This week, a clear majority of Colombians picked a new president in a peaceful, democratic election. This an extraordinary achievement. One of us served as special envoy to the Americas for President Clinton, and helped organize the first Summit of the Americas almost 25 years ago. The other spent decades in the Foreign Service, and from 2001 to 2004 served as President Bush’s ambassador to the UN. We can both clearly remember a time when Colombia was on the brink of becoming a failed state.
Consider the situation today. Colombia boasts a strong democracy, a vibrant economy and ever-improving prospects for peace. Moreover, with incoming President-elect Ivan Duque at the helm, Colombia will have a chance to build on its considerable progress, writing the most productive chapter yet in the history of U.S.-Colombian relations.
However, we cannot take anything for granted. Realizing Colombia’s full potential will require smart, strategic choices by the incoming administration there, the current American administration and the private sectors of both countries.
Duque will begin his term in a strong position: His campaign platform was carefully calibrated to expand upon policies that are working while addressing issues that have too often been overlooked. Now, he must deliver on his pledges. By following through on the commitments that earned Colombia a highly coveted place in the Organization of Economic Co-Operation and Development, and making it clear that his country’s economic stability will continue, the president-elect can attract even more of the outside investment that has brought new jobs.
Colombia’s economic success will depend on a variety of other factors, as well. By pursuing the peace process with former rebel groups, Duque can help his country reap an even greater domestic “peace dividend” that has developed as hostilities have diminished. Finally, by tackling political corruption and working to alleviate poverty, Duque can increase faith in Colombia’s democratic process while expanding opportunity for its people.
On these issues, the incoming president’s first test will be the personnel he chooses for top posts in his administration — and so far, he has done admirably. His pick for vice president, Marta Lucia Ramirez, is an experienced public servant with deep knowledge on issues regarding international trade and defense. If Duque picks similarly qualified figures for other key posts — and adheres to his admirable pledge of assembling a cabinet that is made up at least 50 percent of women — it will go a long way toward ensuring his presidency’s success.
As Duque endeavors to make good on his promises, there are many things the Trump administration can do to support him. For decades — beginning with the Plan Colombia initiative passed with bipartisan support under President Clinton, continued by President George W. Bush and further strengthened by President Obama — there has been a strong consensus among Democrats and Republicans that U.S. engagement with Colombia pays dividends for both countries. The current administration will surely reach the same conclusion.
As we address an ongoing political and humanitarian crisis in Venezuela, Colombia represents a stable, democratic neighbor to the west. At a moment when trade politics are unusually contentious, Colombia imports more than it exports from the United States. As we continue to try to reduce our dependence on oil from the Mideast, Colombia is a friendly, energy-rich country in a key strategic region. Trump clearly has much to gain from deepening our bilateral relationship, and Vice President Mike Pence — like his predecessor Joe Biden — appears both deeply engaged with managing the White House’s Latin America relationships and well-suited to the task. Continuing the course the administration has already charted promises great benefits, not just for Colombia, but for the United States, as well.
The private sector, too, has reason to deepen its engagement with Colombia. Thanks to increasing political stability and a steadily growing economy, the country remains attractive for firms seeking strong returns. What’s more, Colombia has made strides in addressing issues such as intellectual property, further improving its position as it competes for capital. It’s no surprise many businesses are betting on a nation that would have seemed too risky just a little more than a decade ago.
To fully maximize the potential for investment in Colombia, however, private-sector companies should go beyond what they’ve already done. Building infrastructure though public-private partnerships will generate revenues now and lay the foundation for far larger revenues in the future. Expanding outside engagement in energy would help Colombia make domestic reforms in the sector and protect itself from future shocks. Helping the country realize its potential for modernized manufacturing would mean more jobs for Colombians and more opportunity for companies looking to do business in the region.
At a time of growing global instability, diminished faith in our institutions and concern for democracy’s future, Colombia’s story stands out as a hopeful reminder that with exceptional leadership, constructive American engagement and enthusiastic participation of the business community, even countries in dire straits can reverse their fortunes and put themselves on a clear path toward long-term stability and success.
Colombians have cast a decisive vote in favor of continuing down that path and embracing their country’s full promise. It is up to all of us — in both countries, and in both the public and private sectors — to help them realize that promise in the years, and decades, to come.
Mack McLarty served as President Bill Clinton's first White House chief of staff, from 1993 to 1994, and subsequently as counselor to the president and special envoy for the Americas. John Negroponte served in the Foreign Service for 37 years, including as U.S. ambassador in Honduras, Mexico and the Philippines. He later served in the George W. Bush administration as U.S. permanent representative to the United Nations.