Why is the US government doing all it can in Colombia to undermine the interests of the United States?
That is neither a rhetorical question nor a typo. It’s what is happening as a consequence of the Trump administration’s assault on Colombia’s peace process. I pay US taxes and want answers.
As a result of the incoherent execution of policies, the US is undermining its own goals:
- It’s making it harder to accomplish regime change in Venezuela, which the US wants.
- It’s making it more unlikely that Colombia’s cocaine production will be permanently reduced, which the US wants.
- It’s strengthening Colombia’s political left, who oppose US influence in the region.
- It’s destabilizing Colombia, which has long been the US’ strongest, most reliable ally in Latin America.
- It’s motivating Latin American countries to diversify their global ties to reduce their dependence on the US.
As a US citizen with strong ties to Colombia, I’m mystified and mortified by this self-sabotaging behavior by my government.
Consider the latest US fiasco:
Last Sunday, Colombian President Ivan Duque stunned the nation by refusing to sign the law empowering the transitional justice system agreed to as part of the peace treaty ending a half-century war with the FARC rebels.
It was an unprecedented presidential power play — the law had already been approved both by Congress and the Constitutional Court, Colombia’s highest judicial authority. Colombia has no veto system like the US and Duque’s signature was thought to be ceremonial.
Duque’s ploy was condemned by all Colombian parties except the extreme right, which fears that powerful military leaders will face war crimes investigations.
But two days later, US Ambassador Kevin Whitaker told a radio interviewer that the US backs Duque’s move. The US is “very much in agreement with what he did,” Whitaker told Blu Radio.
The entire center and left of Colombia’s political forces not only condemned Duque but in an unusual unified move called for street protests against it. Naturally, the US is now a target of their anger as well.
This wasn’t the first time Duque has acted to undermine the peace process. Days earlier, for example, he had asked the Constitutional Court to reverse its 2015 ban on the use of the pesticide glyphosate (invented by Monsanto and globally marketed as Roundup).
Glyphosate is banned in many places worldwide and the World Health Organization has labeled it “probably carcinogenic,” which led to the Colombian Court’s ban.
At the insistence of the US, Colombia had for years been using aircraft to spray Roundup on coca fields despite protests of farmers who claim the chemical caused health problems and killed off legal food crops. The spraying did not make a permanent dent in coca production, though it did create a permanent political backlash in rural areas.
As the US Government Accountability Office (GAO) said in a December 2018 report, “Coca fields can be aerially ‘eradicated’ multiple times in a year and still yield crops…Using eradication as a supply-reduction strategy amounts to ‘mowing the grass’—that is, it represents a short-term approach to reducing the coca crop” and perpetuates the problem of cocaine trafficking.
The Constitutional Court held a day-long session last week to hear comments on Duque’s request. The only support for Duque’s position came from his own government officials and hired consultants. All the non-governmental witnesses—from scientists to farmers—objected to resuming glyphosate use.
In endorsing Duque’s rejection of the transitional justice process, Ambassador Whitaker cited resistance the US is facing in getting Colombia to extradite former FARC leader “Jesus Santrich.” Though Santrich has been jailed in Colombia pending the extradition request, Colombia wants the US to share evidence to support its claim that Santrich was a major cocaine smuggler.
The US refuses to provide evidence to back up its assertion, while information that has surfaced in Colombia points to Santrich’s innocence. But the pressure to extradite Santrich has worried former FARC leaders. They think they’re next on the US list of extradition targets.
These sorts of actions encourage former FARC fighters to leave the peace process and return to the jungles, intensifying Colombia’s internal security problems and difficulties to effectively combat cocaine production. Some are likely crossing into Venezuela, increasing the power of the armed groups there which support the authoritarian regime of Nicolas Maduro and make civil war an increasingly probable consequence of outside military intervention.
The US’ hollow threats of military intervention in Venezuela provoked near-unanimous rejection in Latin America and Europe and made it more difficult to engage Maduro in real negotiations.
US policy discourages farmers from cooperating with the goal of substituting legal crops in place of coca. The US has not supported the pledges in the peace treaty to build the physical, legal and social infrastructure to bring coca farmers into the mainstream economy.
This leaves coca as their only viable source of revenue. And it reinforces the farmers’ cooperation with armed groups who protect them and help them sell their coca.
US actions are empowering the sizable political opposition to President Duque, a pro-US leader who spent many years in Washington, D.C., building connections with influential businessmen and politicians.
In last year’s presidential election, Duque’s opponent, Gustavo Petro, ran the most successful campaign by a leftist politician in Colombia’s history. The US is motivating the left and pushing Colombia’s political center into alliance with the left.
Destabilizing Colombia is the worst thing the US could be doing to advance its own interests.
It’s at least understandable to have foreign policies that hurt another country but help the US. But to damage both the other country and the United States?
Why does the Trump administration so strongly embrace this lose/lose strategy?