President Obama hosts his Colombian counterpart Juan Manuel Santos in Washington next week. Their meeting comes on the eve of a potential peace deal between the government of Colombia and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the Marxist insurgency that for half a century has sought to topple the Colombian state.
The two leaders will use the occasion to review U.S-Colombia relations, highlighted by 15 years of bilateral cooperation under the rubric of “Plan Colombia,” and to discuss to the peace process.
This is an important meeting. Colombia is a key partner with whom the United States shares basic interests. Success in signing and implementing a peace agreement with the FARC would not only benefit Colombia but would also behoove the United States.
In 2000, Colombia hovered on the brink of a meltdown, threatened by the FARC on the left and violent paramilitary forces on the right. Well-financed by illegal drugs, the FARC and paramilitaries controlled vast areas of the country. State failure loomed as the country reeled under a tidal wave of violence and crime, a collapsing economy, ballooning coca and cocaine production, and human rights abuses.
Launched in 1999 by president Andrés Pastrana and developed in consultation with the United States, Plan Colombia was an ambitious initiative to counter drug production and trafficking, strengthen security forces, enhance human rights and the rule of law, and address key socio-economic concerns. In July 2000, the U.S. Congress approved an emergency supplemental package of $ 1.3 billion in support of Plan Colombia, most of it to strengthen the Colombian military and police for counter-narcotics efforts. Total U.S. aid since 2000 has added up to some $10 billion.
Plan Colombia, further strengthened by the “democratic security” policy of President Álvaro Uribe, produced impressive results. Colombia’s larger and more effective military and police neutralized and then rolled back the FARC, the paramilitary armies were disbanded and legitimate state authority widely extended. Counter-drug efforts reduced the size of the narcotics economy from about 5 percent of GDP in 2000 to around .3 (three-tenths) percent today. Rates of crime and violence plummeted. The Colombian economy grew at an average rate of 4.5 percent from 2002-2014, with substantial reductions in poverty levels.
There are important lessons from Colombia:
▪ Colombia’s perilous condition could not have been reversed without the political will of its leaders. No amount of U.S. support would have made a difference if Colombians had not united in a desire to save their country and sacrificed to make it happen.
▪ Providing security through legitimate state authority was a key factor in countering illegally armed groups. If Plan Colombia had failed, the FARC would not be at the peace table now.
▪ Colombian/U.S. bilateral cooperation through Plan Colombia was sustained over many years, building a partnership based on trust.
▪ A large factor in Plan Colombia’s success was the bipartisan support it received in the U.S. Presidents Clinton, Bush and Obama and Republicans and Democrats in Congress backed the initiative.
▪ The United States provided important support to Colombia without leaving a large footprint and in a very cost-effective manner. The U.S. military presence was small — limited in size by Congress and restricted to non-combat functions. The cost to U.S. taxpayers for 15 years of Plan Colombia was the equivalent of about two month’s spending for the war in Afghanistan.
The U.S. should build on Plan Colombia’s success. President Obama has underscored U.S. support for the peace process and its implementation.
The refocusing in past years of U.S. assistance to Colombia towards democratic governance, human rights, and socio-economic development makes particular sense. Colombia faces difficult challenges in repairing the terrible damage inflicted by decades of armed conflict and in building a more harmonious and prosperous society.
A peace agreement with the FARC presents a historic opportunity.
At this vital moment, it is essential that Congress and the administration maintain bipartisan support for our partner Colombia.
Peter DeShazo is a former U.S. diplomat and a visiting professor in Latin American, Latino and Caribbean Studies at Dartmouth.