Peace, Drugs, and Tough Love for Colombia’s Santos in Washington

With coca production rising, Venezuela melting down next door, and a Trump administration ambivalent about a peace deal with the FARC, the embattled Colombian president has a lot on his plate.

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos (C) arrives at a coca plantation in Pueblo Nuevo, Briceno municipality, Antioquia department, Colombia, on May 15, 2017. 
The Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) leftist guerrillas inaugurated a plan to eradicate coca plantations and replace them with legal crops. / AFP PHOTO / RAUL ARBOLEDA        (Photo credit should read RAUL ARBOLEDA/AFP/Getty Images)
Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos (C) arrives at a coca plantation in Pueblo Nuevo, Briceno municipality, Antioquia department, Colombia, on May 15, 2017. The Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) leftist guerrillas inaugurated a plan to eradicate coca plantations and replace them with legal crops. / AFP PHOTO / RAUL ARBOLEDA (Photo credit should read RAUL ARBOLEDA/AFP/Getty Images)

When Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos became the first Latin American leader to secure a phone call with President Donald Trump, he saw it as golden opportunity to sell the freshly installed U.S. leader on the virtues of Colombia’s peace accord with the FARC rebel group. Instead, he found himself discussing the mounting crisis in Colombia’s neighbor, Venezuela. Santos will hope to stay on message and secure funding for peace implementation when he visits the White House on Thursday, but the Trump administration’s continuing focus on Venezuela, the re-escalation of the drug war, and lingering doubts on the peace accord will test Santos’s mastery of a changed Washington.

Entering the final year of his presidency with strong political headwinds, President Santos nonetheless arrives with reasons for optimism. After years of tough negotiations, last December he achieved a legacy-defining peace deal with the FARC — and added the Nobel Peace Prize to his mantle. While Secretary of State Rex Tillerson declined to endorse the Colombian peace agreement in his confirmation hearing, Trump later signaled support in his February call with Santos and Congress funded the full “Peace Colombia” assistance package originally proposed by the Obama administration to help Colombia implement its ambitious 310-page accord. Last week, Sen. Marco Rubio, who has refrained from backing the peace agreement, nonetheless backed continued U.S. aid to the country. And on Wednesday evening, with Santos in attendance, a bipartisan Atlantic Council task force chaired by Sens. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) and Benjamin Cardin (D-Md.) will endorse a version of the Peace Colombia framework as the successor to Plan Colombia, Washington’s $10 billion, 15-year state building and counternarcotics strategy in Colombia. (Full disclosure: I served as a consultant to the task force.)

English-speaking and educated at both Harvard and the University of Kansas, Santos is a veteran Beltway operator, skilled at honing his message for both red-state and blue-state policymakers. But struggling at home with an 18 percent approval rating and a public skeptical of his grand ambitions for peace, Santos badly needs a win in Washington. He is likely to get it. If all goes according to script at Thursday’s presidential meeting, expect positive body language (no missed handshakes here), reaffirmation of the close U.S.-Colombia partnership, and the new administration’s clearest expressions of support yet for Santos’s efforts to achieve peace.

Washington’s embrace is well earned. Colombia represents for the United States a bipartisan foreign-policy success in a world of messy and inconclusive outcomes. Beset by guerrillas, paramilitaries, and drug lords at the turn of the millennium, Colombians achieved an historic turnaround in governance and security with catalytic U.S. support. As defense minister, Santos displayed the resolve to punish the FARC on the battlefield. As president, he showed the vision to leverage military advantage to end half a century of war. The Trump administration, eager for “wins,” would be wise to finish the job and help a strategic partner consolidate peace and security. But even if Santos secures Trump’s endorsement for his peace efforts, he will have to navigate tough conversations on U.S. concerns to ensure Peace Colombia survives in the era of “America First.”

On Venezuela, the Colombian president will know what to expect this time. Trump announced his interest in the issue by meeting with the wife of jailed opposition leader Leopoldo López, and the spiraling crisis in the Andean nation figured prominently in his early conversations with Santos and other regional leaders. Diplomatically, the Trump administration has largely continued its predecessor’s efforts to mobilize multilateral pressure on Venezuela to respect democratic and human rights norms. Colombia has accompanied this effort with some reluctance. Mindful that it would bear the brunt of a refugee crisis or Venezuelan mischief along a long, unsecured border — and reliant on the Venezuelan government’s support for peace processes with the FARC and the ELN (a smaller guerrilla group that remains in arms) — Colombia has understandable concerns about provoking the defensive and often bellicose regime next door. However, as the crisis in Venezuela grows more acute and attracts increased attention from both the administration and Congress, Santos can expect to be pressed again for rhetorical clarity and Colombia’s leadership in shifting the Latin American consensus toward more decisive action.

Administration officials and Congress will press Santos too on the recent spike in Colombian coca cultivation. From a low of 78,000 hectares in 2012, cultivation surged to 188,000 hectares in 2016, the highest since the start of Plan Colombia. Whatever the virtues of peacemaking or the merits of Plan Colombia as a state-building exercise, reducing the supply of cocaine on U.S. streets remains for many U.S. policymakers the core national interest justifying assistance to Colombia. In their final year in office, both President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden pushed Santos hard for an effective counternarcotics strategy. As the Trump administration shifts toward a throwback drug policy, sustained U.S. assistance for peace implementation may hinge on Santos convincing his U.S. counterparts that with the FARC out of the way, he can turn the tide on coca.

Finally, Santos will confront questions on the peace deal itself. The most prominent Colombian peace critic, former president and current Senator Álvaro Uribe, has been unrelenting in his opposition, making frequent trips to Washington and appearing with members of Congress. Some prominent human rights advocates share the view that the agreement goes soft on the FARC, and Congress included tough human-rights conditions in the recent FY 2017 Omnibus. In recent days, Colombia began to release from jail the perpetrators of wartime atrocities, both guerrillas and government soldiers. Santos will argue this is the high price of peace, but he may struggle to explain to Democrats on Capitol Hill why his defense minister personally greeted two soldiers convicted of “false positives” — extrajudicial executions disguised as combat kills — as they emerged from detention decades ahead of schedule.

As deals cut at the bargaining table in Havana take on real world consequences in Bogotá, and foreign aid budgets grow skinny in Washington, Colombia’s ability to maintain U.S. support will turn in good measure on demonstrating to U.S. officials it is enforcing the peace — disarming the FARC, seizing hidden assets, combating coca, extending the reach of government institutions, preventing guerrillas from migrating into organized crime, protecting peace advocates, and imposing real (if reduced) punishment on war criminals.

Photo credit: RAUL ARBOLEDA/AFP/Getty Imagesguer

Michael J. Camilleri is director of the Peter D. Bell Rule of Law Program at the Inter-American Dialogue. From 2012 to 2017 he served in the Obama administration as a member of the Secretary of State’s Policy Planning Staff and as director for Andean Affairs at the National Security Council.

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