meaning Trump met with Colombia’s former presidents, who are at odds with the current government, before he met the incumbent.)

Those sort of stakes will ensure that plenty back home in Colombia will be watching the two presidents’ joint press conference in the Rose Garden on Thursday to hear whether the United States still supports the peace deal, and if so, how heartily.

Regardless of what happens there, Pinzón said the ultimate goal of the Santos visit is to ensure the continued friendship between Washington and Bogotá, even at a time of massive political and foreign policy turmoil in the United States.

“We will have to work,” Pinzón said. “And we will work … We will have a good conversation, and we will find a way.”

Photo credit: Pablo Blazquez Dominguez/Getty Images