This week, U.S. President Donald Trump appointed Joseph Macmanus as the country’s new ambassador to Colombia. The career foreign service office will take over for Kevin Whitaker, who has held the top diplomatic position in Bogotá since 2014.
Macmanus, a Spanish speaker, comes to Colombia with a wealth of experience, having worked as an senior aide to four U.S. secretaries of state. He has served as a diplomat since 1986, including his most recent work in the Trump administration as advisor to the secretary of state and before that as senior advisor to the secretary of state and executive secretary of the department of state.
Joseph Macmanus will take over during one of the most tense periods in modern U.S./Colombia relations. Though the U.S. Congress approved $450 million USD in aid for Colombia this year, the White House has ramped up its rhetoric against officials in Bogotá who have been unable to stem the increase in coca production in their company.
“Last year, Colombia coca cultivation and cocaine production reached a record high, which, hopefully, will be remedied very quickly by the president [Santos],” said Trump in May during a joint press briefing with Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos during his first visit with the new U.S. leader. “We must confront this dangerous threat to our societies together.”
While a blustery tone emanating from the Oval Office is now more common than in past administrations, the near-constant bipartisan congressional support for funding “Plan Colombia,” an aid and support program that dates back to the 1990s, has been waning.
The production of coca, which is the plant used to produce cocaine, has spiked dramatically in recent years in Colombia since Santos halted the country’s aerial fumigation program. He and global health organizations have cited the potential risks to human health from dropping the herbicide glyphosate from planes onto the crops. But opponents have claimed that Santos halted the practice more to placate leftist FARC guerrillas while his administration tried, and ultimately succeeded, to reach a peace agreement with the faction.
Under that peace plan, Santos has refocused the country’s anti-cocaine efforts on reaching out to rural farmers to convince them to adopt “crop substitution” by replacing the coca they grow for the cartls with other crops. The United Nations has supported this strategy, recently signing a $315 million USD agreement to help with crop substitution efforts.
But Trump, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and U.S. congress members, including Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL), have all publicly questioned if such a policy can yield results. According to multiple sources, many in Congress share this view.
Increasingly, elected U.S. officials are seeing the coca production numbers go up and wondering if the high U.S. funding levels for Colombia can be sustained without better results to combat cocaine. Macmanus will be tasked with overseeing U.S. policy toward the country that has been its closest ally in Latin America amid these new tensions.
Photo: Joseph E. Macmanus speaking at a panel on International Women’s Day in 2014. (Credit: Dean Calma / International Atomic Energy Agency)