If there’s anything that my 30-plus years of working on U.S. policy toward Latin America has taught me (admittedly there are some who would argue it’s been little, if anything), it’s that no good can come of the polarization of DC politics around a Latin American country. Though I came after the partisan battles around U.S. policy to El Salvador, Nicaragua and Guatemala, I saw the aftermath; and I lived through the 1990s and early aughts with Haiti and Cuba, in which many of the same players were engaged on similar sides of the battle.
In every case, congresspeople, their staffers, journalists, activists, and think-tankers had their “favorite” local, who told them “the truth.” Other sources of information were—at best—illegitimate, if not immoral. The result was a Manichean battle over U.S. policy for truth and right, and it always resulted in the worst examples of U.S. policy in the region, whipsawing governments and leaders in the region, building up less-than-democratic actors on either side of the ideological divide, and polarizing discussion and policy in the U.S. in unproductive, often truth-defying, ways that only hurt the citizens in those countries.
In any country, on any issue, policy inconsistency is never good. It’s even worse when it’s the foreign policy of the world’s most powerful country dealing with a country that is a very, very small fraction of its size.
Now the country at risk of being caught in the maw of U.S. political disputes is Colombia. That would be a shame. Colombia’s success in coming back from the brink of a near-failed state and re-establishing authority over the country was due in no small part to U.S. policy consistency that stretched from President Bill Clinton, through President George W. Bush and to President Barack Obama under Plan Colombia.
But President Juan Manual Santos’ peace plan and the scorched-earth opposition to it, led by former President Álvaro Uribe, threatens to re-polarize U.S. policy toward Colombia. Oddly, this time the polarization is likely to come from the opposite side of where it began. When the Clinton administration originally proposed Plan Colombia a number of groups and self-appointed commentators—including, oddly, a former Clinton official who was clearly just going for the ego-boost of being a critic of U.S. policy in a congressional hearing— sounded the alarm that the U.S effort to assist Colombia take back its land from non-state actors would lead to the “Vietnamization” of Colombia. Fortunately, few listened to them.
Fortunate because, you know, they were wrong. None of their dire predictions came true.
Now the opposite is occurring. Today it’s a handful of conservative Republicans who are raising sharp concerns over the denouement of the U.S.’s Plan Colombia, stoked by former President Uribe. While Juan Manuel Santos’ governmental representatives are working the Hill and DC power offices selling his peace plan, former President Uribe is doing to same with people he thinks will lend a sympathetic ear to his plan to torpedo Colombian peace. And while there is plenty to be skeptical about in the plan and in the FARC’s commitment to becoming legal, the peace deal came out of an organic process within the country that the U.S. should have no business undermining. In addition, despite the plan’s warts and a well-founded distrust of the FARC, Uribe’s vitriolic opposition is borne more out of personal pique than a constructive desire to shape a better deal—as his behavior after the popular rejection of the deal made clear. In a recent discussion hosted by Global Americans, a Democratic congressman told the story of how he came back from a meeting at the White House with Colombian officials to support the peace plan, and received a phone call from a Republican Cuban-American congressman. The congressman said that he had just met with former President Uribe and wanted to share some of the insights that the former human-rights abusing president had shared with him.
For those of us who have worked on Latin America policy for a while, we all know how this works: right-wing politician or military official goes to DC and stokes the anti-Communist/anti-Islamist/pro-backyardista inclinations of the usual suspects. It works the other way too. On the other side, more left-leaning groups receive and echo counterparts with whom they have ideological affinities that distrust anything that smacks of the military, security and—often—U.S. policy.
The result is never good.
But in this case, though, there is a good guy and a bad guy. The good is the prospect of peace, remarkably the result of a U.S. policy. For all the bumps in path to the approval of the peace plan, Colombia’s democratic institutions have embraced it. On November 30th, the Colombian Congress approved a revised peace agreement and, on December 13th, the Colombian Supreme Court endorsed the decision. The peace accords bring the promise of ending the conflict, reintegration, land redistribution and a form of justice (though admittedly not sufficient for most)—a short 20 years after the country appeared to be on the brink of collapse.
Meanwhile, former President Uribe remains steadfastly opposed to the plan and is working his own U.S. contacts to stoke their fears and zealotry. Some chalk it up to Uribe’s insatiable ego and need to remain in the limelight.
There’s another reason, though, that is far more nefarious.
Those willing to meet with Mr. Uribe have consciously or unconsciously ignored recent developments that may show a more sinister and dirty backstory to Uribe’s DC machinations. Former President Uribe’s brother, Santiago Uribe, was arrested on February 29th, 2016 for creating and leading a right-wing paramilitary organization known as the “Twelve Apostles.” The Twelve Apostles have been linked to dozens of forced disappearances and murders in the northern province of Antioquia, where Álvaro Uribe was governor during the late 1990s. His arrest came after former police major Juan Carlos Meneses testified that Santiago created and ran the Twelve Apostles in collaboration with the local law enforcement. While Meneses said he had no evidence directly linking former President Álvaro Uribe to the paramilitary group, his brother’s arrest has reignited previous allegations that former President Uribe also held ties with right-wing paramilitary groups.
Curiously, that didn’t serve as a moral barrier for some congresspeople, from not only meeting with the death squad leader’s brother, but promoting his views with his colleagues. Picture this: Democratic congresspeople open up their office doors and meet with a Castro family member—say Raul’s son, Alejandro, reputed to be an eminence grise behind his father’s throne—despite Fidel and Raul’s transgressions, and urge their colleagues to hear him out. Republicans would denounce their Democratic colleagues and raise holy hell over the people they have gotten their information from—and with good reason. Who would dare to meet with someone whose close relative, especially a brother, had blood on their hands? If it were a Communist, no go. That it’s Uribe, the message seems to be that it’s OK.
The U.S. Congress is considering the new-generation Peace Colombia as a follow-up to the Plan Colombia that some on the left decried 20 years ago. On February 4th, President Obama announced that he would ask Congress for more than $450 million in aid to help implement the plan. If approved by Congress (approval still pending), Peace Colombia would help with security and counternarcotics, as well as educating and reintegrating members of the FARC.
It’s time to focus on the consistency of U.S. policy and national interests. Policy consistency is good policy, and in this case it may end with peace.