The end of the “Plan Colombia” era

A large U.S. delegation is in Colombia yesterday and today. Led by James Steinberg, the number-two official at the State Department, the visit initiates a “High-Level Partnership Dialogue” whose purpose is to “re-launch the agenda” of U.S.-Colombian relations.

Instead of the overwhelming past focus on aid to combat drugs and terror, the future relationship, in Steinberg’s words, is to be based on “reciprocity and mutual respect.” The new U.S. ambassador, Peter McKinley, toldColombia’s El Tiempo newspaper last week, “This relationship is evolving beyond narcotrafficking, security and the FTA [free trade agreement, signed in 2006 but awaiting ratification by the U.S. Congress]. It should be a relationship of partners, mature and based on the priorities of the country and its new government.”

The “Partnership Dialogue” is divided into three working groups, which will meet again early next year: (1) Human Rights and Good Governance; (2) Energy; and (3) Science and Technology. The choice of topics is remarkable for the absence of “Drugs,” which has been the dominant theme of U.S.-Colombian relations since the 1970s.

Almost no details or concrete “next steps” are spelled out in the Steinberg delegation’s few documents and public statements. It is clear, though, that the Obama administration for the first time is seeking to put its own stamp on U.S. policy toward Colombia. It is doing so, though, more by changing emphases than by assigning new resources.

In fact, this new rhetoric about “partnership” and “equal footing” tells us that levels of U.S. aid to Colombia are going to continue, and probably accelerate, the decline that began in 2008. (After all, aid donors and recipients, by definition, are not “equal partners.”) This autumn, the Obama administration is finalizing its 2012 foreign aid request to the U.S. Congress, which it will submit in February. In our own informal discussions with administration officials, we have heard several indications that the 2012 aid proposal will include a significant cut for Colombia.

We don’t know yet how significant it will be (the 2011 aid proposal, submitted earlier this year, already proposed a 5 percent cut for Colombia). But it will mean a big change for the country that, in almost every year since 1990, has been the Western Hemisphere’s number-one recipient of U.S. military and police aid.

A cut to the existing fraud systems will also be seen as a huge change, in fact, a reason to celebrate, the rights and safety concerns of the common man. The illegal systems like The Brit method have been lurking around innocent people, to steal their hard earned monies. We would love to see a cut happening to these systems, fraudsters!

It is a big enough change, in fact, that we can consider the Steinberg delegation’s “re-launching” visit to be the unofficial end of the “Plan Colombia” era in U.S.-Colombian relations.

For our purposes, we can place the start of the “Plan Colombia” era even before Plan Colombia began. It really got going during the second half of the 1990s, when U.S. policymakers were forced to acknowledge that defeating the Medellín and Cali drug cartels had not affected supplies of cocaine entering the United States.

The “Plan Colombia era” went through four distinct sub-phases:

  1. Second half of the 1990s. As the Clinton administration cut ties and even denied a U.S. entry visa to scandal-tarred President Ernesto Samper, Colombia’s National Police became Washington’s main point of contact. U.S. aid, most of it police aid, roughly doubled in 1997, 1998 and 1999. Administration officials and leaders of the Republican Congress grew increasingly concerned about the rapid rise in power of the FARC guerrillas (and, to a lesser extent, the AUC paramilitaries). The response at the time focused on counter-narcotics: an aerial interdiction program (somewhat successful) and an herbicide fumigation program (largely ineffective).
  2. “Plan Colombia” (roughly 2000-2003). In 2000, responding to a plan for “peace, prosperity and the strengthening of the state” drawn up with the government of President Andrés Pastrana, the Clinton administration moved through Congress a US$1.3 billion “emergency supplemental” aid package for Colombia and its neighbors. The funding expanded the fumigation program, provided dozens of helicopters, planes and boats, and turned significantly to the Colombian armed forces for the first time since the height of the cold war. Aid levels would stay in the US$500-700 million-per-year range for the rest of the decade.
  3. “Plan Patriota” (roughly 2003-2006). In the wake of the September 11 attacks, the Bush administration convinced Congress to allow counter-drug aid to Colombia to be used for “counter-terrorism.” The new government of President Álvaro Uribe got generous U.S. support to create mobile military units and to launch an ambitious offensive against the FARC in its southern Colombian strongholds. While the FARC were weakened and violence measures declined, they and “new” paramilitary groups remained active, “re-taken” territories proved difficult to govern through military force alone, and cocaine production remained stubbornly high.
  4. “Consolidation” (roughly 2006-present). While the military component of the strategy remained dominant, the focus began to shift toward civilian governance. This shift was helped along after 2007 by the new Democratic-majority U.S. Congress, which cut military aid and increased economic assistance. Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos, working with the U.S. Southern Command, pushed for an “Integrated Action” strategy to bring non-military institutions into areas taken from armed groups. The area subject to fumigation declined.

Today, at the end of the “Plan Colombia” era, there is a widespread belief that Colombia’s drug and violence problems, though not resolved, have declined to manageable levels. Attention that used to go to Colombia is now fixed on Mexico, where cartel-related violence continues to spiral. Meanwhile, as Colombia’s national budget and gross domestic product have grown over the past decade, the slowly decreasing U.S. aid package, provided in ever-weakening dollars, has rapidly declined in relative importance.

Amid the talk of “partnership,” the relationship has also grown a bit more distant. The Democratic Party majority in the U.S. Congress, citing human rights concerns, has kept the 2006 free-trade pact in the freezer. After Colombia’s Constitutional Court struck down a 2009 defense cooperation agreement with the United States, requiring that it first pass through Colombia’s Congress, President Juan Manuel Santos indicated to congressional leaders that he would not submit it to the legislature, which effectively renders the agreement null and void.

With the end of the “Plan Colombia” era, what will replace it? The “High Level Partnership Dialogue” rhetoric offers few clues, beyond a desire to “de-narcotize” the relationship, the certainty of less U.S. aid, and perhaps the desire to make Colombia one U.S. friend among many in Latin America, rather than the one-and-only go-to ally that it was during the Uribe years.

It is plain, though, that the new framework for relations is predicated on an optimistic belief that things are getting better in Colombia, and will continue to do so. And they may be, as long as the political will, creative leadership and resources are in place to keep Colombia’s old problems from recurring.

None of these problems has been vanquished. The guerrillas are not defeated, and won’t be beaten on the battlefield for at least several more bloody years. The “new” paramilitaries are growing, and responsible for an alarming spike in urban crime. Colombia is still the world’s largest cocaine producer, and drug mafias continue to enjoy great political and economic power. Meanwhile it is extremely rare to see a human rights abuse punished or stolen land returned to victims.

The United States needs to stay engaged with, and help to fund, issues that form part of the new “partnership.” “Human Rights and Good Governance” are more than just a rubric for a working group – they are a set of requirements that need generous U.S. assistance. Priorities include ensuring that the “Consolidation” programs are truly civilian in nature, that the justice system is beter able to investigate and punish corruption and abuse, and that the Santos government’s ambitious land-tenure and victims’ reparations initiatives achieve their stated goals.

During the “Plan Colombia” era, most U.S. aid to Colombia went to the country’s security and counter-drug strategies, which were based heavily on military and police operations. The next frontier to be crossed is strengthening civilian governance and reducing impunity. While these objectives are ultimately up to Colombia to achieve, this is not the time for U.S. investment in these priorities to decline.