Leaders from the Western Hemisphere absent Venezuela’s President Maduro will gather for the 8th Summit of the Americas in Peru later this week. Vice President Pence following the summit will travel on to Colombia. Steve Hege explains a range of issues involving Colombia from U.S. bilateral relations, upcoming elections, peace plan implementation and reforms, and the strains on public infrastructure and services as a result of an exodus of Venezuelan refugees.

Complete Transcript

The transcript below has been edited slightly for content, clarity and brevity.

Tim Farley (host): Let's shift to the foreign policy front. President Trump was supposed to attend the Summit of the Americas. It is taking place in Peru this week. Instead the vice president will be going. Also, we understand that Nicolas Maduro, who is the president of Venezuela, has decided that he will not attend the upcoming Summit of the Americas. Let's put this in context, and specifically we want to focus on issues related to Colombia. Joining us here on POTUS is Steve Hege, senior program officer of Middle East and Africa at the USIP, with the Twitter handle @USIP. Steve Hege, welcome. Thank you for being here today.

Steve Hege: Thank you very much for having me, Tim.

TF: Do you think it's problematic that the president is not attending, that the vice president is attending in his place?

SH: Well, I think actually the follow up visit to Colombia was potentially more important than the actual summit attendance. And I think the timing, given that we're a little over two months from Colombia's presidential elections, I think the timing is actually probably a bit better that the visit was suspended or postponed to Colombia, given that the position that the U.S. had taken most recently on Venezuela and drug trafficking in Colombia have really important political ramifications in the presidential campaigns going on in Colombia right now.

TF: Speaking of which, we mentioned that the Venezuelan president would not be attending, obviously there's been an issue because refugees from Venezuela have been going into Colombia. This at a very important point where the Colombia peace plan is being implemented. So maybe you could give us some perspective on those two events and how they are connected. 

SH: Absolutely, Tim. Over the last three or four years we had up to a million Venezuelans, or Colombians that had been living in Venezuela for several decades, returned to Colombia. And this has created a great deal of strain on social infrastructure and public services in Colombia. The U.S. is certainly concerned about the spillover effect of the Venezuelan crisis into Colombia. And the Colombian government has taken efforts recently to try to ensure that all of these migrants are registered and are afforded some degree of humanitarian assistance. The Colombian peace process is certainly affected by the Venezuelan crisis to the extent to which the FARC had largely been seen as, sort of, harbingers of a Chavez-Maduro, President Maduro-like regime, and therefore that the consequences of the type of crisis that Venezuela is seeing today, could be brought into the Colombian context.

And that's been really taken up by the former president of Colombia, Álvaro Uribe. His protege Iván Duque, the far-right candidate who is now leading polling, he has really, really put a great deal of emphasis on this point, and gained a lot of popularity around the sphere, that a Venezuela-like regime could come to Colombia as a result of the peace process. And this is largely unfounded in many ways given that the peace accord itself really touches upon a lot of fundamental reforms and changes that Colombia has needed for decades. And many of these reforms in the peace accord with the FARC don't really actually benefit the FARC exclusively, but are more broadly for Colombian society. And particularly rural parts of Colombia that have been largely marginalized and forgotten. And have been characterized and plagued by illicit economies, including illegal criminal mining and obviously drug trafficking.

TF: President Trump has often claimed the previous administrations have failed in certain areas of foreign policy where he is succeeding. We go back to February of two years ago, when President Obama, then president, had welcomed the Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos to the White House to talk about the peace plan and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, FARC, as you were just discussing. And he said that things were moving along. Is it your sense that the previous administrations have actually set the framework and the groundwork for this administration with reference to Colombia, or is this an example of the previous administration maybe falling short in what needed to be done?

SH: Well, I think from sort of the long view, the previous administration certainly put into perspective the importance and the imperatives on drug trafficking and the critical aspect of the demobilizing the FARC, and ensuring the FARC collaborated in efforts to counter drug trafficking networks within Colombia. That was certainly a priority under the previous administration.

What we've seen under the current Trump administration is potentially an imbalance in that prioritization. It is true that as a result, partially as a result, of the peace process, there has been a threefold spike in coca production across the country, but I think the Trump administration has focused more exclusively on urging the Colombian authorities to forcefully eradicate as much of that new coca production as possible. 

Whereas the previous U.S. administration had been very supportive of the idea that this was going to be a long-term process. And that the key precept of the FARC agreement around drug trafficking was that there would be voluntary crop substitution in which local communities would themselves be compensated in one way or another in the short-term, and then be supported with basic infrastructure, or technical assistance, or access to local markets. And what we're seeing is this overemphasis by the Trump administration on interdiction, on the forced eradication of coca. What we're seeing is a de-prioritization of these long-term systemic governance and infrastructure needs that will be really critical to transforming rural economies in Colombia. And so, we hope that we can see a more balanced approach in the coming years, and an understanding of the holistic needs to deal with drug trafficking in Colombia.

TF: Is trade really at the bottom of this, for the U.S. and Colombia?

SH: Well, I think the Free Trade Agreement and Colombia's strategic alliance in the region is certainly critical. We've invested over $10 billion over the last 15 years in Colombia as a part of Plan Colombia. And a big part of that has been, sure, to shore up our trade partner in Colombia, which has been, up until recent years, a very strong, growing, middle class economy. But also strategic interests, obviously, with regards to Venezuela. Certainly President Maduro is watching those very closely and sees Colombia in many ways as a pawn of the United States. And that plays into another aspect: in addition to the challenges with the FARC peace agreement, we have ongoing talks with the National Liberation Army that are currently being held in Quito, Ecuador.

The National Liberation Army, the ELN, has, for the last decade or so, had very strong ties to the Venezuelan government. And so, the Venezuelan government has actually increased its support to the ELN rebels, partly as a strategic move to counter the potential threat of a military intervention from Colombia by the United States, something that President Trump alluded to as a possibility last year. So this is certainly exacerbating the potential to resolve and reach a definitive peace agreement with Colombia's second most important rebel group.

On Peace is a weekly podcast sponsored by USIP and Sirius XM POTUS Ch. 124. Each week, USIP experts tackle the latest foreign policy issues from around the world.

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