When Vice President Mike Pence arrives in Colombia next week, he will find a country no longer celebrating its widely touted success story of rising from a near-failed state under the thumb of narco-terrorists to a secure, confident, and vibrant democracy. Instead, he will find a nation unnerved by a controversial peace process initiated by an unpopular president and dispirited about its future ahead of elections next year.
Moreover, storm clouds are brewing on the U.S.-Colombia bilateral front, a prospect unthinkable in recent years. But that is where we are, thanks to the Obama administration’s meek acquiescence to President Juan Manuel Santos’s decision to change Colombia’s long-standing coca eradication policies, with disastrous results.
It has been five years since President Santos surprised both Colombians and the international community by announcing his intention to enter peace negotiations with the narco-terrorist group FARC, whose five-decade war against the Colombian state resulted in some 260,000 deaths of Colombian citizens, with seven million displaced and another 60,000 unaccounted for.
After four controversial years of negotiations held in Cuba, an agreement was struck in September 2016. Colombians initially rejected the peace plan as too lenient to the FARC in an October 2016 plebiscite, only to see Santos make some modifications and then reroute it through Congress, where his party dominates. It passed unanimously after opponents boycotted the vote in protest of the maneuver.
Colombia may be now at peace on paper, but the process continues to be burdened by the lack of a political consensus, an untrustworthy partner in the FARC, continued organized criminality and violence, and a politically weak, lame duck president.
But it is just not the peace agreement that has unnerved the Colombian people. All Colombians, of course, want peace, but they don’t have confidence the Santos government is on the right track. Beyond that, many believe that President Santos — who has seen his approval rating drop as low as 18 percent in recent days — has invested too much time and effort into the peace process at the expense of other problems dogging Colombian society.
There is a growing sense of fatigue and frustration from Colombians about their stagnant economy and traditional political parties. A recent poll found that the top three issues Colombians want the next president to address are by far healthcare, education, and unemployment. Indeed, the government’s lack of attention and progress on these issues is clearly reflected in polling: 90 percent disapprove of the way Santos has handled unemployment, while 74 percent disapprove of his education policies and 85 percent disapprove of his handling of healthcare.
Their pessimism was reflected in another shocking recent poll showing that more than 50 percent of Colombians fear that the country is at risk of turning into Venezuela at some point in the future.
This is all backdrop to what truly should be the concern of U.S. policymakers. As Latin America’s fourth-largest economy and the largest recipient of U.S. assistance, what happens in Colombia matters to the United States. Since 2000, successive U.S. administrations have provided more than $10 billion in aid to Colombia to combat drugs and drug-related violence.
But Santos’s decision to end U.S.-supported aerial fumigation of coca fields — seen as a concession to the FARC to spur the peace process — has boomeranged badly. The result has been a 200 percent increase in cocaine production over the past three years, most of it destined for the United States.
In his May 2017 meeting with Santos, President Donald Trump affirmed his willingness to continue to assist Colombia’s counter-narcotics efforts, but noted his “high alarm” about record highs in coca cultivation and cocaine production. Assistant Secretary of State for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs Bill Brownfield, a former ambassador to Colombia, recently said, “If we don’t reach an acceptable solution for both countries reasonably soon, we’re going to see bilateral political problems and this is what I want to avoid.”
Vice President Pence’s mission to Bogotá likely will be focused on finding just such a solution. With so much treasure invested in Colombia by the United States over the past 17 years, the U.S. objective now must be to not allow the peace agreement with the FARC to undermine long-standing U.S. counter-narcotics efforts in Colombia. Not only will it serve U.S. interests, but it will maintain common cause with millions of Colombians who similarly don’t want their hard-fought-for gains of the past decade-and-a-half to be lost.