President Donald Trump quietly met a pair of former Colombian presidents last weekend at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida, thrusting his administration into an ugly power struggle in Latin America that threatens to undermine the country’s controversial peace agreement with rebel leaders.
Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos is expected to push Trump to support the peace accord with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia at their first meeting at the White House next month. He wants the Trump administration and Congress to maintain the $450 million in foreign aid promised by former President Barack Obama to implement the plan to end Latin America’s longest armed conflict.
The meeting between Trump and the former presidents, Álvaro Uribe and Andrés Pastrana – Colombia news media have reported it was arranged by an influential U.S. critic of the plan, Republican U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida – was not on the president’s schedule and was not disclosed to reporters who traveled with him to Palm Beach.
White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer initially declined to answer questions about the meeting, leading to a rash of speculation in Colombian media. Colombian newspapers, websites and radio stations debated the meeting’s significance — and whether it actually had happened. “I don’t have anything for you at this time,” Spicer said Wednesday when asked.
The White House later confirmed the meeting to McClatchy but downplayed its significance, saying it was a mere coincidence that both former leaders opposed to the peace pact were at the president’s club. Aides to Rubio declined to comment.
“They were there with a member from the club and briefly said hello when the president walked past them,” spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said. “There wasn’t anything beyond a quick hello.”
But the leaders’ own comments contradict the White House’s characterization.
In a tweet following the meeting, Pastrana thanked Trump for the “cordial and very frank conversation” about problems in Colombia and the region.
Uribe was unavailable for an interview, but his former vice president, Francisco Santos, said it was important that the Trump administration and U.S. Congress hear a more complete picture of the reality in Colombia. He described the meeting as short, but with a clear message. The former presidents raised concerns about the situation in Venezuela and Colombia, including damage they say the peace process has caused.
“We’re very worried,” said Francisco Santos, who is the Bogotá chair of Uribe’s Democratic Center political party and the current president’s cousin. “You have a perfect storm, and the government says everything is going fine and we’re living in peace. And that’s not true.”
The Mar-a-Lago meeting coincided with a letter Uribe wrote to the Trump administration and Congress, which he published on Twitter, warning that President Santos’ efforts to complete a peace deal with the rebels could lead to Colombia becoming an authoritarian state similar to Venezuela.
The undisclosed meeting also raises a number of questions about the ease with which people trying to influence Trump can access him through membership in his club without fear of public disclosure; a Mar-a-Lago membership costs $200,000 for the initiation alone.
“It suggests that the people who patronize the president’s businesses have more influence than the rest of us,” said Noah Bookbinder, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a government watchdog group.
The White House did not say which Mar-a-Lago member had accompanied the leaders to the resort. Members’ names are not public, though some have leaked out since Trump became president.
The meeting also raised questions about whether Trump intends to support the Colombia peace plan, the result of years of negotiations to end five decades of combat with the insurgency group, which is known by its Spanish initials as the FARC. Santos received the Nobel Peace Prize last year for his efforts at negotiating a deal.
Spicer and Sanders did not answer questions about whether Trump supports the peace pact.
Rubio, whose wife is the daughter of Colombian immigrants, has been critical of the peace process. He shares the views of many Colombians that it is inappropriate to negotiate with a guerrilla group known for drug trafficking and kidnappings. He repeatedly has noted that the FARC remains a U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organization, and he has argued that Congress shouldn’t commit any additional money to the Colombian government until the peace plan is approved by the Colombian people.
An initial peace deal narrowly lost in a referendum in October. Santos then reopened negotiations with the rebels, but he bypassed a referendum in favor of submitting the deal to the Colombian Congress, which approved it in November.
The Colombian government criticized the former presidents for going outside diplomatic channels and taking the country’s “dirty laundry” to the White House.
Juan Carlos Pinzón, Colombia’s ambassador to the United States, said it was important not to oversimplify the meeting. He noted that Colombia has a long record of strong bipartisan relations with the U.S. Congress.
Santos was the second Latin American president to speak with Trump after the American was sworn into office. In their 25-minute call, Santos asked Trump to support the U.S. funding to back the country’s peace deal. Santos, who is seen as an “Obamanista” who publicly lobbied for Trump’s Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton, has described Trump’s politics as “not in line with what Colombia wants.”
Pinzón said the Colombian government must respect that Trump had his own way of doing things but that it was dangerous for the former presidents to take Colombia’s polarized politics to the United States, which could damage the country’s bipartisan support.
“We need to address these issues at home,” Pinzón told W Radio in Colombia. “We need to wash our dirty laundry at home.”
Arlene Tickner, a professor of international relations at Rosario University in Bogotá, said it was disconcerting for the leaders to be campaigning against a sitting president and the peace process.
“I think they’re hoping to get the Congress to hold back on funding to the government in order to gain leverage vis-à-vis the process,” Tickner said. “And obviously Uribe is posturing, trying to position himself and his party with an eye to the next elections.”
Last year, Obama promised to throw the White House’s full support behind the historic peace accord, including a pledge of $450 million in aid annually to help pay for regional development and to demobilize and reintegrate around 7,000 fighters.
That money is now in doubt as the Trump administration plans to slash foreign aid as part of 31 percent cuts to the State Department’s budget.
“If you’re going to reduce foreign assistance, you have to go to the places where assistance is provided,” said Eric Farnsworth, a former State Department official who is now vice president of the Washington-based Council of the Americas.
Colombia, the fourth largest economy in Latin America, is considered a major success story for U.S. foreign policy. The U.S. has provided more than $10 billion in aid to Colombia since 2000, supported by both Republican and Democratic administrations, to combat drugs and drug-related violence. But coca cultivation has soared to levels not seen in decades, and some see Trump’s hard-line rhetoric on keeping drugs out of the United States as more sympathetic to the opposition.
While Colombia may not get all the money, Santos needs, at a minimum, some form of support for the peace process, said Sandra Borda, a professor of political science and international relations at University of the Andes in Bogotá. A reduction in aid can be explained as part of Trump’s budget cuts, but not supporting the peace plan could be politically crippling for Santos, Borda said.
The United States continues to have an outsized role in Colombia’s internal politics. A Trump declaration of support would go a long way to shoring up Santos’ domestic backing. Anything less would fuel opposition efforts ahead of next year’s presidential election.
“If you have a president in the United States who is opposed to the peace process, it’s a form of undermining the legitimacy of the peace process,” Borda said.
Kumar reported from Washington.