White House seeks to boost aid to Colombia to $450 million

President Barack Obama, right, stands with Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos at a reception for Plan Colombia, the joint effort to create a safer, more prosperous future for Colombians, in the East Room of the White House in Washington on Thursday, Feb. 4, 2016.
President Barack Obama, right, stands with Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos at a reception for Plan Colombia, the joint effort to create a safer, more prosperous future for Colombians, in the East Room of the White House in Washington on Thursday, Feb. 4, 2016. AP

President Barack Obama promised to throw the White House’s full support behind the Colombian government’s efforts to sign a historic peace agreement with leftist rebels, including a pledge of $450 million in aid annually to help demobilize rebels who’ve been fighting an insurgency for 51 years.

But Obama is already facing push-back in Washington from some Miami Republicans, who say U.S. taxpayers shouldn’t foot the bill for a largely one-sided deal with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as the FARC, in which the United States – and Colombia’s citizens – get little benefit.

Obama met with Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos on Thursday to discuss the status of the peace negotiations and future U.S. support and to mark 15 years of collaboration in Plan Colombia, a program that’s provided more than $10 billion to Colombia to confront drug trafficking and other ills.

Just as we did 15 years ago, we plan to bet on Colombia’s success.

President Barack Obama

Speaking later from the East Room, Obama said he would seek $450 million annually to help Colombia reinforce security, reintegrate former combatants into society and re-establish the rule of law in regions that have been controlled by the rebels.

“So many who invested so much in this effort many years ago, we want to make sure that we are showing that same commitment going forward,” Obama said with Santos at his side. “We don’t consider this an end to our friendship and our partnership, but rather a new beginning.”

The new plan, which Obama called “Peace Colombia,” includes an initiative to find and remove mines from Colombia that will be led by Secretary of State John Kerry. Colombia has the second highest number of land mine victims in the world, behind Afghanistan, the White House said. The United States will commit $33 million to the Global Demining Initiative for Colombia in Fiscal Year 2017. Norway will contribute an additional $20 million.

Obama thanked Cuba for hosting the peace talks and said peace would just be a “first step.”

Santos, who was joined by his family, described Peace Colombia, or Paz Colombia, as the start of a new chapter of friendship and cooperation between the two nations. He thanked the American people, Obama and Congress for their long support.

“If in Colombia, we are on the brink of a peace agreement, I can say without a doubt that Plan Colombia was crucial in helping us get there,” Santos said.

Plan Colombia is considered a major success for U.S. foreign policy. U.S. aid helped set up the conditions for the Colombian military to weaken the FARC, U.S. officials say. Homicides, kidnappings and other indicators of violence have declined, though Colombia continues to deal with drug trafficking and organized crime.

Making war is so much easier than making peace.

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos

Colombia currently receives about $300 million a year in American aid, which is down from the $700 million it received in Plan Colombia’s first year.

As part of that new framework, Obama will request more than $390 million in foreign assistance in the 2017 federal budget. The administration will also request funds for other ongoing programs, such as humanitarian assistance and counter-narcotics. If enacted by the Congress, it would increase total aid to Colombia to over $450 million.

Whether Congress will approve the financial aid is unclear, but Santos has gotten positive feedback from both Democratic and Republican leaders, including House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis.

Rep. Hal Rogers, R-Ky., chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, which would likely approve any congressional money, said the committee hadn’t discussed any requests but that Santos had done a “fantastic job” with Plan Colombia.

“He’s earned our respect and appreciation, so we’ll have to look at what he’s requesting very carefully,” Rogers said.

Standing in the way are Miami Republicans who share the concerns of many Colombians, in Miami and in Colombia, who don’t trust the FARC.

Miami Republican Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Mario Diaz-Balart and Carlos Curbelo met with Santos on Wednesday, where they talked about the deal and shared concerns.

Diaz-Balart said collaboration with Colombia must continue, citing the economic ties in South Florida. But he said the United States couldn’t back down during negotiations. Dismantling the FARC’s entire drug-trafficking operation is essential, he said, and the U.S. must not consider releasing convicted drug traffickers as a bargaining chip.

Ros-Lehtinen blasted an idea Santos floated that the United States could remove the FARC from its list of foreign terrorist organizations.

“We’re letting them off too softly,” Ros-Lehtinen said. “They just have to confess their crimes. They’re not going to be extradited to the United States. They could be back doing coca production in no time.”

Mark Feierstein, a senior director for the National Security Council, said that if the FARC disarmed completely, separated itself from illegal activities and was no longer hostile to U.S. citizens, the United States could review that designation.

Curbelo declined to be interviewed but struck a more moderate tone in a statement. He noted similar concerns but said it was “essential for our country to continue supporting Colombia’s efforts.”

The concerns of the Miami members of Congress are shared by many in Colombia, said Eduardo Gamarra, a political science professor at Florida International University who surveyed groups of Colombians in the country’s five largest cities. Many think FARC members will simply join other rebel groups, he said. Many others worry that a deal with FARC will lead to higher taxes in order to fund a program to reintegrate thousands of fighters into civilian life at a time when a drop in oil and other commodity prices is hitting the Colombian economy hard.

“They’re saying there is a need for a fiscal reform and at the same time we’re going to create this welfare system for these Colombians who have been killing for the last 50 years,” Gamarra said. “Everybody we talked to made this relationship between the fiscal reform and the welfare program.”

A bipartisan group of 57 members of the U.S. House of Representatives urged Obama in a letter Tuesday to provide “robust and concrete” support to the peace negotiations.

Signatories included Florida Democratic Reps. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Alan Grayson, Alcee Hastings and Hank Johnson Jr.

Obama called the U.S. relationship with Colombia one of the strongest partnerships in the hemisphere.

“Just as we did 15 years ago, we intend to bet on Colombia’s success,” Obama said.