In February 2016, President Barack Obama and President Juan Manuel Santos met in Washington, DC, to discuss the peace negotiations in Havana, while commemorating Plan Colombia’s 15 years of bipartisan and bilateral cooperation. As a signal of the U.S.’s commitment to that partnership and the peace negotiations, President Obama pledged $450 million in assistance for a U.S.-led initiative dubbed Peace Colombia.
The initiative aims to focus U.S. assistance to Colombia in three main pillars. First, consolidate and expand the progress on security and counternarcotics, while easing the reintegration of FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia in Spanish) rebels into society. Second, expand the presence of the state to reinforce the rule of law and boost rural economies, especially in areas most afflicted by the conflict. Third, promote justice and essential services for the conflict’s victims and provide humanitarian assistance to vulnerable populations.
Peace Colombia saw widespread bipartisan support when it was introduced to Congress in February of last year. Both the Senate and the House of Representatives passed resolutions supporting Colombia’s pursuit of peace. However, the good news for Colombia may have to be placed on hold. The confirmation of Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State has raised doubts on whether the U.S. will continue its support to Peace Colombia.
Secretary Tillerson’s written answers to the Senate signal that this may all be at risk. In response to questions from Democratic senators, Tillerson wrote that he “would also seek to review the details of Colombia’s recent peace agreement, and determine the extent to which the United States should continue to support it.”
Although the Colombian government has not provided an official estimate, the Colombian Senate’s Peace Commission has suggested that implementing the peace accord will cost $31 billion (approximately 93 billion Colombian pesos) over the next ten years. U.S. support would account for nearly fifteen percent of the $3.1 billion per year that the Colombian government will need to implement the accord.
According to the U.S. Congressional Budget Justification (CBJ), the U.S. vowed $39.9 million for the professionalization and modernization of the Colombian military through the provision of equipment and services; $143 million to increase the efficacy of the justice system, strengthen land and maritime narcotics interdiction forces, and support coca eradication programs; and $21 million to help Colombia’s ambitious humanitarian de-mining process, which seeks to free Colombia of landmines by 2021.
The U.S. also pledged $187.3 million from the Economic Support Fund (ESF) to aid the Colombian government’s efforts to expand state presence in areas that have been historically marginalized by the conflict, foster reconciliation among victims and ex-combatants, and improve the conditions for rural economic growth.
To that extent, the ESF would provide support to an array of interventions that are key to the implementation of Colombia’s peace accord. For instance, approximately $11.2 million would support reforms at all levels of government, helping to decentralize public investment, service provision, and government functions. Nearly $10 million would go to enhance the state’s capacity to provide basic justice services to underserved populations in conflict-affected areas and support programs that strengthen the respect for human rights. Roughly $28 million would be used to strengthen the capacity of government agencies that provide services (e.g., psychosocial, educational, health, job training) to demobilized ex-combatants and soldiers, as well to promote transitional justice and strengthen community-based reconciliation efforts. Close to $37 million would go to improve competitiveness of rural producers in conflict-affected areas, and leverage private investment that generates business opportunities and improves livelihoods in targeted rural municipalities.
These are only a few of the key components of Peace Colombia that would be at risk if the U.S. decides to pull back its support. Although Secretary Tillerson said that he would “make every effort” to continue the partnership, given the America First pledge of the new president and his administration’s apparent lack of interest in Latin America, the odds may be stacked against U.S. support for Colombia’s peace accord. Added to that is the number of Republican legislators talking with Colombia’s former President Álvaro Uribe Vélez, the country’s principal opponent of the peace plan. In one famous photo, Florida Senator Marco Rubio (R) and South Florida Congressman Carlos Luis Curbelo (R) campaigned with Uribe in Florida in the run up to the November 2 elections.
With this year’s foreign aid bill not yet approved, there’s still time to kill U.S. assistance to Colombia despite the early signs of bipartisan approval. Some Republican members of Congress have already voiced their opposition to Peace Colombia, arguing that the taxpayers should not be financing a deal with an organization that remains on the State Department’s list of foreign terrorist organizations. Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (FL) has stated that “no deal involving a terrorist group such as the FARC and midwifed by the Castro regime should receive any congressional support.”
Given what is at stake, it seems that the U.S. should be vowing to increase its support instead of having second thoughts on upholding what it has already pledged. By now it should be perfectly clear for Secretary Tillerson that withdrawing from Peace Colombia would not only cause strain to the ongoing implementation of the accord, but would also be a major blow to the increasingly fragile relations between the U.S. and the region. The amount of funding could perhaps be replaced from other sources—Colombian or from international donors—but the symbolism of the United States walking away from the deal would be dramatic.
There may perhaps be a middle course, however. For years, Democratic senators have placed human rights conditions on assistance, whether during the Reagan-era Central American civil wars or more recently under Plan Colombia and Plan Merida in Mexico.
In this case the U.S. government could place conditions on U.S. taxpayer dollars being used under Peace Colombia. Periodic reviews could be used to ensure that U.S. funds are not used to fund demobilized FARC combatants with proven human rights violations or support Colombian troops linked to human rights violations. Similarly, there could also be conditions to monitor whether demobilized combatants return to civilian life rather than returning to crime or to fight with another insurgent group—with the condition that should those goals not be met, funding will be redirected.
Would that be possible? Similar things have been done before, and it would be a far more constructive and less isolating policy than the U.S. walking away from nearly 20 years of bipartisan success and peace.