Photo Credit: AP Photo / Evan Vucci
The Colombian government’s not-so-subtle endorsement of Donald Trump ahead of the 2020 presidential election was a failed risky gambit. After the failed coup attempt on the United States Capitol, however, it turned out to be a huge error of judgment. The involvement of central figures of Colombia’s political elite in American elections will become a permanent stain on the bilateral U.S.-Colombia relationship. The task of the Colombian government, at least during the final year of the Duque administration, will now be to undertake a full-blown exercise in damage control. Will it succeed?
As the United States experienced a violent attempt to overthrow democratic governance, at the hands of an angry mob commandeered by the White House and influential members of the ruling Republican Party, Francisco Santos, the Colombian ambassador to the U.S., had one thing to say: “We’ve been there too.”
More precisely, Santos meant that Colombia had experienced a similar event in 1985, when left-wing M-19 guerrillas took over the Palace of Justice––the seat of the Colombian judiciary. The subsequent siege and assault on the complex by the Colombian armed forces left 94 people dead (including 11 Supreme Court magistrates) and another 11 disappeared. The U.S. stood by Colombia in the aftermath of these events, and now Colombia stands by the U.S. as it experiences a similar tragedy.
Although, in an op-ed published by CNN, Ambassador Santos skillfully navigates the language of unity and shared values between Colombia and the United States, he is seemingly ignorant of what matters most to some members of the incoming Democratic administration: that members of Colombia’s ruling Centro Democrático (CD) party openly attempted to interfere in the U.S. electoral process, thereby enabling the very people who falsely proclaimed the U.S. elections to be fraudulent and participated in the attempt to overthrow the U.S. Congress.
I presume that Colombia’s political calculation was as follows: Donald Trump would be very uncharitable toward Colombia if the country’s government did not attempt to intervene in his favor with a vital constituency in the 2020 campaign––Florida Latinos. To have failed to do so would have spelled all sorts of trouble for the Duque administration during a hypothetical second Trump term, including potential decertification, renegotiation of the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement, or a reduction in bilateral military cooperation. On the other hand, a Biden administration would consider the U.S.-Colombia partnership to be a vital component of its hemispheric strategy, and therefore, would be unlikely to jeopardize American interests in the region by retaliating against Colombia for minor peccadilloes committed by political figures acting in a semi-independent capacity. Therefore, for the Colombian government, the risk of intervention on Trump’s behalf was a worthy gamble.
This calculus backfired badly, however, when Trump––along with Republican members of Congress, such as Carlos Giménez (FL-26), who had been endorsed by Colombian politicians during the 2020 election––opposed the Congressional certification of the election results. Maria Elvira Salazar (FL-27), who was also supported by members of the CD, did not cast a vote in the Congressional certification process as she is recovering from COVID-19. Powerful figures of the Colombian ruling party, such as former President Álvaro Uribe Vélez, Senator Maria Fernanda Cabal, and Representative Juan David Vélez, have not recanted their support for Trump, Trumpism, or the members of the U.S. Congress whom they endorsed––members who, by their actions, lent credibility to the insurrectionists who stormed the Capitol on January 6.
The Duque administration is now embarking on a careful exercise in damage control that includes touting its commitment to democratic values, denouncing violent and illegal efforts to overthrow the U.S. government, and seeking to move forward with respect to shared strategic interests. However, turning the page will not be as simple as members of Congress are calling for accountability not just from Trump, but his enablers in Congress and other external forces.
As it did under Trump, the bilateral agenda under Biden will revolve around three programmatic areas: combating drug trafficking, trade, and regime change in Venezuela. There is also strong interest among Democrats to promote initiatives related to counteracting climate change, championing human rights, the implementation of the Colombian peace agreement, and the fight against political corruption in Colombia. These latter issues may end up provoking the most discomfort on the part of the Colombian government, as they run against the grain of some of the personal and political interests of powerful members of the ruling Centro Democrático party.
This is not to say that the U.S. and Colombia will have an adversarial relationship going forward; there is simply too much at stake for the two countries to eschew close collaboration on key strategic issues. However, in my opinion, there is no way that the Biden administration will interact favorably with a Colombian government that imposes few or no consequences on individuals who sought to interfere with the U.S. electoral process.
Op-eds touting shared values, common interests, and the reassertion of diplomatic ties between historic partners are beneficial, particularly at a time when the U.S. body politic is fragile. But it would be naïve for the Colombian government to expect not to be held accountable by the U.S. in the future, especially as some of the party leaders continue to show little or no remorse for their effective endorsement of insurrectionists. The efforts of President Duque and Ambassador Santos to implement damage control are likely to be unsuccessful unless they promptly address this state of affairs.
Sergio Guzmán is the Director of Colombia Risk Analysis, a political risk consulting firm based in Bogotá. Follow him on Twitter @SergioGuzmanE and @ColombiaRisk
All opinions and content are solely the opinion of the authors and do not represent the viewpoints of Global Americans.