Santos faces US challenge as Washington tightens belt

Patricio Navia

Buenos Aires Herald, February 9, 2016


As the closest and most reliable ally of the United States in Latin America, Colombia is looking to upgrade the status of its relationship with Washington. After 15 years of strengthening relations, centred around combatting terrorism and fighting cocaine production, the government of President Juan Manuel Santos wants to go from being the recipient of military aid via Plan Colombia to the US being a partner in the Peace Colombia initiative, the new scheme proposed by Santos to accompany the ongoing peace process with the guerillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). It is hoped the peace agreement will be signed imminently. However, as the main concern which brought the United States into Colombia was drug-trafficking, despite the declared intention of the Barack Obama administration to reinforce bilateral relations, there looks to be a bumpy road ahead for President Santos’ effort to persuade Washington that Peace Colombia is an indispensable initiative that the US should fully support.


When US and Colombian presidents Bill Clinton (1993-2001) and Andrés Pastrana (1998-2002) first signed Plan Colombia, the South American country was gripped in a state of crisis triggered by the growing influence of drug-cartels and the threat the FARC guerillas presented to the survival of democracy and political stability. The US promised to help fund the Colombian government’s determination to curtail coca production and reduce illegal cocaine exports. As the FARC were suspected of being increasingly involved in the illegal cocaine trade, combatting the revolutionary guerrilla group and the druglords was part of the same plan.


Fifteen years later, the plan has been successful. The Álvaro Uribe (2002-2010) administration’s heavy-handed policy of fighting FARC guerrillas helped weaken the oldest armed insurgency in Latin America. His successor, Santos (elected in 2010 and re-elected for a four-year term in 2014), changed strategy and convened peace negotiations with the FARC. Although the final agreement has yet to be signed and the president has vowed that the agreement will be submitted to a national referendum before it can be enforced, the road to a peaceful solution ending the 52-year-old conflict is closer than ever.


Imperfect justice

Among the pending issues, delivering justice to the victims of human rights violations stands out. Although a tentative agreement to bring the most notorious victimizers to justice has been reached, human rights organizations have raised concerns about the potential impunity which will benefit perpetrators from all sides of the conflict. In the view of the government, an imperfect solution is better than the Utopian search for perfect justice. Even though justice will not be fully served, the end of the conflict will drastically reduce human rights violations in the future and will create opportunities for economic development which will improve the lives of millions of Colombians who have been victimized for decades.


Here is where the Peace Colombia initiative comes in. President Santos is aware that signing peace with the guerillas will only be a first step towards building peace and prosperity in the areas most heavily affected by the five-decade old conflict. A comprehensive economic growth initiative — including the strengthening of state institutions, the provision of social services and the creation of employment opportunities — will be required for people to see meaningful progress after the FARC demobilizes.


Although cocaine exports continue to pose a threat to stability and are a source of potential corruption and civilian violence, the decrease in the US demand for cocaine and the fact that Mexican drug cartels have taken over Colombian cartels as the dominant players in the illegal drug market also gives Colombia an opportunity to disassociate itself from the negative stereotype. Moreover, precisely because economic development and opportunities for entrepreneurship will dissuade many Colombians from joining the illegal drug-trafficking industry, President Santos is vigorously pushing his Peace Colombia initiative.


Uphill battle

In a visit to the US last week, Santos was greeted by US officials who expressed the Obama administration’s commitment to continuing the partnership with Colombia. Although responding to pressure from human rights groups, Secretary of State John Kerry also called on the Colombian government to do more in terms of bringing human rights violators to justice, the US visit by Santos was a success. The Colombian President has secured a bipartisan commitment to continue the aid the US provides to Colombia.


Unfortunately for Santos, since cocaine trade from Colombia is no longer in the headlines, there is far less public interest in Peace Colombia today than in Plan Colombia 15 years ago. To an extent, the Peace Colombia initiative is a victim of the success of Plan Colombia. The US will continue to treat Colombia as a key ally in the region, but getting Washington to shift its priority from military aid to combat terrorism and drug production to economic aid to promote development is going to be an uphill battle for President Santos in the remaining 30 months of his second and final term. With the US government under heavy pressure to curtail spending in non-defence foreign aid initiatives, Santos will find it more difficult to find the resources he needs to successfully implement Peace Colombia.