Domestic Politics and U.S.-Colombia Relations 

By Sebastian Bitar and Tom Long*

duque and pompeo

Secretary Pompeo and Colombia President Ivan Duque Marquez Visit the Migration Transition Assistance Center in Bogota. U.S. Department of State / U.S. Government Works

Colombian domestic politics and institutions have created obstacles for President Iván Duque during his first year in office, complicating efforts to meet demands from U.S. President Donald Trump and reestablish close bilateral cooperation with the United States. As the hand-picked successor of former President Álvaro Uribe, long Washington’s closest ally in Latin America, Duque was widely expected by many in the United States to fully align Colombia with U.S. priorities. Like his mentor, Duque criticized the Colombian peace process as prolonging drug trafficking, raising Washington’s hopes that he would aggressively confront a spike in coca production that started in 2016.

  • In September 2017, nine months before Duque’s election, Trump publicly threatened to “decertify” Colombia for inadequate cooperation on counternarcotics – almost unthinkable in the Plan Colombia era. Despite efforts, the new government has not delivered to Trump’s satisfaction. Opponents blocked resumption of aerial spraying of coca fields with glyphosate – an herbicide linked to cancer. The new transitional justice high court, known as JEP, refused U.S. requests to extradite a high-profile former guerrilla leader, “Jesús Santrich,” to face drug trafficking charges in the United States, reversing a decades-long tradition of requiring only a U.S. indictment with no judicial process in Colombia. The Trump administration retaliated by suspending the visas of some Colombian justices, provoking a domestic political backlash that has further hemmed in Duque.

The U.S. actions emerge from the inaccurate assumption that Colombian presidents can make foreign policy without regard for domestic opposition and institutions. Much U.S. scholarship and policy commentary on the Andean nation’s foreign policy is marked by a near-exclusive focus on the person of the president on the one hand, and on the role of the United States on the other. In our recent article, “Domestic Contestation and Presidential Prerogative in Colombian Foreign Policy,” we demonstrate the limits of these commonly held views of Colombian foreign policymaking. While U.S. pressure is indeed a heavy constraint and Colombian Presidents, constitutionally and institutionally, enjoy wide latitude in foreign policy, we show that Colombian foreign policy increasingly responds to domestic pressures.

  • The Constitutional Court has emerged as a surprising constraint even on very strong presidents’ foreign policies. In 2009-2010, it was mostly an afterthought for the powerful and popular Álvaro Uribe when he prioritized an expansion of the U.S. military presence in the country through the establishment of military bases – largely ignoring South American opposition. The court’s veto, along with strong public opposition, came as a surprise to the President. Its mandate to go through Congress risked political costs that Uribe’s successor, President Juan Manuel Santos, was unwilling to pay.
  • Colombian presidents have also adapted their foreign policies in the face of potential electoral and Congressional costs. In 2012, during the height of the “China boom,” Santos proposed free trade negotiations with China as a top priority, but manufacturing interest groups – including some of Santos’s close allies – turned the Congress against the President. Santos backed away and embraced a face-saving investment agreement. Perhaps more embarrassingly, when the International Court of Justice issued a ruling on a maritime dispute with Nicaragua that gave Colombia sovereignty over disputed islands but forced a compromise on territorial waters, Santos was faced with electoral political mobilization from his former patron, Uribe. Despite explicit promises to abide by the ruling, Santos revoked recognition of compulsory jurisdiction – long a cornerstone of Colombian diplomatic tradition.

While critiques that Plan Colombia (2001-15) was cooked up by the State Department without deep Colombian involvement are false, Colombian domestic politics were secondary to those of the U.S. Congress. An unpopular Colombian President, Andrés Pastrana, was able to sideline domestic opponents and affect the internationalization of the Colombian conflict – shaping the view of Presidential power over Colombian foreign policy. However, in many ways, that was both an outlier and a turning point.

  • Exaggerated presidentialism, linked to tropes of caudillos and strongmen presidents, can lead to one-dimensional analysis and unfulfillable policy expectations. While domestic dynamics are often considered when discussing U.S. foreign policy, they get little attention in the Latin American context. As the recent episodes above reflect, these domestic constraints have caught Colombian presidents themselves off guard, and the presidentialist assumption can lead U.S. policymakers to make demands that assume Colombian presidents are pliable in the face of U.S. pressure but omnipotent domestically. Contested presidentialism is here to stay. 

 

July 31, 2019

* Sebastian Bitar is Associate Professor in the School of Government at Universidad de los Andes. He is author of US Military Bases, Quasi-bases, and Domestic Politics in Latin America. Tom Long is Associate Professor at the University of Warwick and Affiliate Professor at CIDE, Mexico City. He is the author of Latin America Confronts the United States: Asymmetry and Influence. Their full article was published by the Bulletin of Latin American Research and was co-authored with Gabriel Jiménez-Peña.

 

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

Colombia Peace: The War System Yields to Peace

By Nazih Richani*

Colombia Peace Mural

Mural “Nostalgia” painted by the creative collective Deúniti at La Presidenta Park in Medellín, Colombia. Photo Credit: Deúniti, colectivo creativo / Flickr / Creative Commons

Amidst growing optimism at the prospects of achieving a peace agreement in Colombia after more than a half century of irregular warfare, predictions about whether the parties can reach an accord, and sustain it over the long term, should be informed by understanding the underlying logic that fueled the conflict and may now be bringing it to a close. Civil wars are complex social systems with peculiar properties, dynamics, and political economy.  Similar to other social systems, a war system—a set of violent interacting units—rests on a point of equilibrium, which can shift depending on the system’s inner dynamics and external stimuli.  The exponential growth in the 1990s of Colombia’s two main Marxist rebel groups—the Armed Revolutionary Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN)—prompted the emergence of right-wing paramilitaries, an instrument of the state’s counterinsurgency strategy.  An expansion of the radius of the war and surge in combat-related fatalities, massacres, land dispossession, and displacements followed.  The failure of peace talks between the FARC and the government of President Andrés Pastrana (1998-2002) indicated that the war system was largely unchanged despite the escalation.

The intervention of a new actor—the United States—disrupted the equilibrium of the war system.  Under “Plan Colombia,” Washington (committing about $10 billion) and Bogotá ($80-100 billion) modernized and restructured the Colombian armed forces.  This new phase in the war system marked a departure from the “comfortable stalemate” that characterized the conflict between 1964 and 2000.  New weapons, air power, tactical flexibility, and expanding mobile commando brigades with U.S. military and technical support, enabled the Colombian armed forces to put the FARC on the defensive.  It took the FARC leadership more than eight years to adjust, losing territory and, more importantly, three of its main leaders: Raul Reyes (2008), Mono Jojoy (2010), and Alfonso Cano (2011).  But the FARC’s “Plan Rebirth”—reverting from “mobile war of positions” to guerrilla warfare, creating more interdependent commando units, and using more snipers and mines—changed the balance anew.

The new equilibrium in the war system, in which the law of the diminishing returns of the war’s investment started kicking in, drove both sides to conclude that the time for peace was arriving.  Colombia’s ruling elites concluded that prosecuting the war would be too costly at a time that U.S. attention was shifting to other theaters and threats.  FARC commander Alfonso Cano, months before his targeted killing, communicated the intention of his movement to seek a negotiated settlement as well.  The cost of continued war had become too great for both sides, and external factors—the death of President Hugo Chávez in Venezuela and the changing Andean regional political environment—were also factors.  FARC became convinced that trading bullets for ballots could help in achieving the remaining objectives of its armed rebellion.  As the two sides continue to make progress in peace talks in Havana, outsiders who want the accords to succeed would do well to remember that disruptions to the war system equilibrium could easily threaten both sides’ commitment to signing and implementing a final deal.

January 11, 2016

Nazih Richani is an Associate Professor of Political Science and Director of Latin American Studies at Kean University.  In 2014 the State University of New York Press  published a revised and updated version of his 2002 study entitled Systems of Violence: The Political Economy of War and Peace in Colombia.

Secretary-designate Kerry Hews to Old Line on Latin America

Photo by: cliff1066™ | Flickr | Creative Commons

Photo by: cliff1066™ | Flickr | Creative Commons

Senator John Kerry’s confirmation hearing to be Secretary of State focused overwhelmingly on Syria, Iran, and Libya, but there were glimpses of the nominee’s approach – at least for now – to Latin America.  His almost-certain successor as Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC), Democrat Bob Menendez of New Jersey, sees Latin America through a distinctly Cuban-American optic and asked Kerry predictably leading questions about the region.  Menendez asked Kerry how he would respond to change in the Western Hemisphere, highlighting “changing political tides,” potential transition in Venezuela, public security in Mexico and Colombia’s talks with the FARC.

Kerry’s responses did not challenge the premises of Menendez’s questions and stuck closely to recent U.S. policies.  He offered neither details nor hints of change.  Reflecting the State Department’s emphasis on a programmatic approach to the region, he highlighted security cooperation with Mexico and Central America, unspecified energy and climate initiatives with Brazil, and development assistance to Honduras and Guatemala.  Kerry praised former president Álvaro Uribe, under whose aegis most of the $8 billion in Plan Colombia funds were spent, for helping make Colombia “one of the great stories in Latin America.”  He termed Venezuela and its allies as “outlier states” and said U.S. policy should “induce people to make a better set of choices.”  When Arizona Republican Jeff Flake expressed support for a broader opening on Cuba travel, arguing that unleashing hordes of American students on spring break would pose a greater challenge to the Castro brothers than continued restrictions, Kerry smiled but remained quiet. Later, Menendez lashed back and turned the focus to Cuba’s human rights record.

As expected, Kerry did not advocate any major shifts or offer new ideas on U.S. policy toward Latin America – obviously preferring to avoid confrontation with Menendez and Republican Cuban-American Marco Rubio.  Kerry’s strategy was to ruffle no feathers.  His remarks about President Uribe, for example, appeared intended to assuage right-wingers unhappy with his focus as Chairman on the Colombian President’s dismal human rights record and lack of accountability for a host of abuses of power.  Likewise, agreeing with Menendez that President Chávez was a problem was thin gruel; eagerly awaiting the Venezuelan’s demise does little to address the shortcomings of U.S. leadership in the hemisphere.  

Latin America-watchers know well that Kerry and President Obama will be more focused on other regions, leaving space for the SFRC conservatives to weigh more heavily on Latin American policy than they already do.  Despite the Cuban-American community’s obvious shifts away from most elements of the right wing’s Cuba policy, Menendez and Rubio have already declared they will block any efforts toward better relations with Cuba even on a people-to-people level.  By extension, they will oppose any outreach to Venezuela before they believe regime change has occurred.  Nor did Kerry offer any departures from the U.S. war on drugs.  Stagnation on these two policies puts the United States on a collision course with even close friends in the region, who have said they will not participate in hemispheric conferences that continue to exclude Cuba and that advocate a more candid conversation about the failure of the “war on drugs.”  This approach risks continuing to undermine U.S. relevance and influence in the region.