U.S.-Colombia: Launching “Peace Colombia”

By Eric Hershberg and Fulton Armstrong

Kerry Santos

Photo Credit: U.S. Department of State / Flickr / Public Domain

The United States, buoyed by good feelings about what President Obama called Colombia’s “remarkable transformation,” last week pledged $450 million a year in continued aid for the next five years, but it’s not clear yet whether “Peace Colombia” will be very different from Plan Colombia, to which the United States contributed some $10 billion.  The new spending includes unspecified amounts to support the reintegration of FARC combatants who lay down their arms as part of a peace accord expected next month, but much of the emphasis appears to be on old priorities, such as “consolidating and expanding progress in security and counternarcotics.”

  • Obama and Colombian President Santos announced the new program in Washington events marking the 15th anniversary of the launch of Plan Colombia. Amid the many remarks about Colombia’s progress, indicators such as homicide rates (down 50 percent since 2002), kidnapping rates (down 90 percent), economic growth (averaging 4.3 percent), and poverty and unemployment (down slightly) stand out.  By most accounts, moving around core regions of Colombia is easier and safer than it’s been in decades.

Some of these gains of the past 15 years remain tenuous, and “Peace Colombia” will face new challenges as well.  In speeches and backgrounders, government officials have acknowledged that coca eradication and crop substitution programs have failed to reverse Colombia’s role as the world’s biggest producer of coca.  Moreover, programs supporting the demobilization of the FARC will be more difficult to implement than those given to the rightwing paramilitaries in 2002-2006.  Tens of thousands of former paramilitaries are now active in bandas criminales (BACRIMs), which President Santos recently referred to as “2,500 miniscule criminal organizations scattered throughout the country.”  Changing economic circumstances could also complicate efforts to advance peace.  During the years of Plan Colombia, the country got a healthy bump from both domestic and foreign investment – because of the improved security environment as well as the external economic environment, including the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement and Chinese demand for commodities.  Investment remains strong, but the export boom is over, which is lowering growth and squeezing government budgets.

The creation of economic opportunity is at least as important to the success of Peace Colombia as continued support for the Colombian military and security system, although last week’s speeches and press releases did not shed much light on that.  Achieving peace and building democracy will also require addressing infrastructure deficits, educational inequality, inadequate job training, and poverty.  Several Florida congressmen, arguing that “Peace Colombia” supports an accord that’s overly generous to the FARC, say they’ll oppose Obama’s pledged aid.  The assistance will almost certainly advance, however, because of the strong Washington consensus that Colombia is its biggest (if not only) success worldwide in beating back irregular armed groups.  Moreover, as President Santos and U.S. Secretary of State Kerry emphasized in a press conference, there are no conditions on the new assistance – which should assuage Congressional opponents’ concerns that the relationship will get held up by investigations into alleged human rights violations in the past.  The Presidents spoke of pulling Colombia back from the “verge of collapse” in the 2000s to the “verge of peace” now.  A broadening of strategies in both capitals, including a reassessment of the emphasis on military options, could push the country toward becoming a more inclusive democracy, which ultimately may be what is required in order to achieve lasting peace.

February 8, 2016

U.S.-Cuba: What Now?

Diego Cambiaso and Y. Becart / Flickr / Creative Commons

Diego Cambiaso and Y. Becart / Flickr / Creative Commons

CLALS and the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) convened a small group of Cuba experts to discuss the course that U.S.-Cuba relations could take now that Presidents Obama and Castro have decided to reestablish diplomatic relations.  A two-page summary of conclusions – not coordinated with workshop participants – and “wildcards” that would alter events can be found here.  Here are highlights:

  • The two presidents are committed to using their remaining time in office – Obama until January 2017 and Castro until February 2018 – to burnish their legacies as leaders who solved an historic impasse.
  • The timelines for full normalization of ties between the two countries – including political, economic and social relations – certainly will go beyond their terms in office, and the process will take time and energy beyond their offices and governments.
  • The Summit of the Americas in April can be a crowning jewel to both Presidents’ efforts if issues such as civil society representation at the event can be resolved. The timing of the Summit will hold the White House’s attention for this period.
  • Greater emphasis by the Obama administration on the tangible benefits to the U.S. made possible by steps toward normalization would serve it well, including formalization and expansion of bilateral cooperation in counternarcotics, counterterrorism, and environmental and health issues. The criteria for policy success should consist of benefits to the American people, rather than “helping” Cubans or facilitating “regime change” in Cuba, as the Castro government will (as any government would) remain firm that its political system is not negotiable.
  • The potential for trade will be strong enough to persuade U.S. business to press for the broadest possible implementation of the new measures and, if the Cubans can articulate a clear strategy to attract (and protect) investments, for embargo-loosening legislation in Congress.
  • Potential obstacles require attention, but none appears insurmountable. Provocateurs in both countries could undertake actions intended to torpedo the normalization process.  In addition, the Washington’s “democracy promotion” programs for Cuba – which are unlike any others around the world – will certainly strengthen hardliners in Havana arguing for a go-slow engagement with the U.S.  With the stroke of a pen, President Obama could suspend the Bush-era program to persuade Cuban doctors to defect to the United States, a policy that hinders bilateral medical cooperation and threatens to sour talks.
  • Hardliners in the U.S. Congress will continue to be rhetorically opposed to improved relations – because they oppose Cuba or Obama – but the Obama policy has plenty of running room before needing legislation to advance.
  • Cuba may have limited capacity to effectively manage the various processes of change in the bilateral relationship. This may slow down the process and dictate the need to proceed sequentially rather than along many fronts at once.
  • Several “wildcards” – including leadership changes – could impact the normalization process.

February 11, 2015

Will Washington’s Attention to Latin America Last?

By Fulton Armstrong

Photo Credit: Prensa Presidencial Venezuela

Vice President Biden meets with Venezuelan President Maduro / Photo Credit: Prensa Presidencial Venezuela

U.S. President Obama, Vice President Biden, and Secretary of State Kerry gave Latin America increased priority in 2014, including at least two efforts to open channels to countries previously off their calling lists.  Issues combining domestic politics and foreign policy– such as immigration, Cuba, and drug policy – saw noteworthy breakthroughs.

  • President Obama’s highest profile action was his announcement in December that the United States and Cuba would normalize relations. He said he would travel to Panama in April for the Summit of the Americas – the venue of his pledge to seek a “new beginning” with Cuba in 2009 and his isolation over the Cuba issue in 2012.  Last May, his trip to Mexico and Costa Rica, where he met with Central American presidents, signaled a shift on counternarcotics strategy – downplaying militarized efforts – in response to the region’s concerns about surging violence.  His November announcement of executive measures on immigration, offering temporary legal status to millions of undocumented migrants, also steeped him in Latin America policy.
  • Vice President Biden greatly expanded his Latin America portfolio, at times as stand-in for Obama but also putting a deep imprint on policy. On an extended trip in June, he met with heads of state during the World Cup and attended a summit in Central America.  In November he participated in a followup meeting with the Honduran, Salvadoran, and Guatemalan Presidents hosted by the Inter-American Development Bank, where he announced U.S. measures to prevent another crisis involving migrant children as was seen last summer.  He met with and telephoned Latin American Presidents more than a dozen times over the year and, on the margins of Brazilian President Rousseff’s reinauguration last week, even met with Venezuelan President Maduro, with whom he agreed that it was time to restore ties.
  • Secretary Kerry traveled to the region several times – to Mexico, Panama, Peru, and Colombia – and met with Latin American Presidents and foreign ministers in Washington. Some critics judged his broad policy speeches as unexciting, but he clearly has confidence in his Latin America team, and sources say his support for the President’s initiative on Cuba was strong.

We Latin America watchers in Washington tend to complain that our region doesn’t get enough attention, but it’s clear that the Administration’s level of engagement in 2014 was deeper and more sustained than in years past.  Senior advisors at the National Security Council, Vice President’s office, and State Department – Ricardo Zúñiga, Juan González, and Assistant Secretary Roberta Jacobson, respectively – got their bosses’ to act despite the many competing demands in other regions occupying the front pages of U.S. newspapers.  Several ongoing processes promise continued senior-level attention in at least the first half of the new year.  The normalization process with Cuba could entail a visit there by Secretary Kerry, and preparations for the Summit of the Americas in Panama in April afford opportunities to give momentum to U.S. engagement – in addition to rebuilding U.S. credibility in the Summit process lost at the Summit in Cartagena in 2012.  Continued political crisis in Venezuela, nose-diving oil prices, progress in the Colombian peace talks, and the ever-evolving drug threat suggest 2015 will also be a challenging year.  For now at least, Washington’s senior team is engaged.

January 7, 2015

U.S. Southern Command: Diminished Resources Affect Mission

By CLALS Staff 

General John F. Kelly Photo credit: Secretary of Defense / Foter / CC BY

General John F. Kelly
Photo credit: Secretary of Defense / Foter / CC BY

In an annual posture statement to Congress and a press conference, SouthCom Commander John Kelly played up the successes of his command’s counternarcotics mission – particularly its “engagements” throughout Latin America – but emphasized that his effectiveness is threatened by budget cuts.  The General said that cooperation with Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, and others was “very, very valuable,” and he boasted that the United States has trained over 5,000 Mexican soldiers over the past year.  But he warned that “severe budget constraints” are limiting the Command’s ability to build on the progress.  On Capitol Hill, he said, “Let me be frank: reduced engagement risks the deterioration of U.S. leadership and influence in Central America, South America, and the Caribbean.”

Kelly had lots of praise for individual counternarcotics operations – specifically Colombia’s “unbelievable heroic efforts” with crop eradication and attacks on processing labs – and cited the effectiveness of his Command’s drug interdiction programs (capturing about 132 tons of cocaine in 2013) despite funding cutbacks.  But the General reported that his Command failed to intercept 80 percent of the drugs flowing out of Colombia and about 74 percent of all maritime flows.  Despite his praise for Colombia, his statements confirmed that it is still a major producer (reportedly third, after Peru and Bolivia) and the major exporter of cocaine to the United States.  SouthCom estimates that the cocaine industry is still worth $85 billion a year and has “franchises” in 1,200 U.S. cities.  Kelly also reported that heroin consumption in the United States is up 65 to 80 percent in the last several years – “and it all comes up through Latin America.”  He said that SouthCom has been directed to reduce the amount of drugs reaching the United States from Latin America by at least 40 percent – a goal he said he cannot achieve because of cutbacks.

Policymakers and program-managers always face a balancing act when speaking in Washington.  They understandably tout their successes; cite resource constraints as the reason for failure to attain mission objectives; and make a pitch for resources.  SouthCom, having a budget that dwarfs that of any other agency, traditionally has been primus inter pares in Latin America, but Kelly portrayed his Command as merely one of many in the U.S. interagency.  His praise of Colombia as a “regional security exporter” also hints at the unwillingness or inability of the Command to continue its investment in such operations.  When the best-funded U.S. agency operating in Latin America projects itself in this fashion, admitting that the vast majority of illegal narcotics still reach U.S. territory, it’s natural for U.S. taxpayers to wonder what they are getting for their many millions of dollars.  If the Obama administration cannot make a better case, U.S. counternarcotics policy would appear to lack direction and, absent a systematic review, will continue essentially on autopilot.

U.S.-Guatemala Relations: What Is Going On?

By Ricardo Barrientos*

U.S. Assistant Secretary Brownfield and Guatemalan President Pérez Molina Photo credit: US Embassy Guatemala / Flickr / CC BY-NC-ND

U.S. Assistant Secretary Brownfield and Guatemalan President Pérez Molina
Photo credit: US Embassy Guatemala / Flickr / CC BY-NC-ND

Actions by the U.S. Congress, the U.S. Embassy in Guatemala, and the State Department have fueled speculation that something is askew in relations between Washington and Guatemala.  In January, the U.S. Congress passed the Consolidated Appropriations Act for 2014, with unusually severe measures for Guatemala.  Congress ordered the Treasury Department to direct its executive directors at the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank (Guatemala’s two main multilateral lenders), to support the reparations plan for damages suffered by communities during construction of the Chixoy Hydroelectric Dam in 1976-1983.  The project, funded by the two banks, resulted in numerous human rights violations, including the displacement of local communities, mostly of Maya Achi ethnicity, and the death of thousands in the Río Negro massacres perpetrated by the Guatemalan armed forces.  Additionally, the U.S. law conditioned U.S. assistance for the Guatemalan armed forces on credible advances in the Chixoy issue as well as the resolution of adoption cases involving Guatemalan children and U.S. adoptive parents since the end of 2007.

President Pérez Molina, a former army general, and his vice-president reacted with inflamed nationalistic rhetoric – just to be eclipsed by more U.S. actions.  After the Guatemalan Constitutional Court ruled that internationally acclaimed Attorney General Claudia Paz y Paz – a key actor in bringing to trial former Guatemalan Army General Ríos Montt on genocide charges – must step down in May (and not in December, as Paz y Paz supporters claim is the correct interpretation of the law), the U.S. Ambassador made a public statement supporting her.  A few days later, the U.S. Assistant Secretary for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement William Brownfield visited Guatemala, reiterating U.S. support to Paz y Paz and formalizing a $4.8 million donation supporting the UN International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG).  This further angered rightwing and pro-army sectors, dedicated detractors of both Paz y Paz and CICIG.  Brownfield tempered his message with praise for the “sensational” U.S.-Guatemala collaboration in counternarcotics.

These recent actions come from a combination of U.S. policy “hawks” and “doves” operating simultaneously.  U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy and his staff have the reputation in Guatemala as Capitol Hill hawks on human rights throughout Latin America, and acted accordingly by fostering the harsh legislative provisions for Guatemala.  U.S. Ambassador Chacón acted like a resident hawk, directly supporting Paz y Paz and praising her as a proven ally on the drugs issue.  Then, Mr. Brownfield, playing the role of the visiting dove balancing the harshness of the previous two actions, gave the badly needed financial aid to CICIG and supported Paz y Paz, consistent with his drug cooperation portfolio.  Guatemala’s role as a transit point for drug traffickers gives it leverage in the bilateral relationship, but that’s not enough.  Regional or global perspectives are important too: Guatemala recently completed its rotation on the UN Security Council, and the preliminary results of the elections in El Salvador and Costa Rica show that the region will continue under the influence of leftwing or left-leaning governments.  After Mr. Brownfield’s public statements, tension has eased and the angry rhetoric calmed down, but the chapter has not ended.  The bottom line is that Guatemala received an emphatic message: it must keep aligned with what the U.S. wants.  The problem for decisionmakers in the region is that it is not always clear what the U.S. wants.

*Ricardo Barrientos is a senior economist at the Central American Institute for Fiscal Studies (Icefi).

Is Obama Declaring “Mission Accomplished” on Drugs?

By Kevin Gatter

Photo Credit: Ministerio de Seguridad Argentina / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND

Photo Credit: Ministerio de Seguridad Argentina / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND

The Obama Administration is claiming major progress in the war on drugs, but the evidence is subject to challenge – and the good news surely hasn’t reached Latin America yet.  On July 9, the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) released an annual report that asserted a significant decline in the U.S. cocaine market, with sizable decreases in both the number of deaths caused by cocaine overdose and the rate of people testing positive for cocaine in the workplace.  It also suggests that potential pure cocaine production capacity in the Andes has fallen by approximately 41 percent since 2001, including 10 percent last year alone.  The report credits this decrease to numerous factors, including U.S.-Colombia partnership, “strengthened democratic institutions,” an increased commitment to counternarcotics cooperation and citizen security in Peru, alternative development, enhanced law enforcement efforts, and focused and persistent education about drug abuse.

Other experts say the picture may not be as rosy.  The UNODC has yet to find what it considers accurate data on coca cultivation since 2011 and, importantly, asserts that declines in past years were offset by an increase in efficiency in the manufacturing chain from coca bush to cocaine hydrochloride.  Additionally, the UNODC estimates that while the estimated total area of coca cultivation in 2011 was only three-quarters of the level in 1990, the quantity of cocaine manufactured in 2011 was at least as high as in 1990.  In any event, it is important to recognize that even if the U.S. is consuming less cocaine, demand for other drugs remains high.  Some analysts speculate that the U.S. market is moving away from Andean cocaine and toward marijuana and methamphetamines from Mexico.  Furthermore, some experts say that growing cocaine demand in Europe and elsewhere is driving prices up and reducing U.S. consumption.

ONDCP’s report has a self-congratulatory tone that – combined with Obama’s clear de-emphasis of counternarcotics at his Central American Summit in San José in May – suggests eagerness to declare victory in a 40-year war against a scourge that continues to have dire implications for every country touched by the drug trade, especially those in Central America and Mexico.  The data are extremely difficult to corroborate.  Cultivation estimates, based on satellite studies of a sampling of possible growing areas, have been notoriously suspect, and the UNODC’s concerns about ignorance of leaf-to-cocaine yield are valid.  Many of the flow estimates are based on interdictions, but U.S. agencies have openly acknowledged that interdiction operations have been significantly reduced for budgetary reasons.  A drug flow that Washington doesn’t detect is not a drug flow that has disappeared.  Moreover, the National Survey on Drug Use and Health is based on self-reporting in interviews and omits significant populations, including the homeless and incarcerated. Policy makers around the hemisphere surely hope that ONDCP’s triumphalism is warranted, but the key indicators of success will be a decline in drug-related violence, a weakening of transnational criminal groups, an end to the southbound flow of arms from the United States, the flourishing of alternative economic options for coca farmers, and reversal a pervasive popular suspicion that governments and security agencies have been corrupted by the billions of drug dollars flowing through the region.

U.S.-Honduras Counternarcotics Cooperation Stumbles

DEA Helicopter | by Andrew W. Sieber (Drewski2112) | Flickr | Creative Commons

Four months after the launch of Operación Anvil, a joint U.S.-Honduran counternarcotics effort, cooperation has stumbled.  Early in September, the United States suspended the sharing of intelligence – publicly characterized as mostly based on radar tracks – after the Honduran Air Force in July shot down two civilian aircraft suspected of trafficking drugs.  Citing the incident as a breach of a bilateral agreement that prohibits firing on civilian aircraft, State Department officials said they are reviewing procedures regarding cooperation.

The shootdowns were not the first controversial incident to raise doubts about the cooperation.  In May, a U.S.-Honduras counternarcotics operation in northeastern Honduras, during which at least one small boat was strafed, left four people dead and at least five injured.  While the raid targeted suspected drug traffickers in the vicinity, various reports have suggested that the victims were innocent locals or, at most, were spotters for traffickers.  Rather than undertake its own investigation, the U.S. Embassy in Honduras reportedly has deferred to a preliminary investigation by the Honduran authorities that showed no wrongdoing in the incident.  American and Honduran officials insist no American fired a weapon during the raid, but details of how the Honduran forces they were advising carried out the operation remain elusive.

The U.S. approach to counternarcotics in Honduras – like that in Colombia and Mexico – emphasizes military-style operations driven by U.S. intelligence tips.  In addition to sharing intelligence, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and other U.S. entities provide training, equipment and on-site operational guidance to Honduran security units.  While the jury is out on whether this strategy has been worth the cost in human lives (60,000 in Mexico) and dollars (more than $7 billion in U.S. aid alone in Colombia), the case has not been made that it will work in a country plagued by weak institutions and corruption like Honduras.  Holding Honduran officials accountable and creating the vetted units upon which these military-style operations depend will be difficult in a small, desperately poor country in which the narco-dollar buys much more than U.S. aid channeled through officials in whom few have any confidence.  Efforts to create vetted units capable of operating securely (and without abuses of authority) have failed in the past because of unseen and unsolved links between the state officials and the narcos.  The Honduran people – still suffering from political violence born of the coup of June 2009 – have legitimate fear of a massive surge in drug violence.   The U.S. government, ever optimistic about the renewal of cooperation, has asked that Honduras put in place remedial measures to prevent future incidents.  President Lobo of Honduras has since replaced his Air Force commander, but the question remains whether Tegucigalpa can – and should – become a cornerstone of U.S. antidrug strategies.