President Donald Trump congratulated Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos on his hard-won peace deal with leftist rebels who terrorized the South American nation for much of the last half century.
But Trump did not explicitly endorse the plan that has divided the Colombia community and left gaping questions about future U.S. financial support for the deal.
“It’s been a great thing to watch in the sense that the president did a fantastic job,” Trump said during a press conference with Santos. “That’s not easy after so many years of war. So I’m very, very proud to get to know you, and I really congratulate you.”
During a joint appearance in the East Room, Trump did pledge to continue to work with the Colombian government to target drug trafficking networks and reduce coca cultivation and cocaine production. He said he was “highly alarmed” by record levels of coca cultivation and urged the Colombian government to remedy the problem.
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Michael Camilleri, former director for Andean Affairs at the National Security Council, said there is clearly a lot of good will between the two countries and that Santos is aware of the administration’s concern about ballooning cultivation of coca, the raw material for cocaine.
“Santos will walk away with no illusions about the fact that continuing administration support for the peace process will be contingent on turning the tide on coca,” said Camilleri, who is now the director of the Rule of Law Program at the Inter-American Dialogue.
The much anticipated visit between the two leaders was largely overshadowed by unrelated controversies involving federal investigations into Trump associates’ potential ties to Russian election meddling.
There’s nothing tougher than peace, and we want to make peace all over the world.
President Donald Trump
Washington reporters were more interested in getting answers from Trump on the various investigations and the appointment of former FBI Director Robert Mueller to oversee the Trump-Russia probe.
“Well, I respect the move, but the entire thing has been a witch hunt,” Trump said. “And there is no collusion between certainly myself and my campaign, but I can always speak for myself -- and the Russians, zero.”
Last year, Santos signed a historic peace deal with the rebel group Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as the FARC, which was seen as the start of a new chapter of peace for Colombia. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his work.
The agreement, however, is highly controversial. Many Colombians don’t like that it includes concessions to a guerrilla group known for drug trafficking and kidnappings. Opponents felt Santos had gone too far and given up too much to the rebel group that that was responsible for the deaths of thousands and displacement of millions.
A Colombian referendum on the agreement failed to win the support of the majority of Colombians, but Santos pushed a revised version through the Colombian Congress anyway.
Santos said his government has launched a new strategy to combat the increased coca cultivation. He cited the eradication this year alone of of 15,000 hectares of coca fields, which is the amount eradicated last year. And tens of thousands of families joined a program where they are going to substitute legal crops for coca.
“This is the first time that this could be done because of the peace,” Santos said. “Before, the conflict did not allow us to build roads and to give these peasants an alternative.”
Trump didn’t mention 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.
Santos will walk away with no illusions about the fact that continuing administration support for the peace process will be contingent on turning the tide on cocoa.
Michael Camilleri, Inter-American Dialogue
When asked by a Colombian reporter whether he received a commitment of financial support, Santos said the administration and Congress showed their commitment by approving a 2017 budget that included the $450 million in spending to help implement the peace deal. But Colombian officials acknowledge they do not know if that funding will continue next year.
The United States has provided more than $10 billion in aid to Colombia since 2000 to combat drugs and drug-related violence. Colombia is largely considered a major success story for U.S. foreign policy.
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.
Santos did receive positive support from Congress and the business community. He took part in a dinner with Sens. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., and Roy Cardin, D-Md, co-chairs of a Colombia Task Force that promoted continued engagement..
Camilleri expects Santos probably got enough to go home and declare a successful visit.
“But I think he would have probably hoped deep down for a more explicit vote of confidence in the peace process from President Trump,” he said.