No new US president will mess with Plan Colombia’s ‘success’

No candidate in the US presidential election race is planning to change much about US foreign policy in regards to Colombia. All are likely to continue the line of current President Barack Obama.

Twelve weeks ago, Obama stood in the White House East Room next to Colombian Pres. Juan Manuel Santos and turned the page on US-Colombian history.

“After fifteen years of sacrifice and determination, a tipping point has been reached,” Obama said. Plan Colombia was a success, he declared. It would wind down by the end of the fiscal year in September.

Then Obama wrote the opening lines of what he called “the next chapter of our partnership.” He and Santos named it “Peace Colombia,” and Obama asked Congress for $450 million to get it going.

These opening lines are all Obama can write. His successor will decide how the story continues.

The candidates to succeed Obama span an enormous range of political philosophies—from Bernie Sanders farther to the left than seen in a long time; to Ted Cruz farther to the right than seen in a long time; and to Donald Trump farther away in some previously unknown direction.

But with all those differences, when it comes to writing the plot for the rest of the Peace Colombia chapter, they’re going to stick pretty much to the same old script.

Both parties in Washington see Colombia as an emerging global success story they want some credit for. It’s a welcome contrast with the perceived failures of US foreign policy in so many other places. No one wants to see this success story explode.

The US spent heavily on Colombia since 2000, with both Republican and Democratic Presidents and Congresses. And the investment in Colombia isn’t just in cash.

There is institutional investment of agencies and career investment of personnel within Congress, the White House, Defense and State Departments, CIA, DEA, FBI, DoJ and even the South Carolina National Guard (which does business training Colombian soldiers.)

The strategy—endorsed by Democrats and Republicans—was straightforward: heavy US military and police training and equipment, supporting an ultraconservative government to restore stability for investors.

Today, US investors flock into Colombia. The Havana peace talks are close to a settlement. What candidate for president would want to meddle with success?

Hillary Clinton

Certainly not Hillary Clinton, whom polls say is most likely to win the November election. After four years as Secretary of State in Obama’s first term, her fingerprints are all over US policy with Colombia.

Plan Colombia is “a success story” Clinton feels personally connected with because of its origin during her husband’s presidency.

During a campaign stop in New Hampshire, she said: “When my husband was president, as you remember, there was a war going on in Colombia by drug traffickers and insurgent rebels. … And we did something called Plan Colombia. We helped the government figure out how to secure their country from drug traffickers and rebels. And it took a number of years but now it’s a success story.”

Clinton wasn’t just speaking prepared lines. She knew what happened because she had already ushered US-Colombian relations through a change of presidents.

On June 3, 2010, on the eve of a trip to Bogota, for example, she printed out an email advising her to be cautious in complimenting the Colombian president. “The most important thing the Secretary can do is avoid effusive praise for President Álvaro Uribe, who leaves office in August,” she was warned. Uribe “has been a solid backer of US policy and US interests.” But there were too many human rights violations for Clinton to “repeat the tone of Defense Secretary Gates’ April visit, in which he called Uribe a ‘great hero’ and failed to mention any concerns.”

Yes, Hillary Clinton is the most Colombia-knowledgeable candidate for US president ever.

That can be good news, bad news, or both, depending on your point of view.

Critics—mainly but not exclusively from the left—have jumped all over her for her exuberance over Plan Colombia. They note the total failure of the anti-drug goals; the heavy military aid with assassination and brutality against labor, community and human rights activists; and the lag in sustainable rural development.

But most concerning is her eagerness to extend the Plan Colombia model to Central America. “I think we need to do more of a Colombian plan for Central America,” she told the New York Daily News during a campaign visit.

The Uribe-to-Santos transition isn’t the only head-of-state change she was involved in. As Obama’s Secretary of State in 2009, she supported the mid-term coup ousting Honduran Pres. Manuel Zelaya.

Even Clinton agrees that Honduras has fared badly since then. Otherwise why would she see the need for a Plan Colombia approach to curb violence and restore stability?

Was her about-face on the Colombian Free Trade Agreement affected by a multi-million dollar contribution to the family Clinton Foundation, as reported by International Business Times? The oil company making the donation was in intense labor struggles with its Colombian workers, and wanted Clinton to abandon her rhetorical support for workers.

Plan Colombia has evolved. When Obama took office, more than two-thirds of its aid went for military/police activities. Today it’s down almost to half. Humanitarian/development aid is now pushing 48% of the total.

Bernie Sanders


Senator Bernie Sanders, the Vermont Democrat challenging Clinton, is the only candidate who has ever criticized US foreign policy for Colombia. He opposed the US-Colombia Free Trade Agreement in 2011, because he thought it would both cost US jobs and continue large-scale violations of human and labor rights.

But Sanders hasn’t mentioned Colombia in his campaign. He hasn’t bothered to sign onto Senate Resolution 368 endorsing the Havana peace talks, though sixteen other senators have—eleven Democrats and five Republicans, including Marco Rubio, who gave up his presidential bid in March.

Sanders has openly confessed his ignorance about the three-year old peace negotiations. When Radio Caracol in Miami asked him about them, his blunt response was: “Um, I have to tell you that I am not up to date on that issue.”

Sanders would surely continue Obama’s shifting the balance of aid from military and into development, possibly accelerating the trend. But as president, Sanders would have so many other battles to fight it is hard to imagine him using political capital to support any fundamental shift in Colombian policy, when so many officials like the Plan Colombia success story.

On the Republican side, nothing any of the three candidates has said suggests thinking—much less rethinking—about Colombia.

Donald Trump

The unpredictable New York businessman Donald Trump—at this moment the most likely Republican candidate— hasn’t talked about Latin America beyond his verbal war against Mexico. It’s as though he can’t see through the impenetrable wall he wants built at the Mexican border. All of South America is hidden from his view.

Trump’s vision centers on being a “winner” and an “America-first-er.” He’s a businessman, so in global terms this means making it easier for US business to be “winners” in the rest of the world.

Trump already has a little of himself invested in Colombia. He’s sold rights to his “Trump” trademark to hotels planned for Medellín and Bogotá, where his name may glow atop the new tallest building in the country.

Ted Cruz

Ted Cruz, a Texas senator, is the favorite of right-wing conservatives and Republicans who don’t trust Trump. He is more of a war hawk than any other candidate and is the least likely to care about human rights abuses.

The guiding principle for his foreign policy, his web site says, is: “What is best for America is best for the world…We need to fiercely defend our allies and interests.”

Cruz is the most likely among the candidates to give an ear to Colombian Urabists who want to undermine the peace negotiations. And he has criticized free trade agreements, including the one with Colombia, for costing US workers job.

But political stability in Colombia is so important for the US there’s little chance he would gamble on disrupting peace negotiations or undoing the Free Trade Agreement. Maintaining significant military/police aid is his most likely approach.

John Kasich

Governor John Kasich of Ohio is the remaining candidate, with virtually no chance of winning the Republican nomination. He has consistently supported international trade agreements and his overall bland message is to avoid anything radical.

Given his complete lack of foreign experience, he may defer to career professionals in Defense and State. Given the large role these agencies had in making Plan Colombia as a “success,” that means little change.

Whoever the next president is, a worst-case scenario is having the Colombia success narrative unravel. No one will want to change policy enough to risk that nightmare.

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