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.