My decades-long interest in Colombia began with a kidnapping.
In early 1980, U.S. Amb. Diego Asencio was taken hostage by left-wing, urban guerrilla fighters. A few days before, as the recently elected governor of Florida, I had spent a week in Colombia on a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration tour of cocaine production and trafficking regions. The ambassador’s wife made contact hoping that I could help somehow.
But even with our efforts Asencio was held for 61 days and only released in exchange for a $2.5 million ransom and a flight to Cuba.
After that standoff, Colombia quickly became a foreign-policy priority for me. The country was an ally, in our own hemisphere, besieged by political and drug-related violence, and — by the 1990s — worrisomely close to collapse.
Over the course of two decades, hundreds of leaders in both countries studied the dual epidemics of violence and drugs, and they began to formulate plans to combat them. In 1999, the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington-based Western Hemisphere think tank, convened a special bi-national and bipartisan task force, chaired by Brent Scowcroft, national security adviser under two Republican administrations, and myself.
We devised recommendations for a multi-track and long-term response: security assistance, combating drug trafficking, empowering Colombian institutions and moving conflicts from the battlefield to the ballot box. In July 2000, Congress passed Plan Colombia with broad bipartisan support. The United States went on to contribute almost $10 billion (and Colombian taxpayers a far greater sum) to help the government put its house in order, defeat the guerrillas in the field and push their commanders to the negotiating table.
In historical terms, Colombia’s success is difficult to overstate. Compared to even 15 years ago — with lawlessness rampant, government-backed paramilitaries unchecked, human rights trampled and kidnappings a constant fear — the Colombia of today is unrecognizable.
Instead of a failed state, the country has emerged as a regional leader, a prosperous economy and a key friend of the United States.
But the biggest, most elusive victory could be in trouble. President Juan Manuel Santos is in the final stages of an ambitious yet fraught peace process with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (known by the Spanish acronym FARC), Marxist guerrillas that have been the government’s main antagonist since 1964.
On March 23, negotiators missed the deadline for a final deal to be signed. At the same time, President Santos’ approval ratings have fallen sharply, and many Colombians justifiably doubt the prospects for success.
Peace, it seems, is on the rocks.
Moreover, even if an accord is signed, President Santos has promised it will go to referendum before a skeptical Colombian electorate, which could still reject the concessions. With the economy souring, Colombia must somehow turn to post-conflict development initiatives, building schools and infrastructure and preventing the territory ceded by the FARC from falling to drug cartels and other criminals. And the government must now negotiate with the second-largest guerrilla insurgency, the National Liberation Army (ELN), with which formal talks were announced on March 30.
None of these challenges should be downplayed. But at the same time, observers of the process must not lose sight of the magnitude of this moment. A peace deal would end a centuries-long cycle of violence in Colombia, and — for the first time in history — the Western Hemisphere would be formally at peace.
President Obama has asked Congress to fund a new $450 million “Peace Colombia” initiative, supporting transitional justice and economic growth. He should be given credit for standing with Colombia in peace as in war. Rarely are there such opportunities for the United States to reward demonstrated progress, invest in proven partnerships and double down on past success.
If achieved, a negotiated peace would be a legacy — and a testament — to the valuable lessons learned from Plan Colombia: true solutions take time, good policy is made from pragmatism not politics, and diplomatic solutions can be worth difficult compromises. The Santos government has had to swallow many bitter pills to make peace, often taking the unpopular path (and suffering in the polls for it). The U.S. Congress, and the American people, should applaud this resolve.
Just like the many difficult weeks of the Asencio kidnapping in 1980, the path to a negotiated resolution has been neither easy nor simple — and concessions to criminals and terrorists are painful. But thanks to pragmatic leadership, the tenacity of the Colombian people and a strong partnership between the U.S. and Colombia, peace is finally possible.
As we lend our support in the final stages of the path to peace, we should reflect on how Colombia can be an example — both for other armed conflicts and for U.S. policy. Bitter, complex and seemingly hopeless wars are all-too-common today. Negotiated resolutions are not.
Former Florida Gov. Bob Graham was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1986, retiring in 2005.