Op-Ed

U.S.-Colombia partnership should be strengthened

TAKEN: Colombian Army Gen. Ruben Dario Alzate was reportedly taken captive by rebels on Sunday.
TAKEN: Colombian Army Gen. Ruben Dario Alzate was reportedly taken captive by rebels on Sunday. AP

During my recent visit to Colombia, I was often asked what the new Republican majorities in Congress mean for the future of the U.S.-Colombia alliance. The simple answer is that the American people remain as supportive as ever of the Colombian people's aspirations to build a safer and more prosperous republic after a half century of armed conflict against violent narco-terrorist groups. This new Congress should now re-invigorate the U.S.-Colombia partnership at a time when recent security and economic gains have brought the promise of a lasting peace within reach.

This must happen in four key areas:

▪ First, we must help expand Colombia’s leadership role in Western Hemisphere affairs. With U.S. support, the Colombian people have authored an inspiring success story that proves what can be achieved by countries that commit to democratic governance, free enterprise, and defeating terrorist and narco-trafficking organizations that threaten their people. Colombia is now looked to for training for federal police forces from many countries in Central and South America, including the northern triangle countries of Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras that are currently under siege from drug cartel violence. Colombia's success against the FARC, an entrenched counterinsurgency, is a global model for all nations that face similar threats. As Colombia cements recent security gains, Colombian forces can be deployed to support peace keeping efforts and advise other nations looking for help protecting their people.

But the U.S. must not only hold up Colombia as a model; we must also work together to promote and defend democracy throughout the Western Hemisphere while challenging provocative actions in the region by others who do not share our values. Unfortunately, the recent trend in Latin America has been against democratic expansion and free market economics, with the consequence being the disenfranchisement of millions, imprisoned political opposition leaders and obstacles to the development of prosperous middle class societies throughout the region. This, coupled with a lack of U.S. leadership in the Western Hemisphere, has created a vacuum our adversaries have eagerly exploited.

Because of Colombia's rise, the U.S. does not have to stand alone in addressing these and other threats throughout the Western Hemisphere. However, we cannot take this partnership for granted; we must nurture and mobilize it toward a common purpose of peace and prosperity.

▪ Second, we must build on the success of Plan Colombia, one of history’s most successful counter-insurgency programs.

Until this week’s FARC kidnapping of a senior Colombian general, the government sat at the negotiating table with the FARC's leadership because its military has decimated this terrorist group. Especially in light of this kidnapping, now is not the time to ease up pressure. The FARC must be defeated. The U.S. role must be clearly defined as one of helping the Colombian government force the best possible outcome from any future dealings with the FARC. This outcome must ensure the best chance for the Colombian people to no longer be threatened by improvised explosive devices, grenade attacks, land mines, kidnappings and other terrorist acts.

To this end, joint U.S.-Colombia efforts on extraditions and aerial eradication that have proven effective against illicit narcotics must not be sacrificed. Even if a final peace agreement with the FARC is eventually reached someday, we must continue working closely against the other transnational criminal organizations that will keep operating in the Colombian jungles trafficking drugs, people, weapons and money. We should also make sure that all the expertise Colombia has gained from Plan Colombia's successful implementation is exported by them through the training and equipping of other forces in the region facing their own security threats.

▪ Third, the U.S.-Colombia free trade agreement that finally passed in 2011 was a major step to boost both of our economies. To fully capitalize on the economic potential of our relationship, we need to ensure its implementation gives businesses on both sides the confidence to invest in each other. We must also work together on regional energy initiatives. And the U.S. must engage our Pacific allies to create pathways for Colombia to eventually join the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which will eventually help us achieve a hemisphere-wide free trade area.

▪ Fourth, we must never forget the human suffering that exists in Colombia because of criminal enterprises that rely on modern day slavery for funding. In spite of the Colombian government's efforts, human trafficking remains too prevalent there, primarily manifesting itself through exploited kids in the child sex tourism industry. We need to work with Colombian law enforcement to crack down on U.S. citizens that are traveling to Colombia solely to exploit vulnerable Colombian children.

In addition to our work in these four areas, one thing that must never be overlooked is the need for U.S. leadership to, once again, put some heart into our alliance with Colombia.

Between my daily life in Florida and my recent visit to Colombia, I've seen all the reasons the U.S.-Colombia partnership is one for both sides to be proud of. For me, Colombia's success is not just important to me because of America's own national security and economic interests. As someone with family roots in Colombia who represents the largest Colombian diaspora community of any state in the U.S., it's also personal to me.

Throughout my life, I've heard countless stories of Colombian immigrants who came to America in search of a better life that was not only harder to achieve in Colombia, but under constant threat by guerilla forces throughout the 20th century.

But today, a better life is possible in Colombia, and millions there are getting a chance to achieve things that previous generations could not. As Americans, seeing our Colombian friends succeed is a testament to the power of our cooperation and shared principles. At this critical moment in history, we must continue to stand together.

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fl., is a member of the Committee on Foreign Relations.

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