Changes in Colombia Impact U.S.-Colombian Relations

December 4, 2013

It has been a busy week for President Juan Manuel Santos, and it is only Wednesday.  On his State visit to Washington this week, Santos’s White House meeting with President Obama on December 3 offered the two Presidents, who had met most recently in Cartagena at the Summit of the Americas in April 2012, a chance to highlight the peace process and to showcase the ways that Colombia and, in turn, U.S.-Colombian relations, have changed in recent years.

The timing of the Presidential visit, planned for many weeks, was  fortuitous.  Santos has just launched his campaign for re-election, the peace talks between the Colombian government and the FARC in Havana are moving steadily forward, and provisional agreements have been reached on two of the agenda items–agrarian development and terms for political participation.  Three substantive topics–victims’ rights and reparations, the terms for ending the conflict, and illicit crop cultivation and drug trafficking– remain on the peace agenda, and the current round of talks, begun on November 28th, is focused on this last item.

Peace and Security

The theme of peace and security was front and center on the agenda, and this visit provided an opportunity for Santos to underscore progress on the security front and to get public support from Washington’s political elites for his peace agenda.  Indeed, accolades abounded.  President Santos, who had announced his bid for a second term on November 20,  basked in the glow when President Obama congratulated him for his “bold and brave efforts to bring about a lasting and just peace”.   (View the two leaders at yesterday’s White House meeting here:

In meetings with Republican and Democratic leaders on the Hill, the Colombian head of state briefed U.S. policymakers on the peace talks, and thanked them for their continued support in past years, particularly their bipartisan commitment to Plan Colombia, and their support for the peace process.  President Santos described U.S.-Colombian relations as being at their highest point yet and told an audience at the National Press Club that “relations with the United States could not be better.”

President Santos was accompanied by a full cast of Colombia’s key political leaders–Luis Carlos Villegas, Colombia’s newly arrived Ambassador to the United States, who just left his role as one of the government’s negotiators in Havana and head of the National Association of Colombian Industrialists (ANDI) to assume his new position in Washington; Minister of Defense Juan Carlos Pinzón, who spoke at the Brookings Institution on Monday (listen to Colombia at a Crossroads: A Conversation with Colombia’s Minister of National Defense); Foreign Minister María Angela Holguín, who is trying to put a good face on Colombia’s recent rejection of an International Court of Justice finding in favor of Nicaragua over shared maritime claims; and Minister of Labor Rafael Pardo, who is overseeing implementation of Colombia’s Labor Action Plan, a source of some tension with key Democratic Congressman who contend that Colombian commitments made in the context of approval of the Free Trade Agreement have not been respected (see a recent report on the topic by U.S. Representatives Jim McGovern and George Miller here).

Beyond Peace and Security

There was a clear effort by Santos to shift U.S.-Colombian relations to a new plane, both in terms of establishing a more equal partnership and in terms of laying out a broader agenda that moves beyond the longstanding bilateral themes of security and drug-trafficking.  Santos underscored the partnership role that Colombia in providing security training to Central American and Caribbean counterparts as well as the strong diplomatic relations Colombia enjoys with countries throughout the hemisphere.  He noted that Colombia and the United States will be tripling their joint training activities  in third countries, particularly in Central America and the Caribbean, where Colombia has already trained more than 17,000 officials.   Santos proposed that Obama consider launching a new alliance for peace and prosperity in the hemisphere, building on John F. Kennedy’s vision of an Alliance for Progress.

The White House press release, “Fact Sheet:  The United States and Colombia–Strategic Partners,” testifies to the broadening bilateral agenda.  The release lays out joint cooperation between the two countries on a vast number of topics, including economic and social initiatives; projects to support for peace, security and the rule of law; programs for regional and global integration; environment, science and innovation endeavors; and a variety of educational initiatives. (See release here.)  In his limited time in the United States, it is noteworthy that Santos also met with American and Colombian business communities (including the president of Microsoft and the founder of Facebook), think tanks, and Colombian residents.   A symbol of Colombia’s changing relationship with the United States, Santos told an audience at the National Press Club, was that when he arrived in Miami on Monday, instead of heading to Southcom, he visited the University of Miami.  In Miami, Santos  met with educators, diplomats, students, entrepreneurs, and Colombian residents of the area, and university president and national education leader Donna Shalala gave him a presidential award for service.

Role of the International Community

The peace process, undertaken without recourse to an international mediator, has clearly been a Colombian process from the beginning, and the international community has thus far played rather limited roles.  In his speech on Dec. 3 before the Permanent Council of the Organization of American States, however, President Santos recognized the important support provided by Cuba, Venezuela, Chile, and Norway for the peace process.  He also acknowledged the contributions of the OAS Mission of Support to the Peace Process, which for nine years has played a role in the verification and monitoring of the demobilizations in Colombia and more recently has been accompanying victims of violence who seek restitution of their lands under the Victims’ and Land Restitution Law.  Santos praised OAS efforts to open the debates on drug policies and encouraged the body to continue to pursue new approaches to the scourge of drugs affecting the hemisphere.  He noted that there had been considerable movement on the topic since the Summit of the Americas in 2012.

In his public appearances, Santos did not request any kind of financial assistance for the peace process, though certainly a peace dividend to recover from a half century of war would be a legitimate ask and a worthwhile investment.  As the talks move ahead, there are a number of issues where Santos may choose to seek further cooperation–not necessarily in monetary form–from the international community.  These include drug policy; extraditions; demobilization, disarmament, reintegration, and reconstruction; truth-telling; transitional justice; and development aid or funds to carry out the agreements reached in Havana.  For now, Santos appears to have solidified U.S. symbolic support for the peace process, and that may be all that he needs at the moment.

About Ginny Bouvier

Love reading, writing, thinking, and working with people to make the world a better place. Family and friends, yoga, travel, photography, perusing dessert menus keep me sane. Latin American enthusiast. Peace practitioner yearning for justice. Heading up the Colombia program at the U.S. Institute of Peace, but tweets and posts are my own.
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3 Responses to Changes in Colombia Impact U.S.-Colombian Relations

  1. Pingback: “Foro Interamericano” sobre Paz en Colombia | COLOMBIA CALLS

  2. Pingback: Ciclo 18: Cultivos ilícitos y narcotráfico | COLOMBIA CALLS

  3. Andrew says:

    Let’s hope that behind the scenes some of these diplomatic talks involve pressure the reform the judicial system in Colombia. At the moment it’s woefully inadequate and often abused. I have been working, with colleges, to try and raise the issue about the failings of and inadequate system.


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