Trump Reaffirms U.S. Support for Colombia After Meeting with Santos but Shifts Policy Focus from Peace to Drugs
Yesterday, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos met with President Donald Trump in the White House during the most trying and chaotic week yet in the U.S. head of state’s young, tumultuous presidency. The two held a joint press conference following their private sit down, but given the current turmoil in Washington, the media on hand was more focused on a widening Trump scandal that has snowballed daily since he fired the head of the FBI on May 9.
Both presidents offered prepared statements outlining their bilateral agenda. Trump led with an eagerly awaited assurance that his administration is seeking a continuation of the close ties that the two nations have developed over the past two decades. “Colombia is one of our closest allies in the hemisphere, and today we reaffirm partnership between our two great nations,” said Trump from the White House.
Photo: Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos discussed Plan Colombian, peace building, the crisis in Venezuela, and trade relations during his first meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump. (Credit: Presidencia de la República)
However, Trump made it clear that his focus is squarely set on the war on drugs rather than on assisting with Colombia’s herculean task of peace-building and rural development as it embarks on its post-conflict era. “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. “We must confront this dangerous threat to our societies together.”
While the U.S. president spoke at length about how cocaine and drugs are “poisoning too many American lives,” not once did he mention the historic peace accord finalized late last year between Colombia and the country’s largest guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Trump did conclude his opening remarks by congratulating Santos on wining the Nobel Peace Prize in 2016, but there was nothing mentioned previously in his statement to even suggest why Colombia’s leader may have been given that honor.
Still, the remarks, made during a day when the administration was focused on deflecting media questions about Trump’s ties to Russia and his firing of FBI Director James Comey, did renew the U.S. commitment to support its South American ally — an assurance that those in Bogotá have been hoping to hear ever since the candidate with an “America first” and protectionist platform won the U.S. election last November.
Since the United States launched “Plan Colombia” in the late 1990s, the country has sent more than $10 billion USD in military, anti-narcotics, and development aid to Colombia. Earlier this month, the U.S. Congress did approve the $450 million USD in aid for 2017 that former President Barack Obama pledged last year toward the continuation of this plan, but speculation has swirled as to whether officials in Bogotá can continue to count on this level of support in the years to come.
“The commitment on President Trump’s side and his administration was shown through the approval of the budget that, for Colombia, means an increase in the support to fund the post-conflict era,” said Santos.
In response to one question asked in Spanish by a reporter, Trump did publicly acknowledge that Colombia is in the midst of a post-conflict rebuilding effort. But his comments were shallow, brief, and vague, insinuating a lower level of interest compared to his focus on the war on drugs. Trump said that “FARC is — that was a long, tough situation” and noted that reaching a deal with the guerrilla group after more than a half-century of war was a “long process, and it’s been a great thing to watch.” Trump added that, “there’s nothing tougher than peace, and we want to make peace all over the world.”
In terms of fighting cocaine production, Santos, who highlighted the two nations’ “strategic alliance and extraordinary friendship,” presented Colombia’s new dual-pronged strategy. The new policy out of Bogotá will both continue the practice of destroying coca fields while also offering incentives to farmers to stop growing coca and instead plant other crops. Unlike Trump’s brute-force mentality, Santos from the White House characterized his plan as “a new strategy: carrot and stick.”
Santos said that Colombia has already destroyed 15,000 hectares of coca in 2017, as much as in all of 2016, and at the same time registered 80,000 families into a crop-substitution program that will soon have them growing “legal crops” instead of coca. “This is the first time that this could be done because of the peace,” said Santos. “Before, the conflict did not allow us to build roads and to give these peasants an alternative. Now we have. So we have to take advantage of this opportunity and continue reducing the production of coca.”
The coca-fighting methods used by Colombia in recent years have been a point of contention between security officials in the two countries. For years, Colombia’s most effective means of destroying coca crops had been aerial fumigation, in which pilots dropped herbicide from planes over known fields. But the international community widely criticized the practice due to both health and environmental concerns. Colombia eventually halted aerial spraying in 2015 following reports from the World Health Organization showing that the chemical used, glyphosate, is a carcinogen that was putting rural communities, agriculture, and water supplies at risk.
Many in Washington were reportedly not pleased with the decision to stop aerial spraying. Santos supported the policy change at the time, and last year he again ruled out Colombia returning to this means of eradication, instead authorizing only less efficient manual fumigation methods carried out by personnel on the ground.
From the White House, Santos further outlined his vision of how best to combat drug production and trafficking, saying that he hopes to work with Trump “to take advantage of the unique opportunity peace offers” to “fight more effectively the other links in drug trafficking, including consumption.”
In his attempt to put drug use on the agenda, Santos appeared to be calling for a less-draconian view toward the war on drugs, something not supported by Trump’s push for building a wall on the Mexican border and establishing harsher drug violation sentencing guidelines in the United States. “This is not a problem of Colombia or a problem of the United States,” said Santos. “It’s a global problem. We have to all work together.”
Yesterday, Trump did not take a stance on specific coca eradication tactics outside of offering a blanket statement of support. “I affirmed the United States’ willingness to assist Colombia’s strategy to target and eliminate drug-trafficking networks, illicit financings, coca cultivation, and cocaine production, of which there is far too much,” said Trump.
His stated objectives in fighting cocaine distribution center on the end results as opposed to on-the-ground factors in Colombia. “My administration is committed to keeping drugs and gangs from pouring into our country,” said Trump. He added that, with Colombia, “together, we will continue to fight the criminal networks responsible for the deadly drug trade.”
While not much more was said publicly by Trump — and nothing in regards to the many development and social programs included within the nation’s peace agreement — Colombia’s president said that he will walk away from their meeting encouraged that the two countries can continue to work together on their shared goals.
“I can say, Mr. President, based on our conversation this afternoon, that I have no doubt that the United States and Colombia continue to be — today, more than ever — a support, one for the other,” said Santos. “Our alliance was strengthened.”