There’s little mystery about what Philip Goldberg will bring once confirmed by the US Senate as new ambassador to Colombia: More of the same.
Goldberg fits perfectly with the aggressive foreign policy of National Security Adviser John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Most recently, that world view has included a defiant re-assertion of the two-century old Monroe Doctrine that puts the US as master in Latin America.
Goldberg, a 63-year old experienced diplomat, ably demonstrated his ability to ruffle local feathers on behalf of Washington when he was expelled as Ambassador to Bolivia in 2008. Bolivian President Evo Morales said Goldberg plotted against him during a time when the US was at odds with Morales’ left-wing policies.
Morales acted after Goldberg met with the governor of Santa Cruz, a wealthy province threatening to secede from Bolivia. Washington responded by expelling the Bolivian ambassador and the countries have been without ambassadors ever since.
Without any US cooperation, Bolivia’s coca cultivation dropped 20% in the decade that followed while that of Colombia nearly doubled.
Goldberg returned to Washington and continued his ascent toward the higher ranks of the State Department, including subsequent tours as ambassador to the Philippines and most recently heading the US office in Havana.
Ironically, Goldberg will be confronted with much the same issues he faced more than 15 years ago when stationed in Bogota as Coordinator of Plan Colombia. The twin goals of that project, launched under President Bill Clinton, were to shut down both Colombian cocaine exports and Colombian left-wing rebels who seemed close to overpowering the government.
Today, two decades of Plan Colombia and $11 billion in US military aid later, cocaine exports are higher than ever and political stability in Colombia is again seriously threatened. This time it’s a combination of recalcitrant leftist rebels, well-armed narco-traffickers and illegal gold miners, rambunctious farmers and indigenous peoples, and powerful right-wing landowners.
Goldberg will be tasked with ensuring that Colombian President Ivan Duque toes the US line on various policies despite his weakening political situation. He’ll try that even though some of Duque’s political weakness, such as the loss of centrist parties from his right-wing coalition, stems from his adhering to US-supported efforts to weaken the transitional justice component of the FARC peace treaty and to re-establish aerial spraying of coca fields with the controversial pesticide glyphosate.
That’s too important and too difficult a task for a diplomatic newbie.
“The Trump administration will have a conservative diplomat representing it in Colombia–but at least a diplomat. Not a super-hardline political appointee from MAGA-world,” Adam Isacson told the The Guardian. Isacson is director of defense oversight for a US think tank, the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA).
Under current Ambassador Kevin Whitaker, the Bolton/Pompeo world view has translated into a variety of policies which have met with some opposition in Colombia. These policies include:
–Fervent support for the US campaign to oust Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro. The US Embassy regularly retweets and echoes Bolton’s and Pompeo’s Venezuelan threats. It helps facilitate the US presence in Cucuta, the border city used as a base for anti-Maduro activities.
–Support for Duque’s controversial efforts to alter the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP in Spanish) and allowed the extradition of alleged war criminals. Whitaker went so far as to hold two secret breakfasts with members of Colombia’s Congress to urge their support for Duque, a tactic that backfired when angry legislators went public about the effort.
–Pressure on Duque to renew aerial spraying as a short-term tactic to reduce cocaine output. More generally, the US continues to focus narrowly on how much acreage is devoted to growing coca while ignoring the economic, political and social reforms necessary to support long-term conversion to legal crops.
By the time Goldberg takes office–several months from now at the earliest–some of these issues may have been cleared. But the thrust of the Bolton/Pompeo strategy will remain for Goldberg to handle in Bogota.