The Colombian government will need to rely heavily on US funding to implement its peace process with the Armed Revolutionary Forces of Colombia guerilla. The administration’s “America First” mandate might just trump the desire to give aid to a foreign country.
President Donald Trump’s first month in office has already brought turmoil to his country, to Mexican politics, and to thousands of nationals from the seven Muslim-majority countries impacted by his travel ban. This hardly seems to be the end of his disruptive policies.
Many in Colombia, for long the closest ally to the United States in Latin America, fear that the American administration might negatively impact the country’s most important policy in decades: the implementation of its peace process with left-wing guerrillas.
In his inaugural speech on January 20, Trump set the theme of his presidency with the slogan “America First.” That day, his staff also said that the United States will spend less money overseas, though, as usual, there were no specifics. Regardless, his speech, the statements from his staffers, and his recent announcement of a planned increase to the military budget prompted some analysts to speculate that there will be a cut to the budget for foreign aid.
A potential budget cut is a stark contrast to the previous U.S. administration, at least with regards to Colombia. The help of the Obama administration was key in finalizing a peace deal with the Armed Revolutionary Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrilla last year, especially that of his Special Envoy for the Colombian Peace Process Bernie Aronson. Obama also proposed an aid plan, called “Paz Colombia” worth 450 million dollars, to help the implementation effort.
Both the U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives approved the plan, but the final budget for 2017 has not been reconciled by both chambers, and the money remains in limbo. The first six months of the peace process implementation are secured via funds from the United Nations and the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC). But the Colombia is counting on U.S. money and cooperation to continue the transition beyond that.
Peace doesn’t come cheap
The total cost of the post-conflict effort — which includes paying for the expenses of international observers, setting up special tribunals and truth commissions, transportation of guerrillas to demobilisation zones and their maintenance, programs to help former combatants reintegrate to civilian life and to ensure their safety, as well as funding the new political parties that will be created, programs to eradicate and replace illegal crops, removing landmines from the country, and for victims of the Colombian conflict — is much higher, calculated at somewhere between 10 and 30 billion dollars.
The government of President Juan Manuel Santos is expecting to cover most of it with the economic benefits of a country at peace: infrastructure building, new foreign investment, more efficient commerce, and so on. But Colombia is recovering from a three-year recession which prompted the government to increase taxes at the end of last year, and any injection to the initial budget of the peace process implementation is crucial. Losing the U.S. aid might mean that the peace effort is delayed and that it loses international validation.
Does the political will to help Colombia still exist?
Adam Isacson, the Senior Associate for Defense Oversight at WOLA (the Washington Office for Latin America), says that it would be “impossible and even irresponsible” to predict what the Trump’s administration approach to Colombia will be. He added that we cannot know what kind of policies will be implemented, but he points out there is cause for worry.
Isacson says that Trump has not shown himself to be a fan of complex political solutions — like the peace process is — , and has opposed agreements with political foes, as was seen in his opposition to the Iranian nuclear deal. Isacson also points out that Trump himself did not mention Colombia during his campaign or as President, and that the Republican platform for 2016 said that the “sacrifice and suffering [of the Colombian people] must not be betrayed by the accession to power of murderers and drug lords.” This might mean a complete change in direction for policy regarding Colombia.
Back in September, President Santos said that then-candidate Hillary Clinton would be better for the peace process than Trump, and also offered his opinion on her rival: “I don’t know Trump, and Trump’s policies aren’t very in sync with what Colombia wants from the United States and what Colombia has sought from the entire world: free trade, immigration policies that are suitable for every country.”
Santos called Mike Pence and Donald Trump in February. On both calls, according to both the Colombian government and the White House, the US leaders reiterated their commitment to continue their bilateral relationship and to support the Colombian peace deal.
However, the Colombian government has been cautious, but is more optimistic for now. The Minister of Defense, Luis Carlos Villegas, said he was expecting “drastic changes in the rules of the game” in the relationship with the United States. He also thought that U.S. institutions give its president a “limited margin of manoeuvre,” which means change is not immediate.
This might be a too hopeful approach at a time when Gen. John Kelly, the Secretary of Homeland Security, confessed he only found about the travel ban executive order from TV, despite his department being directly involved in its application.
The only public mention of Colombia from Trump’s cabinet came from Gen. Kelly who said: “Colombia is the United States’ best friend in the region” during his confirmation hearing.
Isacson points out that Kelly is good friends with the Colombian ambassador to the United States, Juan Carlos Pinzón, and that even though he will not be working at a position that directly impacts Colombia, he could put in a good word for helping the peace process.
The unpredictability of Trump, and the proximity of the upcoming Colombian elections, mean that Santos must act fast if he wants to secure this money. These funds were a sure thing a few months ago, but the context has drastically changed.
In a written statement addressing questions from the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, ExxonMobile former CEO and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said, before his appointment, that he would “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.”
That was the first time anyone in the U.S administration has brought into question the delivery of the promised aid.
This would be a dramatic shift in the U.S.-Colombia relationship. The United States is the largest importer of Colombian goods, as well as the main source of foreign aid for Colombia. Last year, during the 15th anniversary of Plan Colombia — a military and financial aid plan, praised as much of as it was criticized, and designed to fight the war on drugs and Colombian rebels — , WOLA reported that the U.S. had sent Colombia $9.94 billion for this program alone. And the U.S. Congress, even most Republicans, have supported the Colombian peace process.
Elections in Colombia may further complicate the peace process
Meanwhile, the Colombian government has its own troubles. The implementation of demobilization zones for FARC fighters has run behind schedule, and the public phase of the peace process with the National Liberation Army (ELN) guerrilla — now the largest illegally armed group in the country — is in peril, after the ELN exploded a bomb in downtown Bogotá, killing a police officer.
Colombia is still marching ahead with its plans, but a policy reversal from the U.S. could be devastating for them and for Santos’ political allies. Candidates are already lining up for the presidential elections of 2018, and it is likely that Trump would prefer to deal with the party of former president Álvaro Uribe (another strongman, and the main antagonist of the peace process in the country) than with the diplomacy of a Santos successor.
It is clear that Colombia is not a regional priority for the Trump administration, as it was for Obama’s, so the approval of the aid funds to the Colombian post-conflict could skip under his radar. Yet, it is also possible that the Republicans that have been more vocal in opposing the peace deal — namely the Cuban-American Congress members Marco Rubio, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Mario Díaz-Balart — could convince Trump to slashing the funds would make him look tough on national security, as the FARC still appear in the United States’ list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations.
In any case, the Colombian government has already committed to go ahead with a lengthy, complex, and unpopular plan for disarming the FARC, so it must find the funds somewhere and get more international support to shield it from a potential adverse candidate winning the presidency next year.