Over the past few months, the Obama administration and Democrats in U.S.Congress have begun to reorient U.S. policy on Colombia, but this is not necessarily a bad thing.
In his column this week, my colleague Gustavo Silva Cano argued that “Colombia would have a more fluid relation with the United States if Senator John McCain had won the presidency last year.” This is probably true. Senator McCain’s policies toward Colombia would likely have maintained the bilateral alliance developed under Presidents George W. Bush and Alvaro Uribe.
In contrast, the new Democratic president and Congress have already distanced themselves from Uribe. The Americans have been strangely quiet, distant and impartial during recent tensions between the Colombian president and his Venezuelan counterpart, Hugo Chávez. They want to gradually reduce military aid under Plan Colombia, a program started by Presidents Clinton and Pastrana almost a decade ago. Finally, policymakers in Washington have suspended progress on the bilateral free trade agreement (FTA) with Colombia. In short, the alliance between the U.S. and Colombia seems to be disintegrating.
It should be noted that not all of these changes were directly caused by the Democrats’ recent election victory. In fact, both the downsizing of Plan Colombia and the apparent rain-check on the FTA negotiations have as much to do with America’s fiscal and financial crises as they do with the change of leadership in Washington. Simply put, the financial crisis has led America’s budget deficit to soar and its citizens to re-embrace protectionism, making foreign military aid programs and free trade agreements unpopular. Two other U.S. FTAs, with Panama and South Korea, have also been put on the shelf for the time being, but all three deals are expected to pass in the near future.
Moreover, there is more continuity in Colombia-U.S. relations than headlines may suggest. Plan Colombia, for example, will certainly not disappear overnight. U.S. aid to Colombia will decline only slightly next year, although military aid will see steeper declines as funds are reoriented toward social programs.
Nevertheless, it is equally true that the Democrats are rethinking U.S. policy toward Latin America as a whole, with significant implications for Colombia. The recent changes in Colombia policy essentially stem from two gradually emerging consensuses among Democrats.
The future of Plan Colombia
The first consensus is that the military component of Plan Colombia has failed to meet its two primary goals. Plan Colombia’s central aim (at least from the point of view of U.S. policymakers) is to reduce the amount of drugs flowing from or through Colombia to the U.S. consumer market. Its second main goal is to reduce the influence and military power of drug-financed armed groups in Colombia, including the infamous FARC guerrillas.
Quite clearly, Plan Colombia has failed to sustainably stem the Colombian drug trade. While the Colombian and American governments frequently celebrate apparent reductions in the number of hectares cultivated for drug production, cultivation estimates are highly unreliable. Obviously, illicit drug production is clandestine and growers are constantly developing new techniques to boost their yield per hectare, so it is nearly impossible to produce a credible approximation of the size of drug crops, much less actual drug production.
A far more useful measure of the state of the drug trade, cocaine prices in the U.S., suggests that drugs are still a booming business in Colombia. Despite short-term price spikes, pure cocaine was actually cheaper in 2008 than in 2000, the year Plan Colombia came into effect, and about half its 1984 price. Because demand has remained stable, this steady drop in prices can only be attributed to an increase in the global supply of cocaine. Meanwhile, Colombia continues to play a major role in the booming market. The country is home not only to about half of the world’s coca crops, but also to important trafficking routes that handle an even larger fraction of global cocaine flows.
Given the resilience of the drug trade, it is not surprising Plan Colombia has also failed to meet its second goal of reducing drug-related corruption and violence in the long run. The program’s main claim to success is that it helped President Uribe deal impressive military blows to the FARC and dramatically improve urban security during his first years in office.
On the other hand, ten years after Plan Colombia’s implementation, drug violence continues to ravage the country and even seems to be rising. This year, homicides will likely increase to over 16,000, only a few hundred of which can be attributed to the FARC. By contrast, Don Mario’s paramilitary gang alone was responsible for over 3,000 murders in the 18 months preceding his capture in April, according to Colombian authorities. By most measures, from displacement numbers to homicide rates, Colombia remains one of the most violent countries in the world.
Moreover, the Colombian military has done little to boost its international credibility in recent years. After the impressive July 2008 rescue of high-profile FARC hostages (including, of course, three Americans), most of the news about the Colombian defense and law enforcement agencies has been negative. Corruption, some of it mafia- and drug-related, was found to be widespread at all levels of the DAS, Colombia’s intelligence service. In an equally far-reaching scandal, members of the military were found to have participated in hundreds, maybe thousands, of extrajudicial executions of innocent civilians. This negative press has – with good reason – raised doubts in Washington about the integrity of the Colombian security forces.
Given Plan Colombia’s failure as an anti-drug program and as a catalyst for lasting peace in Colombia, it should come as no surprise that the American government is looking to gradually reduce military aid and reorient some funds to social and economic development programs. Indeed, the U.S. is not abandoning Colombia, but rather reconsidering a program that, from its point of view, has really been a waste of money.
But what about from the Colombian point of view? It could certainly be argued that the downsizing of Plan Colombia will hamper the government’s fight against drug-financed armed groups. Nevertheless, it must be made clear that changes to Plan Colombia will be gradual. Moreover, as mentioned above Uribe’s “Democratic Security” policy has begun to show signs of weakness. Therefore, unless the government develops a more effective long-term strategy to deal with guerrilla, paramilitary and criminal violence as well as drug-related corruption, it will make little concrete difference whether it receives US$700 million or $600 million in American aid.
The United States, Colombia, and Hugo Chávez
The second emerging consensus among Democrats is that the Bush administration’s direct rhetorical and diplomatic confrontations with Hugo Chávez only left the strongman bolder and (crucially for Chávez) more famous than ever before. Hugo may never be a good southern neighbor, but Democrats seem to believe that responding to his provocations would simply make matters worse. Further, given the complexity of America’s current foreign policy challenges, President Obama is probably wise to avoid getting bogged down in a dispute with Chávez.
In comparison to the gradual downsizing of Plan Colombia, the impact of America’s new strategy toward Chavez has been far more sudden and has caught the Colombian government off-guard. President Uribe evidently believed that, by signing an agreement that allows American troops to use Colombian bases, he was solidifying the alliance with the mighty U.S. and therefore deterring Venezuela from attacking his country. But, when Chávez responded to the base deal with belligerent rhetoric against the Uribe government, American State Department officials did little more than call for bilateral dialogue, acting more as a distant third party than as an ally of Colombia.
This new approach seems sensible for the United States, but has it made Colombia more vulnerable to Chávez? On the surface, it would seem that way. The American strategy of ignoring Venezuelan provocations, which Uribe has to some extent adopted, has not put an end to worrying border tensions. Despite the fact that the Colombian president has been unusually even-tempered during the recent dispute, Chávez’s barrage of threats has continued.
Nevertheless, in the long run, the new American approach will prove much more costly for Chavéz, who drew more political strength from U.S.-Colombia alliance than Uribe ever did. In recent weeks, America’s near-silence and Uribe’s relative civility have helped to expose Chávez, who thrives in the role of the victim, as the aggressor. The Venezuelan leader cannot keep up his campaign of insults and trade disruptions forever, not least because his country’s economy shrunk 4.5% in the third quarter, one of the worst contractions in Latin America. Average Venezuelans may be understandably apprehensive about American troops stationed next door, but their most immediate concern is putting food (much of which they still import from Colombia) on the table.
In short, changes in U.S. policy toward Colombia not only are sensible from the American point of view, but they are also unlikely to negatively impact Colombians, even if the bilateral alliance is not as strong as it was under Bush.
Colombia policy featured prominently only once during the 2008 Presidential campaign, when, during an October debate between candidates McCain and Obama, the then-Democratic senator said that he would not approve the FTA with Colombia until his concerns about human rights were answered. Senator McCain, visibly appalled, suggested that Obama’s position on the trade agreement demonstrated his ignorance about Latin America.
On the contrary, judging from recent changes in policy, the new Democratic President and Congress have a much better understanding than either President Bush or Senator McCain of the complex challenges facing Colombia and Latin America. The United States is not abandoning Colombia, but rather stepping away from a policy framework that has done little to advance the interests of either Colombians or Americans over the past decade.