Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos will visit Washington this week to update President Barack Obama on the historic peace negotiations with Marxist rebels that are nearing completion, thank the United States for its ongoing support – and ask for millions more in aid.
The White House visit on Thursday comes just weeks before Santos is supposed to sign an agreement with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the leftist guerrilla group that has waged a five-decade-long war against the Colombian government. During his three-day visit to Washington, Santos also will seek support from conservatives in Congress for the peace deal in hopes that their backing will help persuade reluctant conservatives in Santos’ own country to support the accord.
The pitch for money: The United States has invested so much over the last 15 years to help pull Colombia out from the trenches that U.S. leaders can’t risk messing it up now when so much is riding on a lasting peace deal.
Colombia currently receives about $300 million a year in U.S. aid to combat the drug trade and reduce poverty as part of a winding-down Plan Colombia. But Santos is expected to ask Obama and members of Congress to ramp that spending to around $500 million a year for up to 10 years, according to experts who have consulted with the government.
It’s been dubbed Plan Colombia 2.0.
The money would be used to fulfill a post-conflict peace agenda that will help pay for regional development and demobilize and reintegrate around 7,000 fighters from Latin America’s oldest and largest insurgency into law-abiding civilian life.
“Even if everybody is on board with these peace agreements, the tricky part is to implement them. To implement them is very costly and difficult,” said Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue research center in Washington.
Colombia, the fourth largest economy in Latin America, is considered a major success story for U.S. foreign policy. Supported by both Republican and Democratic administrations, the United States has provided more than $10 billion in aid to Colombia since 2000 to combat drugs and drug-related violence.
The strategy helped cut Colombia’s coca crop and allowed the Colombian government to regain control over wide areas of the country that had been lost to the rebels.
“The support of the United States has allowed Colombia to transform from a failed state – as it was seen by many 15 years ago – to the Colombia that is on the verge of achieving lasting peace,” said Colombian Ambassador Juan Carlos Pinzón.
In an interview with reporters, Pinzón ticked off a series of accomplishments over the last 15 years, including going from one of the most violent countries in the world to a 35-year low in homicides and a 90 percent drop in kidnappings.
The support of the United States has allowed Colombia to transform from a failed state … to the Colombia that is on the verge of achieving lasting peace
Juan Carlos Pinzón, Colombian Ambassador
Pinzón described Colombia now as an “investment darling.” He said the country is immersed in global trade and has one of the best economies in Latin America.
“Colombia has also become a tourism hot spot,” Pinzón said. “Colombia has doubled the number of foreign tourists in recent years.”
In September, the rebels and Colombian government reached a breakthrough when they agreed on a framework to end five decades of armed conflict. While details need to be worked out, the accord includes rebels confessing to their crimes to avoid jail time and compensating victims. Those who lay down their weapons would be allowed to participate in local politics.
Whether the United States will boost its financial aid is unclear. But Secretary of State John Kerry on Saturday signaled the administration is ready to lend a supporting hand.
“Having helped Colombia create the conditions for a peace accord, the United States must now help Colombia seize the enormous promise that peace affords,” Kerry wrote in an op-ed in the Miami Herald.
Kerry said the administration will present Congress with a post-conflict strategy aimed at furthering security gains, fighting drugs, and recovering former FARC-held areas.
Convincing Congress may be harder. Some members already question why the United States continues to give millions to Colombia now that it is on steadier footing. Is it time for their leaders to take the next step on their own?
“Colombia is considerably better off economically than many countries that get little or no economic support from the United States,” Rep. Brad Sherman, a California Democrat, said during a 2014 Foreign Affairs committee hearing on Latin American terrorist groups.
Santos needs all the political support he can get. The peace deal appears more popular outside the country than inside, and bipartisan support in Washington could help Santos if it trickles down to Colombia where scorn for the rebels is common. Many Colombian citizens would rather overpower them than negotiate with them.
The loudest critic is probably former President Alvaro Uribe, whose hard-line approach helped force a weakened FARC to the negotiating table. He’s objected that the current talks offer conciliation to a group guilty of drug trafficking and murder.
Pinzón insisted that the main objective of Santos’ visit in Washington is not to ask for money, but thank the U.S. government and its citizens for their ongoing support. He would not confirm any numbers, but he also didn’t deny his government’s hope for additional resources.
He emphasized that Colombian taxpayers have paid for 95 percent of the total costs of Plan Colombia, but also said the U.S.-Colombia partnership was critical to a sustainable peace deal.
“In that perspective of course it make sense to think in the years to come, it’ll be useful to have a strong program as the one we had in the previous 15 years,” Pinzón said.