Colombia — Global Minnesota’s 2017 focus country — has been the subject of increased international interest in recent months.
In October, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos won the Nobel Peace Prize for fostering a peace process that eventually led to an historic accord between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).
The peace prize — usually a reflection of events — may have helped shape them this time. Just days before the Nobel announcement, Colombian voters, in a low-turnout plebiscite, rejected a referendum on the peace deal, seemingly feeling that the terms were too lenient on FARC fighters accused of human rights crimes in the course of the 52-year conflict. As a newly minted laureate, Santos was able to hammer out a new deal with the FARC that was eventually approved by Colombian lawmakers.
In December, the Economist magazine dubbed Colombia its “country of the year.” While calling Colombia’s accord a “colossal achievement,” Economist editors acknowledged that “like most negotiated peace deals, Colombia’s is incomplete and involves ugly compromises. But the alternative is worse.”
In more diplomatic terms that’s the message that Juan Carlos Pinzón, Colombia’s ambassador to the U.S., shared in an interview during his trip to Minneapolis this week.
The process, Pinzón said, had moved from incomplete to implementation. But, “How do you make peace sustainable in Colombia?” he asked rhetorically. “We need to attract investment, we need to attract jobs, and give freedom to people, freedom from violence, freedom from rhetoric and terrible ideologies,” as well as an “objective, balanced justice system.”
While Colombians can claim credit for solving their strife, they were helped by an ally: America.
In fact, the U.S. was instrumental in ending the enduring war with its “Plan Colombia” initiative instigated by former President Bill Clinton, who worked with Republicans in Congress for a comprehensive approach that included integrated military, diplomatic and economic efforts. But unlike some international initiatives that whither with partisan shifts, leaders of both parties, including former presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, were stalwart.
“Colombia is very thankful to the United States,” Pinzón said. The aid, he added, “was critical to degrade crime and terrorism by going after them, but also the United States was critical for the peace talks. Their role was very significant and we expect the United States will play a role in the process of peace implementation and the building of prosperity in Colombia with security.”
That’s a tall task, and challenges, including a surge in Colombian coca-growing, show how winning the peace doesn’t end with a prize. The Trump administration should not only follow through, but use Plan Colombia as a model for other flailing states.
Of course, the nation would need to seek U.S. help, unlike the regime ruining Venezuela, once one of South America’s wealthiest countries. But should a shift in Caracas occur, a “Plan Venezuela” might be wise.
“Plan Colombia is seen from a foreign policy perspective as how the U.S. government, over a period of decades, can help a country that, what at times is an impossible situation, get off its back and work its way through it,” said Derek Chollet, a diplomat during the Obama administration who is now senior advisor for security and defense policy at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. Chollet, in Minneapolis this week to speak to the Committee on Foreign Relations Minnesota, added that Plan Colombia is “a reminder that we can achieve success when we have this kind of comprehensive approach and the strategic patience that goes along with it.”
The same should be able to be said about regional relations. All too often crises elsewhere eclipse more manageable challenges in Latin America, a region replete with opportunity. Indeed, in a turbulent world the Western Hemisphere is unique in its relative peace. But that sometimes means that U.S. policymakers take Latin America for granted, said Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a Latin American-focused think tank.
Achieving “what the region means for the United States — not only in terms of jobs, cooperation on regional issues and global issues, economic growth and a whole range of issues important to the United States — it’s easy with minimal investment of some quality attention and resources.”
Pinzón points to the hemisphere’s autonomous assets and urges closer cohesion. “The potential is immense; if someone makes that approach we might be able to evolve in a more effective way,” he said. But Pinzón added that regarding foreign policy, “Sometimes it’s my impression that the U.S. not only focuses on geopolitical challenges, but also where very dramatic problems are happening, and because Latin America doesn’t have nuclear weapons, interstate wars, and major terrorist organizations outside of the FARC which we just ended a conflict with — apparently that doesn’t create the attention that’s required.”
The key is to pay attention before these scourges hem in the hemisphere the way they have elsewhere. Strategic approaches like Plan Colombia should be replicated in the region and used as a template beyond.
John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:10 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.
Once a month, the theme of this column is determined by the “Great Decisions” dialogue on foreign policy, conducted in partnership with the nonprofit citizen engagement organization Global Minnesota. Want to join the conversation? Go to globalminnesota.org.