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Is Trump's secret meeting with Colombian ex-presidents meant to undercut peace deal?

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, left,  at signing of a peace deal last year (Associated Press)
Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, left, at signing of a peace deal last year (Associated Press)

President Trump has met secretly with two former Colombian presidents before holding any face-to-face talks with one of their political enemies: the sitting president, Juan Manuel Santos.

The unusual meeting with former presidents Alvaro Uribe and Andres Pastrana has led to speculation in Colombia that the pair was enlisting Trump's support against a historic peace accord brokered by Santos with left-wing guerrillas.

Trump received Uribe and Pastrana on Good Friday at his Florida resort, Mar-a-Lago. The meeting was widely reported in the Colombian news media but never announced by the White House.

When White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer was asked about it at a briefing this week, he responded that he was unfamiliar with the event.

Trump has spoken to Santos twice on the telephone, but they have not met in person. Negotiations were under way for a possible White House encounter next month, Colombian officials said.

In Bogota, the Colombian capital, the Santos government was said to be livid at news of the Mar-a-Lago session. Uribe and Pastrana are vehemently opposed to the hard-fought peace accord that ended more than half a century of civil war.

Santos' stewardship of the accord, signed with Marxist guerrillas who long battled successive Colombian governments, was enthusiastically championed by the Obama administration.

And it earned Santos last year's Nobel Peace Prize.

But critics like the right-wing Uribe and Pastrana oppose the deal because they say it grants too many concessions to the guerrillas, and they have courted support in some U.S. conservative circles.

The pair apparently hoped to bring the deal to Trump's attention and enlist his backing against it. Reports in Colombia said the meeting was brokered by Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.); Rubio's office would neither confirm nor deny that.

Uribe followed up with a letter to members of the U.S. Congress, claiming the peace agreement would lead to an increase in cocaine production. 

In response, a group of 40 Colombian lawmakers wrote to Congress in a bid to counter Uribe's claims, accusing him and Pastrana of waging an overt campaign against the peace accord for domestic political reasons. Colombia holds presidential and parliamentarian elections next year, and Uribe is hoping his political party can make a comeback.

"It is not standard diplomatic practice for a president to receive opposition politicians before meeting with a legitimately elected head of state," Virginia Bouvier, senior advisor for peace processes at the Washington-based U.S. Institute of Peace, told The Times via email.

"The Trump administration would be wise to steer clear of internal divides within a polarized Colombia and keep its eye on the prize — the opportunity for peace after half a century of war," she wrote.

She said it was not clear the episode would have an impact on U.S. relations with Colombia, but that it was likely to deepen the political divide within Colombia as the nation attempts to recover from a conflict that cost more than a quarter of a million lives and brought the nation to the brink of collapse.

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