Last weekend marked the moment Kevin Whitaker truly became Donald Trump’s ambassador to Colombia. It came in a featured interview in Sunday’s edition of the country’s largest newspaper, El Tiempo.
In fact, Kevin Whitaker has headed the U.S. embassy in Bogota for almost three-and-a-half years. While Barack Obama was president, Ambassador Whitaker consistently gave vocal support to the FARC peace process, which culminated in a November 2016 accord ending a 52-year conflict. But now, he is following a different set of orders. His interview marks the sharpest reversal yet in U.S. support for the process.
With El Tiempo, Whitaker highlights areas in which the FARC is slow to comply with accord commitments, but only mentions the Colombian government’s own foot-dragging when it concerns coca eradication.
The interview was remarkable for what the Ambassador did not say.
What Whitaker said: “The FARC have not complied, in my judgment, with their obligations based on the accord. What does the accord say? It says that the FARC need to give information about narcotrafficking so the there may be investigations and judicial follow-up, something that hasn’t occurred.”
What Whitaker, unfortunately, did not say: “Turning in information about the operations of narcotrafficking organizations is one of the most dangerous things an individual can do in Colombia. Few paramilitary groups did this when they demobilized a decade ago during Álvaro Uribe’s presidency; this is why their links to the legal economy remain largely uncovered, and why many mid-level paramilitary leaders so easily took over much of the drug trade as ‘criminal bands.’ Overcoming ex-guerrillas’ hesitation is impossible without strong security guarantees. We will work with Colombian prosecutors and fund the Interior Ministry’s protection unit to make sure that ex-guerrillas who share information do not pay the ultimate price.”
What he said: “Frankly, I find myself very disappointed with the results that we’ve managed to achieve [working with the Attorney General’s Office to recover FARC assets]. I’m sure that there’s more money in this.”
What he did not say: “We suspect that the FARC are holding back on their illegally acquired assets. Their declaration of over a trillion pesos in assets (over US$340 million) is far more than the paramilitaries handed over a decade ago, but still seems low. This is our suspicion, we can’t prove it, but we will work closely with Colombian prosecutors, investigators, and financial experts to track down more of these hidden assets and hold accountable any FARC members who are cheating.”
What he said: “Right now we’re investigating several cases of people who are trying, in a fraudulent way, to be included in the list [of guerrillas who will benefit from amnesty or reduced sentences], though they shouldn’t be there.”
What he did not say: “The FARC has presented 14,178 names of guerrillas, combining about 7,000 who went through the six-month demobilization process, militias (part-time guerrillas) who had to register, and guerrillas in Colombian prisons. Colombia’s government has so far verified 11,345 names and found 251 people who were not guerrillas. Of these, two went through the full demobilization process. Twenty-one are non-guerrillas wanted in the United States for narcotrafficking. This is a black eye for the peace process, as it was for the AUC paramilitary demobilization 10 years ago. However, the Colombian government’s vetting of purported ex-guerrillas is maintaining the legitimacy of the overall peace process and has our support.”
Coming a week after the White House’s near-decertification of Colombia, whose bombastic wording did needless harm to an unraveling bilateral relationship, the glaring omissions in Whitaker’s interview strengthen and enable the new hard line in Washington. The ambassador got his orders, and he followed them. That, of course, is his job. But at a late stage of a distinguished Foreign Service career, Kevin Whitaker risks being remembered as the diplomat who led an abrupt and premature retreat from a promising peace process