U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio threw his support behind Colombia’s peace process Tuesday, giving the Colombian government a major political boost as it seeks to persuade President Donald Trump to continue U.S. backing of the controversial plan.
In a speech, the Miami Republican remarked on the United State’s role in Colombia’s journey from a near failed state 15 years ago to a thriving success story that has is now one of the United States most important regional partners.
“All of that is a result of U.S. engagement, not U.S. disengagement,” Rubio told Latin American leaders at the 47th Annual Washington Conference on the Americas, co-hosted by the U.S. State Department and the Council of the Americas.
Rubio never mentioned the $450 million that former President Barack Obama promised the Colombian government. The money is now in doubt as the Trump administration plans to slash foreign aid as part of 31 percent cut to the State Department’s budget, but Rubio’s endorsement of continue aid is seen as a likely sign that Trump will continue to contribute significant resources to the effort.
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“This is a kind of commitment that there has been some uncertainty about because of the new administration,” said Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington organization focused on Latin America. “Rubio’s support doesn’t guarantee anything, but he is certainly somebody who carries a lot of weight and has credibility on Latin American policy. That will be seen by President Santos as a very encouraging sign.”
Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos is scheduled to visit Trump next week.
Colombia is largely considered a major success story for U.S. foreign policy. Supported by both Republican and Democratic administrations, the United States has provided more than $10 billion in aid to Colombia since 2000 to combat drugs and drug-related violence.
Last year, Santos signed a historic peace deal with the rebel group Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, the FARC, which was seen as the start of a new chapter after a half century of armed conflict.
The United States continues to play a major role in Colombia. Even if the funding is cut, a declaration of support for the process would help Santos’ argue he deserves local support. The plan, however, has faced stiff opposition who felt that the Santos had gone too far and given up too much to the rebel through that was responsible for the deaths of thousands and displacement of millions.
Popular former President Álvaro Uribe led the opposition campaign. He shared some of his views with President Trump last month during an impromptu hello at Trump’s Florida resort, Mar-a-Lago, and in a letter to the Trump administration and Congress, warning that Santos’ efforts to complete a peace deal with the rebels could lead to Colombia becoming an authoritarian state similar to Venezuela.
During his speech at the State Department, Rubio noted how visiting Colombia with his wife, who is of Colombian decent, was unsafe during much of the 1990s when bombings were almost the norm. Like many people with Colombian relatives, they worried about losing family members simply because a loved one was in the wrong place at the wrong time.
“Through much effort, blood, sacrifice and with American assistance, the people of Colombia went from being on the verge of a failed state to perhaps our strongest regional partner in South America today,” Rubio said.
During a dinner Monday at the Colombian Ambassador’s resident in Washington, Ambassador Juan Carlos Pinzón honored Rubio for his support. Pinzón called him a “champion of a prosperous and peaceful Colombia.”
Rubio qualified that U.S. support should come with conditions as stipulated in the agreement. The crimes committed by the FARC can’t go unpunished and the victims must compensated. But Shifter said such conditions would be expected regardless of whether Republicans or Democrats were in power in the White House.
“For the Colombians, Rubio’s speech has to be seen as very encouraging,” Shifter said. “It will translate into money . How much we’ll have to see?”
CORRECTION: This version of the story includes a revised headline to make clear that Rubio was backing the aid program. An earlier headline incorrectly said he supported the peace deal between the Colombian government and leftist guerrillas. He did not say he supported that deal.