The escalating crisis in Venezuela now threatens to bleed into Colombia, where millions of dollars in U.S. assistance have failed to curb the violence and criminal enterprises undermining internationally supported peace efforts.
Diplomats on Wednesday warned Congress that violence in Venezuela after Sunday’s widely-panned vote to strip elected lawmakers of power, coupled with that country’s severe economic crisis, could destabilize neighbors as Venezuelans either flee or criminal activity crosses the border.
“Venezuela is a disaster for Colombia,” said José Cárdenas, who previously worked in the U.S. Agency for International Development’s Bureau for Latin America and the Caribbean. “It is unmitigated disaster.”
Indeed, while the State Department’s senior Latin American diplomat said Venezuelan instability is a threat to all of its neighbors, the risk is especially grave for Colombia, which is already struggling to achieve peace after 52 years of fighting that have left more than 260,000 dead.
Experts have failed to agree on how the United States could best help Colombia. Washington has offered multiple measures – including investing billions of dollars to boost security, trying to curb drug trafficking and combating criminal enterprises – so that Colombia could implement a 2016 peace plan between the government of President Juan Manuel Santos and the country’s largest leftist rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia.
“There are concerns about the way this plan is being implemented, and more importantly, how U.S. foreign policy and U.S. assistance overlay with the current agreement,” said Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fl.), a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “The most difficult part of this job is the work that remains ahead.”
One of the committee’s senior Democrats, New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez, echoed Rubio’s statements, adding that aiding Colombia would help both nations in the long run.
“The fact is, a lasting and enduring peace is in the national interest of both Colombia and the United States,” he said.
As of June, about 7,000 FARC fighters had followed the agreement’s orders and demobilized in 26 rural zones, but others have shown signs of resistance, leading to officials’ distrust in the rebel group.
FARC leadership had also pledged to work to eliminate coca and marijuana cultivation in Colombia. But production is not decreasing; it remains the world’s largest producer, with numbers reaching a record high in 2015, according to the U.S. State Department’s yearly International Narcotics Control Strategy Report.
William Brownfield, the assistant Secretary of State for international narcotics and law enforcement affairs, cited a plan that includes tactics such as voluntary and forceful eradication of cocaine production, alternate crop production, and building roads to help farmers reach markets and sell these other goods.
But while the plan on its own “sounds good in the abstract,” said Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), “it’s hard for me to see how that’s really going to have much impact.”
“There’s not a ‘silver bullet’ answer to this problem,” she said. “There is not one answer. It takes a variety of approaches, and a real collaborative effort, and we need to continue that.”
Cárdenas said Congress should increase funding, provide intelligence and technical assistance in monitoring FARC leaders, and fight against drug trafficking groups.
“We have come too far together at this point to abandon the journey,” he said. “We recognize that the United States has no choice but to remain fully engaged with the Colombian government to ensure the implementation goes as smoothly as possible."
Brownfield said no solution on the United States’ part would fix things overnight. But at the end of the day, it’s up to the Colombian government to prioritize problems like the drug crisis if it wants continued support, Menendez added.
“I get a sense that the question of coca production is sort of like a wink and a nod and an, ‘Okay, we’ll deal with it,’ but it’s not a priority,” Menendez said. “I am strongly supportive of our efforts to help Colombia, but Colombia has to be reciprocal on these two issues if it wants to continue to have strong support from members of Congress.”