Q&A: Colombia’s President Santos in Washington

On the Issues with Virginia "Ginny" Bouvier

February 2, 2016
Fred Strasser

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos meets President Barack Obama on Feb. 4 in Washington to commemorate the 15th anniversary of “Plan Colombia,” a U.S.-led effort that has provided about $10 billion to help the South American country’s security forces fight leftist guerrillas and drug traffickers. Virginia Bouvier, a senior advisor for peace processes at the U.S. Institute of Peace, who has led the Institute’s work on Colombia for the past decade, talks about Santos’s visit and the fast-moving peace talks with those rebels that are taking place in Havana.

Photo Courtesy of The New York Times/Michael Appleton

Making his second visit to Washington since taking office in August 2010, Santos likely will review with Obama the progress of the peace negotiations, which now are on track to end, possibly this year, an internal conflict that began in 1964. The protracted fighting has killed more than 220,000 and displaced more than 6 million people.

President Santos will discuss Colombia’s security and governance progress over the past 15 years during an event on Feb. 3 that USIP is co-sponsoring with the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars, the Atlantic Council, the Council of the Americas and Inter-American Dialogue. The forum will be webcast.

Why has Santos come to Washington at this time?

Colombia is at a crossroads. Three years of formal peace talks with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) are in their final phase in Havana; the United Nations Security Council just approved a resolution to assist with the implementation of a ceasefire and the logistics for disarming the FARC; and both sides are pushing to meet a March 23 deadline they set for a final accord.

The presidents will discuss bilateral relations in the context of the expected peace deal. Secretary of State John Kerry said this week that the administration will send Congress a successor strategy to Plan Colombia designed to enhance security gains, crack down on drug trafficking and help with compensation and recovery in areas the FARC leaves.

The visit gives the U.S. an opportunity to affirm support for one of its strongest allies in the hemisphere. Santos gets a political boost as he prepares to sell a final accord to a somewhat skeptical Colombian public that, one way or another, will be asked to vote on it.

What can the U.S. do to help conclude a peace agreement and ensure it sticks?

The U.S. has mostly stayed on the sidelines of the peace process. But there are several ways it could help. Lifting the FARC’s 1997 designation as a foreign terrorist organization would send an important signal to the Colombian public and help integrate the FARC into civic life, a critical process in preventing a return to violence.

In his meeting with Obama, Santos may raise the situation of FARC leader Simón Trinidad. He’s been held in solitary confinement in a maximum-security U.S. prison since 2004. The FARC always insisted there would be no agreement without his release. Then there’s former President Alvaro Uribe, a magnet for opposition to the talks. He’s a friend of many in the U.S. government and the business community, and U.S. leaders could press him to play a more constructive role.

Finally, the U.S. should assist Colombia’s anticipated truth commission. In addition to the death toll of more than 220,000, authorities have registered about 7 million people as victims of the conflict, survivors who have suffered a range of consequences, from losing loved ones to the loss of land and livelihoods. U.S. agencies have maintained important records that could contribute enormously to accountability and stabilization. The U.S. did this before in Chile, Paraguay, El Salvador, Brazil and elsewhere to great effect.

Has Plan Colombia been a success?  

The jury’s still out. I hope Santos’s visit will spark deeper reflection on the lessons learned from our engagement under Plan Colombia. The programs always had bipartisan support and most U.S. policymakers would probably say military backing for counterinsurgency, counter-narcotics, and counter-terrorism—the three prisms through which U.S. aid was conceptualized over the past 15 years—achieved its goals. As we think about the future of Plan Colombia, however, it will be important to listen to the critics of the plan as well as those who tout its success.

Looking at Plan Colombia through a conflict resolution perspective, you have to wonder whether the tremendous resources, aimed primarily toward military assistance, might inadvertently have helped prolong the war. Remember, particularly, the timing of the plan. It came in the middle of an earlier peace process and tipped the balance of power toward military sectors that opposed a political solution. That peace process died shortly thereafter, and it has taken a decade to revive it.

So what drove the FARC to negotiate?

Plan Colombia did weaken the guerrillas. But they’ve shown tremendous capacity for survival and adaptation. The talks developed when both sides recognized they had reached a military stalemate. Politically, the FARC saw signs that they could advance their ideological view without recourse to arms. Plus, common ground appeared on some key issues such as land reform, which had long been at the center of the guerrillas’ demands.

In addition, the Colombian public was mobilizing against the war and, behind the scenes, quietly searching for solutions.  Victims were becoming increasingly organized.  A new international context also had an impact. Electoral wins by former guerrillas throughout Latin America—in Uruguay, El Salvador, even within Colombia itself—undermined the justification for armed struggle, which even Fidel Castro and Hugo Chávez were calling anachronistic.  

The FARC is often portrayed as a one-time Marxist insurgency that became a drug-trafficking syndicate. What’s your view?

No question, trafficking has been the engine of the war for many years. But the group’s peace agenda makes it clear that at least the leadership has strong ideological goals. In Havana, the FARC has agreed to partner with the government to counter trafficking. They clearly have tremendous intelligence that would be of assistance, though I think expectations here need to be tempered, given the regional and global scope of the problem.

This question does bear on the U.S. commitment to the peace process.  There’s no instance in the world where an insurgent group has negotiated its way into prison at home or abroad. Many of the FARC negotiators have pending U.S. extradition requests for trafficking. A diplomatic solution appears to be that the U.S. will continue to request extraditions, but will respect the Colombian government’s right to act or not on those requests. Colombia, of course, has been among the most cooperative countries on such requests.

Give us an update on the peace process. What’s been accomplished and what remains to be done?

Agreements have been reached on the first four items of a six-point agenda. Two are still under negotiation—the terms for ending the conflict and the mechanisms for endorsing the accord. The first point involves issues such as where FARC forces will concentrate to lay down arms and who will oversee the process. This is something the UN will be working on. The FARC wants assurances that they will be protected from paramilitaries and criminal bands. As for endorsement, the government favors a referendum while the FARC wants a national constituent assembly. Then there are some two-dozen points from earlier agreements that were set aside temporarily.

Does Santos deserve the credit for the trajectory of the negotiations?

Santos has put tremendous political capital into the talks. While there’s a lot of credit owed to many people—both within and outside the Colombian government—his leadership has been and continues to be essential to the success of the peace process.

February 2, 2016