What's in store for US aid to Colombia?

By Michael Igoe 04 February 2016

U.S. President Barack Obama and Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos greet participants after a land titling event at the Plaza de San Pedro in Cartagena, Colombia, in 2012. Photo by: Pete Souza / The White House

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos will meet Thursday with U.S. President Barack Obama during a four-day visit to Washington, D.C. The visit includes a ceremony celebrating 15 years of “Plan Colombia” — the package of U.S. assistance that has supported Colombia’s efforts to combat drug-funded insurgent groups and extend social services to conflict-affected communities.

The two presidents are also expected to reveal more details about the next phase of U.S. assistance to Colombia — unofficially dubbed “Plan Colombia 2.0” — now that the South American country is close to signing a long-sought and controversial peace treaty with the FARC guerrilla movement. Many expect a peace agreement could be signed within the first half of this year.

Santos, accompanied by several cabinet members, will meet with a wide range of officials and policymakers during the four-day visit. The White House is touting the visit as reflective of “one of the premier foreign policy successes for the United States in recent years,” which has come at a cost of over $9 billion in U.S. assistance to Colombia since 2000.

Obama will include increased bilateral assistance in his fiscal year 2017 budget request to support Colombia’s implementation of a peace treaty with the FARC, according to administration officials who briefed reporters earlier this week, and more details about that request should emerge this week.

According to Roberta Jacobson, assistant secretary of state for Western hemisphere affairs, the new assistance plan will focus in three areas: security — including counternarcotics, demobilization of FARC fighters and demining; strengthening and expanding public institutions to previously inaccessible areas; and justice and assistance for victims of the conflict.

Despite the increase in bilateral assistance, Colombia, a middle-income country, will be expected to foot a significant share of the peace treaty implementation bill.

“They will be the ones that will finance the bulk of whatever post peace-accord effort is required,” said National Security Council Senior Director for Western Hemisphere Affairs Mark Feierstein. “But we do believe that there’s some catalytic assistance the United States can provide in some discrete areas that can make a real difference in the short to medium term,” he added.

Plan Colombia is not without its detractors. Human rights groups say U.S. security assistance has flowed to military forces that have killed civilians with relative impunity. Forced disappearances and violence against human rights defenders — labeled as guerrilla sympathizers — Afro-Colombians and Colombia’s indigenous peoples leave many questioning the decision to “celebrate” a program of security-first cooperation that exacted a high toll on Colombia’s conflict-affected communities.

“Celebrating Plan Colombia is a mistake, because Plan Colombia achieved a lot of its security results at a very high human cost,” said Gimena Sánchez-Garzoli, senior associate at the Washington Office on Latin America. “The U.S. was complicit in financing armed forces that led to the extrajudicial killings of more than 3,400 civilians.”

U.S. officials have repeatedly raised human rights concerns in their meetings with Colombian counterparts, and in 2008 — at the behest of the U.S. Congress — revisions to the assistance package included human rights conditions, a reduction in military assistance and increased funding to Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities.

Obama also pushed the Colombia Labor Action Plan, a negotiated commitment to prevent violence against labor unions, according to Sanchez-Garzoli. U.S. support has strengthened Colombia’s justice sector in an effort to reestablish rule of law and aid in the legal prosecution of war criminals on both sides of the conflict.

Civil society advocates hope that under the new assistance plan funding will shift even further away from security and toward “softer” socioeconomic development among Colombia’s marginalized populations.

“There has been a gradual, timid, but still visible shift in the aid package that I think should take a decisive turn in the direction of more aid going directly to civil society organizations in the peripheral areas of Colombia,” said César Rodríguez-Garavito, executive director of Dejusticia.

Rodríguez-Garavito isn’t sure a reboot of Plan Colombia, with its heavily military and anti-trafficking connotations, is the right way to package the new spirit of development cooperation.

“It would be best to start from scratch and rename this whole collaboration in terms of, not only an emphasis on, social services and civil society participation, but also in terms of a different understanding of the whole approach to drug policy,” he said.

There is reason to worry that a peace treaty, while ostensibly ending the state’s conflict with the FARC, could breed new conflicts over Colombia’s rich — and highly contested — natural resources. Advocates for indigenous groups already complain that large-scale investors, particularly in the country’s booming palm oil industry, are steamrolling property rights and seizing large, disputed tracts of land. A peace deal could make access to the Amazon’s forests much easier, driving a spike in land values and exerting greater pressure on land resources and those who claim tenure rights to them.

A September 2009 cable obtained from Wikileaks describes a meeting with Colombian Minister of Mines and Energy Hernan Martinez, in which he told U.S. diplomats that Colombia planned over the next 20 years “to convert 3 million hectares of fallow cattleland into sugar cane and palm fields,” an area of land the size of Belgium.

The same cable described a commitment to ensure smallholders benefit from that development, a sentiment echoed by U.S. officials. “There’s a strong commitment to revive the rural economy, to bring roads and credit and land titles to farmers and help them move to a licit economy,” Bernard Aronson, U.S. special envoy for the Colombian peace process, said in the press briefing.

The land tenure and rural development situation is further complicated by the large number of people internally displaced by the conflict, many of whom could return to their homes if peace proves a lasting outcome of the anticipated accords. As people return to the homes and farms they’ve left behind, the government and its development partners will face the daunting challenge of balancing smallholder property claims with potentially lucrative investment opportunities.

“If you really want to have a successful peace accord that looks at all of these incredibly complex issues, you need to bolster the political and financial participation of Afro-Colombians and indigenous to be able to guarantee that these problems don’t become conflicts or worse environmental damages in the future,” said Sanchez-Garzoli.

The war in Colombia is the oldest in the Western hemisphere. It has persisted for 51 years, resulted in the death of an estimated 225,000 Colombians and displaced 6 million people from their homes.

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About the author

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Michael Igoe@AlterIgoe

Michael Igoe is a senior correspondent for Devex. Based in Washington, D.C., he covers U.S. foreign aid and emerging trends in international development and humanitarian policy. Michael draws on his experience as both a journalist and international development practitioner in Central Asia to develop stories from an insider's perspective.


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