Pursuing Peace: Success in Colombia is an Opportunity for America

The United States must move beyond the priorities set by the initial Plan Colombia. Investing in regional peace and post-conflict capacity building will be more beneficial in the long term than further military aid.

By David Okun
Contributing Writer
23 December 2015

With the handshake seen ‘round the world, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) Commander Rodrigo Londoño moved closer to ending the Western Hemisphere’s longest running civil war. September’s breakthrough in the peace process related to the critical question of victims’ reparations and combatant punishments. These issues are considered the most intractable points for the negotiating parties. When news of the advancement broke, there was even talk of a Nobel Peace Prize for President Santos. A successful end to the Colombian conflict, which has left over 220,000 dead and six million displaced, will create an opportunity for the United States to welcome a friendly emerging power to the world stage.

After over five decades of fighting, Colombia’s internally displaced population is second only to Syria’s. The United States should jump at the chance to help end this conflict occurring so close to home. By helping end the violence, the United States will also be supporting the continued rise of a country amenable to its interests. Since 2000, the United States has given about $540 million each year to the state through the “Plan Colombia” aid program, but in recent years that amount has fallen. A disproportionate amount of this aid—close to $7 billion out of the $9.3 billion total—is earmarked for the Colombian military to support the War on Drugs. Indirectly, this sum also supports Colombia’s war against the FARC. Times have changed since President Clinton pushed the original Plan Colombia package through Congress; U.S. aid must change as well. Santos and Londoño’s proposed solutions to the conflict create a window of opportunity for the United States to finance peace over war. It is time to shift U.S. focus away from military support and coca eradication and towards peacemaking and regional capacity-building.

Secretary of State John Kerry called Colombia a “critical ally” in February when, at President Santos’s request, President Obama appointed career diplomat Bernard Aronson as Special Envoy to the Peace Process. Mr. Aronson assuaged fears that the United States would pursue a neo-colonialist policy in Colombia soon after his appointment, stating, “We have no blueprint made in Washington to offer.” This position, however, may be a mistake. While taking a backseat in the negotiations is appropriate, the Obama administration should be drumming up bipartisan support at home to reallocate Plan Colombia funds. When the conflict officially ends, the status quo aid distribution will no longer be appropriate for the reality on the ground. Colombia needs capital to build social and ex-combatant reintegration programs, not money for the artifacts of a war no longer being fought.

President Santos himself called for a revised Plan Colombia “that helps consolidate democracy in the conflict zones.” The Santos administration is seeking a partnership on economic affairs, and it shares a deep bilateral relationship with the United States that already extends beyond the drug war. The 2012 U.S.-Colombia Trade Promotion Agreement created a free trade area where more than 80 percent of U.S. exports are now tariff free. Yet when 18 percent of Colombia’s GDP is lost each year to fighting, free trade goals go unmet. This foregone productivity could benefit the United States through trade with a friendly South American neighbor.

Now in their fourth round, peace negotiations between the Colombian government and guerrilla forces are more promising than they have been in the past. While imperfect, the proposed accords advance U.S. interests in regional peace and stability. The multidimensional “dilemma between peace and justice,” as experts have termed it, cannot be allowed to derail the meaningful accomplishments negotiators have made so far. The international community can help ensure that this trade-off does not prevent the signing of a final agreement in March 2016. There are clear global benefits to finalizing a deal. While Colombia-NATO cooperation may be ruled out for now, the Santos administration’s willingness to contribute to international peacekeeping is unprecedented for a nation riled by its own conflict for the past 51 years. Colombia is becoming a more international actor. It has the potential to transform itself from an aid importer to a net exporter of global peace by contributing forces trained in unconventional tactics to UN efforts around the world. This would also bring concrete action to American diplomatic rhetoric. Having diverse coalition partners, especially in the Global South, bolsters Washington’s position abroad across a variety of foreign policy objectives.

The U.S. Congress must honor the Havana negotiators’ decision that aerial fumigation of illicit crops must stop. The United States has an opportunity to repurpose funds allocated to the fumigation programs and to invest it in social programs. Pivoting away from the billions spent on mostly military aid over the past fifteen years and restoring Plan Colombia funding to its early 2000 levels will be of more value in a post-conflict environment. Special Envoy Aronson should also live up to his promise and ensure that the United States is not an obstacle to the peace process. Yet cheering from the sidelines as Santos and Londoño sign off on peace is not enough. Long before the ink on a final accord is dry, the United States needs to actively welcome a post-conflict Colombia. This is essential if the U.S. government wants to support one of the strongest partners in the Western Hemisphere on multiple fronts—not just the battlefront.

David Okun, a Brazil Initiative and Wolcott Fellow at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs, is a candidate for the Master of Arts degree in Latin American & Hemispheric Studies and is undertaking capstone research on Colombia’s peace process and reintegration efforts.

Photo taken by the DEA Public Affairs and is licensed under CC-BY-2.5.

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