The report titled “The future of U.S.-Colombian relations”—produced by FIU’s Steven J. Green School of International and Public Affairs and Global Americans—addresses one question: what is the future of U.S.-Colombian relations in the next 10 years? We are not psychics, but we are political scientists, so we look at a series of structural factors and outliers to identify the likely factors that will shape that relationship, positively and negatively in the future.
As party systems change, new security challenges emerge, and the multiple threats of the Venezuela collapse grow, we set out to see if one of the closest bilateral relationship in the hemisphere can stand. The report examines potential scenarios through five lenses: politics and public opinion; security; economy and trade; multilateral relations; and diplomatic relations.
The basic thesis: the foundation of U.S.-Colombian relations is strong, and while there will be stresses in that relationship (uncertain politics, political polarization on both sides, the Venezuela crisis) given longstanding, multifaceted relations between the two countries, solid, productive relationships will endure. But that does not mean that both countries don’t need to be cautious in their relations and adjust to new political, security and economic challenges. You can access the full report here.
Politics and public opinion
While Colombia’s second-round presidential election in 2018 gathered most of the public attention for the choices—between a staunchly conservative candidate, Iván Duque, and a strongly leftist candidate, Gustavo Petro—the roots of the polarization received less attention.
In the past twenty years, Colombia’s traditional two-party system has frayed. Its decline and the likely death of Colombia’s historical parties have had three effects: 1) the dispersion of Congressional seats among a range of parties, making it difficult to reach a majority to pass legislation; 2) fragility and instability in presidential popularity; and 3) political polarization.
After his first 100 days in power, Duque recorded a record-low of 22 percent of popular support, the lowest of any Colombian president that early into his term in history. At the same time, the country has become deeply polarized without the anchor of centrist parties. This has been most evident in the division of popular opinion over the peace deal between the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the government.
There is one thing where there remains a majority consensus among Colombians: support for the United States and Americans generally. In 2017, according to Pew World Values surveys, after President Donald Trump’s election, Colombia remained one of the most pro-American countries in the region, with 51 percent of Colombians having favorable views of the United States, above the regional median of 49 percent. At the same time, earlier surveys have also shown that on a whole, Colombians tend to be more politically conservative than many of their fellow citizens in Latin America and the Caribbean. Both of these factors may weigh against the rise of leftist, anti-American Colombian government coming to power even in the context of political polarization and Petro’s near victory in 2018; but they are no guarantee.
Colombians also share disillusionment with their political class and democracy in general. This pool of festering citizen frustration is evident in the most recent surveys by Vanderbilt University’s Latin America Public Opinion Project (LAPOP). According to their 2016-2017 surveys, only 10 percent of Colombians have confidence in their political parties, and not surprisingly only 53.3 percent of Colombians expressed support for democracy. Compared to their feelings about political parties, Colombians show lower levels of distrust in law enforcement; 17.4 percent of Colombians felt victimized by corruption as a whole while 12.4 percent of Colombians felt specifically victimized by corruption from a police officer, e.g. being asked for a bribe. Confidence in law enforcement is also low in Colombia as 16.6 percent of Colombians reported that they felt the police would take longer than three hours to respond to a call.
As we discuss in the report, though, far from being a liability, these levels of distrust, growing levels of concerns over insecurity (despite declining homicide rates), the challenges of security in the post-peace, and the Venezuela-crisis provide an opportunity for a new phase in U.S. cooperation with Colombia for the re-conceptualization of its partnership across a range of areas.
After almost two decades of working together under Plan Colombia, the U.S. and Colombian militaries continue to support each other in a variety of ways. Colombia was one of the most active Latin American countries to participate in U.S. military training, though those numbers have declined in recent years. The shift, though, reflects the evolution of a partnership and maturing relationship between the two countries.
Colombian armed forces have roughly 481,000 members across its three branches, many of which have collaborated or trained with U.S. military officials. U.S. and Colombia have conducted joint operations outside of Colombia and Colombia-specific areas, a great sign of trust and respect. SouthCom and Colombia have collaborated in the Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force Crisis Response Africa (SPMAGTF) where Colombian officials have been integrated into the leadership team directing that mission.
A result of this close relationship is arms sales. At a time when there is a lot of handwringing over the growing influence of China and Russia in the region, including over the sale of military materiel, the United States remains the largest supplier of military equipment to Colombia, higher per capita than any other country in Latin America. [You can see the table with comparative data on U.S., China and Russia arms sales in the region on page 8 in this link here.] That commercial relation—and the maintenance and upgrade ties that come with it—has deepened the bilateral security relations not just today but in the medium-term future as well.
Shifting security challenges
There are shifting security challenges that will need to be taken into account in the coming years; many have to do with the peace agreements and its implementation and the ongoing and yet still looming crisis across the border in Venezuela. For starters, Colombians are split nearly evenly on opposition/support for the peace deal. Sixty three percent of Colombians felt that under Duque, implementation of the peace deal is going badly. Growing opposition, issues with justice and participation of former guerrillas into the political system have bred resistance to the deal and to the special Jurisdictions for Peace (JEP). Between those who initially rejected the peace agreement and those who supported these half-hearted efforts to implement the peace agreement has bred a growing sentiment that the peace plan—in addition to being flawed from its inception—has been flawed in its implementation.
According to Notre Dame University’s Kroc Center, only 23 percent of the 578 peace accord commitments have begun implementation. At the same time, 3,000 former and new FARC recruits (about 40 percent of the original total number of combatants) have returned to illicit activities, while more than 500 activists have been killed and 210,000 have been displaced since the implementation of the peace agreement. In addition, the Venezuelan border has become refuge for former FARC leaders to continue illegal activities, ELN operates with impunity inside Venezuela. A weapons-buying spree by the Venezuelan government in the past two decades has led to heavily armed military and private militias in Venezuela. There is a legitimate fear that the range of weapons acquired in Venezuela will find their way into the hands of illicit groups outside the country, either through their sale by a corrupt, collapsing Venezuelan military or through the private militia groups that the Venezuelan government has created and supported, such as the colectivos. Indeed, some of this has already allegedly occurred with Venezuelan weapons finding their way into hands of the Brazilian criminal network Primeiro Comando da Capital (PCC). But with the Venezuelan military having in its possession weapons such as hundreds of thousands of Kalashnikov rifles and ammunition and 5,000 Igla-S MANPADS (man-portable air defense systems) the worse may be yet to come should these be sold to the highest bidders on illicit markets.
Colombia’s economy has ties to various regional and global markets, which has allowed the country to avoid economic dependence on Chinese and Indian markets. Other countries in the region—such as Brazil—fell to these powerful markets and suffered as a result. In addition to avoiding the Chinese market, Colombia has also been on the low end of Chinese investment, while investment from other countries has grown, a promising reality for the future of Colombia’s economy. From 2015 to 2017, the number of foreign companies investing in Colombia grew by 17.65 percent, and the number of projects rose by 12.37 percent, and in 2017 alone, Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) inflows grew, reaching $14.5 billion, with a total stock of FDI currently estimated at 58.8 percent of the Colombian GDP.
Colombia’s GDP is estimated to steadily increase between 2019 and 2023 at a rate of 3.7 percent, according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Colombia also has an extensive network of free trade agreements (FTA’s) with diverse countries, such as the Central American Northern Triangle (El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras), Canada, Mexico, Chile, the European Free Trade Association (EFTA) countries (Switzerland, Norway, Iceland, and Liechtenstein), and the European Union, and more FTA’s being currently negotiated.
Crucial to the U.S.-Colombian economic relationship is the bilateral free trade agreement signed in 2006. The FTA marked the culmination of a series of bilateral agreements, some directly related to the agreement, others to separate issues relating to environmental protection, asset sharing, chemical control, ship-boarding, renewable and clean energy, science and technology, and civil aviation. This has allowed U.S-Colombian economic relations to remain strong.
In 2016, Colombian imports from the U.S. totaled $11.6 billion (27 percent of total imports, making it Colombia’s largest import partner). So, while China has become the number one export market for countries like Brazil, Chile, and Peru, the U.S. is still Colombia’s number one export market, buying $10.5 billion in goods and services, or 32 percent of the country’s total exports. Colombia is also the country in the hemisphere with the lowest per-capita Chinese investment in its economy. [Thanks to the Inter-American Dialogue’s Margaret Meyers, we have a table with their data showing this; just click here and see page 12.]
Though Colombia’s economy is set for steady economic growth, poverty and inequality remain as two important problems for the country to address. While poverty rates have dropped from 41 percent of the population as recently as 2008 to 28 percent by 2017—an impressive gain—rural poverty remains a serious challenge, and one that Colombia will need to address in the coming years.
Colombia’s maturing and stable relationship with the U.S. is part of its larger commitment to regional and international networks, commitments and norms. The country was a leader in the creation and the evolution of the Pacific Alliance, which unifies Colombian, Peruvian, Mexican and Chilean economies. By 2020 the Pacific Alliance has committed to eliminate all tariffs and fully integrate its members’ stock markets.
Colombia is also in the process of becoming a member of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). And it has been granted “observer status” in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) which will allow for its military to develop by integrating itself with operations and activities including other NATO countries. This status will allow Colombia to participate in training, education, and exercises with NATO allies. As time goes on, Colombia’s integration into the OECD and continued leadership in the Pacific Alliance will allow for Colombia to develop further and strengthen its role as a global member in the international liberal order.
An Outlier: Venezuela
Colombia has currently taken in 1.3 million refugees from Venezuela which is almost half of the total number of refugees who have left Venezuela. The total number of refugees is expected to swell to 7 million by 2020. The massive influx of these desperate migrants has generated a challenge for Colombia to accommodate and integrate the new arrivals into the country, economically and socially. Financially, Colombia has said it will require $1.5 billion begin to address refugees’ needs. Along with the strains on public finances and labor markets, the refugee crisis has also created a security issue for Colombia; the border has become a common ground for narcotics and arms trade and a haven for criminal groups, such as the National Liberation Army (ELN).
A study by the NGO Paz Activa estimated that almost 200,000 migrants had been victims of human trafficking in 2017 in their pursuit of freedom. In order to create a more stable situation, international support will have to come to Colombia soon. This crisis creates an opportunity for the U.S. to provide humanitarian aid as well as an opportunity to develop a stronger bilateral partnership between the U.S. and Colombia.
The U.S.-Colombian relationship has withstood stresses in the past and yet has deepened despite them. Those relations have built close personal, diplomatic, economic and security relations. But there are new potential long-term stresses in that relationship: political polarization, new security challenges, and the Venezuelan refugee crisis. The latter two could provide an opportunity for the U.S. and Colombia to reconceptualize their security relationship and reinforce their leadership in the region. While Colombia is by no means in crisis, both countries should see the current moment of flux as a moment to double down on their relationship, not only to collectively address these problems but also to demonstrate and reinforce the benefits of integrating into the liberal international order—in trade and multilateral organizations—and maintaining close ties to the United States.