Politics & Policy

Now Is the Time for Us to Secure the Peace in Colombia

A policeman in Granada City, Colombia, after fighting against FARC rebels, December 2000 (Photo: Reuters)
We’ve had incredible success in helping to stabilize the country over the last 20 years. We can’t give up now.

America loves an underdog success story, be it the Mets in 1969 or the men’s Olympic hockey team in 1980. But perhaps the greatest unlikely tour de force of all has taken place under our noses.

Twenty years ago, Colombia was on the verge of being declared a failed state. It was in the throes of a civil war that saw two thirds of its land controlled by terrorist groups, including the violent, Marxist-Leninist FARC. The government was a geopolitical ally to Washington, but the strains of war had weakened its power and the country itself remained a security threat: a destabilizing force in the region, a borderline narco-state, and a refugee crisis waiting to happen.

Fast-forward two decades, and today’s Colombia is virtually unrecognizable: a robust democracy with a resilient economy and a homicide rate barely a third of what it was.

How did this happen? Recognizing a disaster at its tipping point, U.S. legislators reached a bipartisan consensus in 1999 and passed Plan Colombia, a comprehensive, long-term assistance package that stands today as one of our greatest foreign-policy successes.

Now, with the long-awaited peace accord between Bogotá and the FARC, many may be tempted to declare victory. But that would be foolish. If in 1999 we started a marathon, the finish line is now in sight, and only a renewed push in this final stretch will consolidate our successes. Getting complacent with our gains thus far could mean allowing them to unravel in the coming years.

This sense of urgency is why in December 2016, the Atlantic Council convened a bipartisan task force of policymakers, business executives, and civil-society leaders to lay out the pillars of future American engagement. Co-chaired by Senators Ben Cardin and Roy Blunt, the Colombia Peace and Prosperity Task Force has now released its report on how the Trump administration and Congress can secure America’s interests while supporting its most trusted ally in Latin America.

We already committed to helping Colombia find peace. If we commit to helping them implement it, we’ll see dividends far beyond the country’s borders.

A new strategy is needed going forward, and it has emerged in the form of Peace Colombia. But to build on Plan Colombia’s successes and address its shortcomings, Peace Colombia must enjoy the same sustained, bipartisan support as its predecessor.

We already committed to helping Colombia find peace. If we commit to helping them implement it, we’ll see dividends far beyond the country’s borders.

U.S. funding amounted to less than 5 percent of Plan Colombia’s total budget, and less than 2 percent of what we spent on the Iraq War. The return on investment has been massive. Committing similarly to Peace Colombia would be a low-cost way to maximize Colombia’s peace dividend and ensure its accrual to the U.S. as well.

The task force’s recommendations are guided by an acknowledgment of what remains to be done. New illegal networks are moving in to fill the void left by the FARC’s demobilization, coca cultivation is on the rise, and the slow expansion of the state’s presence in remote areas means marginalized populations continue to be victimized and recruited into organized crime.

These challenges aren’t insurmountable, but American monitoring and assistance will be crucial in overcoming them. The ideal blueprint for action goes beyond security initiatives and encompasses cooperation to strengthen the rule of law. The transitional justice process will be arduous, but if well executed it could lay the groundwork for lasting peace. The U.S. should allocate resources to assist in the process while helping to ensure accountability in recognition of the primacy of victims’ rights.

The private sector must also play a pivotal role, especially given the standing free-trade agreement between our two countries. Peace-building today no longer falls exclusively under the purview of the state. Through commercial diplomacy, the U.S. can incentivize private investment in Colombia’s underdeveloped areas. The benefits of doing so are twofold: It would simultaneously provide an economic buttress for the government’s implementation of peace and bolster a growing market for American goods and services.

The importance of a strong post-conflict Colombia cannot be overstated. The country has emerged as a force for stability in the Americas. It continues to champion economic integration through the Pacific Alliance. Its growing diplomatic clout is accompanied by countless shared interests with the U.S., and as a neighbor, it will increasingly play a critical role in resolving the catastrophe in next-door Venezuela. Its security forces actively export their expertise, training their analogues in fragile hotspots from Central America to West Africa.

Consolidating peace will see all these invaluable efforts amplified; allowing it to falter will do precisely the opposite.

As the prevailing discourse shifts toward isolationism and shrinking budgets, this is one job America can’t afford to leave unfinished. Perhaps nowhere has our return on investment been greater than in Colombia, and with a holistic approach to this final phase, it only stands to increase.

A renewed, long-term push now will secure our joint successes and address our shortcomings. An enhanced counter-narcotics strategy incorporating lessons learned can reverse the recent growth in coca cultivation. Socially inclusive development can bring stability to Colombia’s most vulnerable. Heightened intelligence sharing and security investments can ensure the vacuum left by the FARC stays empty.

Bipartisan support from Washington helped turn Colombia from a U.S. security project into a U.S. security partner. Now, to keep it that way, we must double down on our efforts.

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