Colombia’s Tenuous Peace Needs U.S. Support
Donald Trump must help Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos keep the peace.
One of President Donald Trump’s highest-stakes foreign-policy encounters this week is one few people in Washington have paid any attention to. On Thursday, Colombia’s president, Juan Manuel Santos, is set to arrive at the White House for his first meeting with his new U.S. counterpart. Amid everything else happening — ongoing fallout from Federal Bureau of Investigation director James Comey’s firing, reports of Trump sharing code-word intelligence with the Russian foreign minister, the start of Trumps nine-day, four-country, three-great-religions trip to the Middle East and Europe — a discussion with a Latin American head of state may seem inconsequential. But with the future of Colombia’s peace in question, the stakes — whether one of the rare bipartisan successes of recent U.S. foreign policy is squandered or sustained — are in fact enormous.
Through three administrations in Washington and three in Bogotá, the United States has played a key role in catalyzing and supporting Colombia’s return from state collapse. In the 1990s, drug-trafficking, left-wing insurgents controlled a swathe of territory the size of Switzerland. Right-wing paramilitaries, equally vicious and criminal, dominated major cities and agricultural regions. Today, despite ongoing challenges, Colombia is a different place. Thanks to a peace deal that Santos signed with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, last year, thousands of rebels are coming in from the mountains and jungles and starting their reintegration into Colombian society. (Washington, Havana, and the Vatican backed the deal, and Santos won the 2016 Noble Peace Prize for his leadership in bringing the longest-running armed conflict in the Americas to an end.) Colombia now has the fourth-largest economy in Latin America — and one of few with which the United States has a trade surplus — and is poised to become a member of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
The most important factor behind this transformation has been the will and commitment of the Colombian people, who backed an effective mix of military, economic, and political measures year after year. But U.S. support — since 2000, $10 billion under Plan Colombia — has also been critical.
That total may sound large, but it is little next to the cost of a single year in Iraq and Afghanistan. And the Colombian government outspent the United States by nearly 10 to 1, an unmatched ratio for recipients of significant U.S. security and development assistance. To put it in terms Trump might understand: U.S. support for Colombia has brought a remarkable return on investment. For the first time in many decades, we are living in a hemisphere free of war. Colombia has gone from Latin America’s most prolific exporter of instability and criminality to a capable and reliable partner, working with the United States on everything from addressing citizen security in Central America to combating climate change.
In March of last year, President Barack Obama and Santos announced the next stage in the U.S.-Colombia partnership: Peace Colombia. Obama committed some $500 million a year over five years to support Colombia’s landmark peace agreement, helping lock in the advances of the previous decade and a half. And Congress approved nearly all of the $450 million in initial support for Peace Colombia in the Obama administration’s final budget request.
What the Trump administration does now could help sustain Colombia’s progress toward peace — or catastrophically undermine it. The administration has signaled that it is reviewing American support, and suggested that it may cut assistance considerably, in keeping with its general evisceration of diplomatic and development efforts around the world. In April, an unannounced encounter at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida between the U.S. president and two former Colombian presidents who oppose the agreement with the FARC, Andrés Pastrana Arango and Álvaro Uribe, heightened fears that the administration would reverse U.S. policy and end U.S. support for Colombia’s peace.
That is the danger Santos will be trying to avert when he comes to Washington this week. He began making his case in a February call with Trump. (In response, according to Colombian officials, Trump talked about the Colombian materials used in his buildings.) Last month, Congress maintained assistance for Peace Colombia in its bipartisan budget deal, a signal of enduring support for the longstanding U.S.-Colombian partnership in Washington. But Trump’s standard “America First” rhetoric cuts against these efforts, showing little concern about abandoning U.S. partners to fend for themselves, even when doing so would make the United States considerably less safe. This week, if Trump fails to make a clear commitment to Santos — rethinking, in the process, his knee-jerk, self-defeating cuts to the State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development programs — he will yet again undermine U.S. national security in his retreat from the world.
Colombia’s success, while remarkable, is not irreversible. The government has been absent from huge expanses of its territory for decades, and the challenges of delivering governance, social services, and economic opportunity will be immense. It has so far struggled with execution of the peace agreement, faltering on key steps such as readying demobilization sites and putting international representatives in place to claim surrendered weapons. Even with the FARC laying down its guns, there are a host of other armed criminal groups eager to fill the vacuum and take over the drug trade. After years of decreases, cocaine production is now on the rise. And last year’s initial defeat of the peace deal in a public referendum, before a revised version was approved by Colombia’s Congress, underscored the polarization and political tension that will only grow ahead of next year’s presidential and legislative elections. If violence increases or the deal appears to be faltering, voters and candidates could quickly turn against Santos and his peace.
“I’m not like Obama,” Trump likes to say in touting foreign-policy decisions. He seems to count apparent divergence from the approach of his predecessor as the best argument for his policies. But in this case, ending support for Colombia’s peace will squander an achievement not just of the Obama administration, but also of Republican and Democratic administrations that went before.
Photo credit: FARC guerrillas in Pondores, La Guajira, Colombia on April 3, 2017. JOAQUIN SARMIENTO/AFP/Getty Images
Daniel Kurtz-Phelan served as a foreign-policy advisor to Hillary Clinton's 2016 presidential campaign and before that as a member of the State Department policy planning staff. Before joining the Barack Obama administration, he was a senior editor at Foreign Affairs. His book about George Marshall will be published by W.W. Norton in 2018.