Colombia's president seeks U.S. support for historic peace deal

As Colombia nears a historic treaty to formally end the oldest armed conflict in the Americas, its president, Juan Manuel Santos, came to Washington on Wednesday to ask President Obama for money and other help for the complicated task of post-war reconstruction.

Santos' three-day visit is timed to mark the 15th anniversary of Plan Colombia, the controversial U.S.-backed $10-billion program that helped Colombia battle leftist guerrillas and eradicate coca fields but also gave rise to grievous human rights abuse.

Human rights activists, academics and others argue that any new U.S. plan for Colombia should shift its focus from military aid to the peace-time challenges of removing land mines, granting land titles to indigenous communities, building government institutions in rural areas and providing recovery for victims.

For more than half a century, Colombian governments have fought largely peasant armies of leftist guerrillas, who claimed they were fighting to eliminate gross inequalities in land distribution and elsewhere in the economy.

Drug traffickers in a country that is the leading producer of cocaine corrupted the political process, often co-opting one side or the other and undoubtedly prolonging the fight.

Nearly four years ago, however, Santos and the principal remaining guerrilla faction, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, entered into serious peace talks in Havana, Cuba. 

After the hammering out of numerous issues, a March 23 deadline has been set for an accord, and, though earlier efforts repeatedly failed, all indications are that the two sides will sign an agreement this time.

“Most Colombians have never seen one day of peace,” Santos said Wednesday in his first public event in Washington. “Colombia got accustomed to war. You ask people what they think about peace, and they are afraid. It is change."

“We have to teach them that peace will be marvelous,” he told a packed auditorium at the Woodrow Wilson Center, a think tank.

Santos is scheduled to meet with Obama at the White House on Thursday and is courting congressional and administration officials.

Administration officials said Obama will request increased funding for Colombia in his next budget, to be submitted to Congress this month.

Mark Feierstein, senior director for Western Hemisphere Affairs at the National Security Council, would not give a figure but said the request would exceed the roughly $300 million Colombia now receives annually.

That amount is down from $1 billion at the height of Plan Colombia.

Santos has declined to put a price tag on what are expected to be ambitious peace-and-reconciliation efforts. Reports in Colombia have estimated he would seek around $500 million annually.

It is not clear what kind of reception Santos’ pleas will receive. Some U.S. officials have said they worry that “Colombia fatigue" has settled in, and Congress might be reluctant to increase aid for the troubled but relatively prosperous country.

A bipartisan group of 57 House members, however, issued a letter this week urging Obama to provide Colombia with “robust and concrete support” to enact peace accords.

Given the investment in war through Plan Colombia, the letter stated, the U.S. “needs to demonstrate that same commitment to peace now.”

Plan Colombia helped the nation move from a harshly violent country on the brink of becoming a failed state to its current position of economic success, with a stronger democracy and at the threshold of peace, Santos said.

But the plan came with a sharp downside. U.S.-trained Colombian security forces have been accused of human rights abuses, including extrajudicial killings and spying on opposition, church and union figures.

Guerrillas and right-wing paramilitary squads often in the employ of the landed elite also committed abuses, including killings, kidnappings and indiscriminate attacks on civilians.

“Plan Colombia achieved security, but those gains came at a high price,” said Gimena Sanchez Garzoli, an expert on human rights in Colombia at the Washington Office on Latin America, a nonprofit research and advocacy organization.  “Celebrating Plan Colombia is a mistake.”

Several army commanders under investigation on suspicion of murder are up for promotion. And more than 100 defenders of human rights have been slain in the last two years, according to Sanchez' group.

Before 2008, 80% of the nearly $10 billion in U.S. aid went to the military side of the conflict, including a fleet of Black Hawk helicopters.

More recently, the share allocated to the so-called “soft side,” such as humanitarian and social programs, grew somewhat, and some of the aid was conditioned on progress in human rights.

Activists want to see those conditions strengthened in future allocations.

“It is imperative that the U.S. government not forget the grave human rights abuses that occurred at the high-water mark of U.S. assistance,” said Lisa Haugaard, executive director of the Latin American Study Group Education Fund, which monitors aid programs. “The U.S., having invested so much in war, has an obligation [now]. Peace is expensive.”

The peace accords will not bestow amnesty on those who committed crimes against humanity or war crimes. But it will allow the war’s minor offenders to escape jail time if they confess, apologize and renounce violence.

In his remarks Wednesday, Santos said he was surprised to learn that many of Colombia’s victims are the first to forgive. He put the number of victims at 7.5 million in a country of just under 50 million people.

Colombia’s indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities and other rural peasants were disproportionately harmed. The peace plan contains a section promoting rural development and outlines political participation for former combatants.

The FARC will also be required to sever ties with drug-trafficking gangs. Santos said the guerrillas have pledged to do so. The last details being negotiated now, he said, are demobilization, disarmament and reintegration of approximately 8,000 guerrilla fighters.

Eventually, the peace plan will be submitted to popular vote in the form of a plebiscite.

Secretary of State John F. Kerry, who will meet with Santos on Friday, voiced support for more aid for Colombia as part of a “successor strategy” that will also continue to put emphasis on fighting drug trafficking.

“Colombians now have an historic opportunity to embrace a future free from conflict and violence,” Kerry wrote in an op-ed article published in the Miami Herald. “The United States has good reason to stand by their side.”

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