WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas
15 Feb 2016 | Commentary | News

“Peace Colombia”: What’s New About It?

Background While an important and necessary improvement over past U.S. aid, "Peace Colombia" is a smaller, and more military-focused, program than it should be. The new package is different than what came before, but not radically different.

A walk-through of the 2017 aid request, and the likely congressional debate

(Una versión adaptada de este artículo aparece en español en el portal colombiano Razón Pública.)

We don’t know exactly what Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos asked for when he met with Obama administration officials and members of the U.S. Congress during his early February visit to Washington. Perhaps he requested—or decided not to request—some measures that the U.S. government was not prepared to take, like removing the FARC from the State Department’s list of terrorist groups, freeing imprisoned guerrilla leader “Simón Trinidad,” or promising a post-conflict aid package of US$500 million or more.

What Santos did get in Washington were some very strong rhetorical shows of support for the peace process with guerrilla groups (which probably helps him in his domestic debates with the peace talks’ right-wing opponents), and a promise from President Obama to ask Congress for US$450 million in new aid for Colombia in 2017.

This aid package is being called “Peace Colombia.” (Perhaps an unconscious nod to the Colombian civil-society movement of the same name, which sought to promote alternatives to Plan Colombia back in 2000-2001.) It would represent an important increase in aid to Colombia from its current level of about US$325 million.

From the information we have available now, “Peace Colombia” appears to be an important and necessary step, and an improvement over past U.S. approaches in Colombia. But it is also a smaller, and more military-focused, program than it should be. The new package is different than what came before, but not radically different.

Background on U.S. aid to Colombia

Gradual change has been the rule for U.S. assistance since around 2007, Plan Colombia’s most intense moment, when U.S. aid exceeded US$750 million. At that time, 80 percent of the aid went to military and police initiatives, including the “Plan Patriota” offensive, herbicide fumigation of nearly 400,000 acres, and the launch of a guerrilla encampment-bombing campaign and a “Territorial Consolidation” counterinsurgency plan. Since that point, every year has seen small reductions in the overall aid amount, and small adjustments away from military and police aid toward economic and social aid. Today, the “hard side” of U.S. aid is just barely over 50 percent of the total.

The US$450 proposed for 2017, while larger than this year’s amount, is far smaller than what the U.S. government was providing ten years ago. This sends the unfortunate message that Washington is more generous in times of war than in times of consolidating peace. Still, for the first time, the majority of U.S. aid will go to non-military priorities: to Colombians who do not wear uniforms and carry weapons.

What is in the Peace Colombia aid package?

The vast majority of the proposed aid will go through five programs, or accounts, in the U.S. system of foreign aid. It’s worth looking at these five programs to understand the Obama administration’s post-conflict priorities.

1. Economic Support Funds (ESF), US$187.3 million (compared to US$141.3 million this year). This is the main economic aid program, carried out by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). It would support the Colombian government’s “Territorial Peace” efforts to establish a state presence in historically abandoned parts of the country, as well as programs for victims, ethnic minorities, the justice system, human rights, and peace-building. While programs like these are necessary for Colombia’s post-conflict success, ESF would only increase by US$46 million over 2016 levels, to a total that is lower than this account was in 2008-2010. The ESF component of the aid package is, frankly, too low.

2. International Narcotics Control and Law Enforcement (INCLE), US$143 million (compared to US$113 million this year). This program, managed by the State Department’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, for many years funded the fumigation of coca crops, expensive aircraft maintenance contracts, and support for drug interdiction, as well as “soft-side” programs like crop substitution, judicial reform, and reintegration of ex-combatants. Much of the INCLE aid proposed for 2017 would go to Colombia’s National Police, to help it improve its presence in rural zones, and much would support manual eradication of Colombia’s increasing coca crop. This account would also pay the costs of Colombian military and police instructors training counterparts in third countries.

3. Defense budget counter-drug programs, US$44.6 million (compared to US$51.9 million this year). This account is pure military and police aid, and due to vague and difficult-to-obtain reporting requirements, it is not clear what it might pay for next year. It will probably support maritime and aerial drug interdiction, intelligence programs, and much training, among other security priorities.

4. Foreign Military Financing (FMF), US$38.5 million (compared to US$25 million this year). It’s a mystery why this account, the main source of aid to Colombia’s Army, increases so robustly in the “Peace Colombia” request. The Executive Summary of the administration’s 2017 worldwide aid request explains that “FMF will continue to support Colombia’s efforts to ensure that its security gains are irreversible and support the transition of the bilateral relationship toward that of a strategic partnership in a post-accord environment.” We don’t know what this collection of words means in practice. A possible purpose may be to try to soften the institutional blow that the end of a 52-year counterinsurgent war will mean for Colombia’s armed forces.

5. Nonproliferation, Antiterrorism, Demining, and Related Programs (NADR), US$21 million (compared to US$4 million this year). The NADR assistance will support, together with funds from the Kingdom of Norway, a multilateral de-mining program, as Presidents Obama and Santos announced at their February 4 meeting.

Why is the “Peace Colombia” proposal smaller than the aid of ten years ago, and why is its military and police component so large? It’s smaller because the worldwide U.S. foreign aid budget isn’t growing. Giving funds to other countries remains unpopular among the conservative majorities of both houses of Congress. Of the worldwide amount, a growing share is going to Israel, Egypt, and programs considered highest in priority for countering security threats (called “Overseas Contingency Operations” in the budget). Funds for everything else are decreasing, and “everything else” includes all of Latin America. Within the amount for Latin America, Central America gets the highest priority because of increased migration caused by violence. Of what’s left for the Americas, Colombia is the only country that would see an increase, but it’s more modest than a delicate post-conflict scenario demands.

What’s next?

The “Peace Colombia” proposal will now pass to the U.S. Congress. Among the Democratic Party minority, we can expect strong support for the package, although this support could be diluted if Colombia’s post-conflict transitional justice arrangement defines “restriction of liberty” in a way that metes out insufficiently austere punishments for war criminals.

Support may be weaker among congressional Republicans. Not because Republicans necessarily oppose the peace process: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) and House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wisconsin) reportedly said supportive things in their Washington meetings with President Santos. A handful of Republicans are opposed, however, particularly those—like the Cuban-American contingent from Miami—who are in regular contact with political figures on Colombia’s right wing. (These members took advantage of a meeting with President Santos to voice their reservations.) Other Republican legislators are concerned that the FARC accord could weaken anti-drug programs in Colombia. There could be an effort to tie aid to Colombia’s cooperation on the extradition of demobilized FARC leaders wanted for narcotrafficking—something that, if implemented, could make peace-accord implementation inviable.

Nonetheless, important elements of the Republican congressional majority are on the record in support of Colombia’s peace effort. For instance the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tennessee), co-sponsored a resolution last week in support of the peace process. Rep. Bradley Byrne (R-Alabama) joined Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Arizona) in co-sponsoring a similarly supportive House resolution.

In favor of robust aid to post-conflict Colombia will be the Obama administration, most of congressional Democrats and many Republican moderates, the Colombian government, and most U.S. human rights organizations and think-tanks. On the other side, seeking to reduce or condition the aid, will be Republican hard-liners, Colombia’s right-wing opposition (whose leader, ex-president Álvaro Uribe, is planning a high-profile visit to Washington during the last week of February), and neoconservative think-tanks.

As the debate moves in Congress, maximizing the U.S. contribution to peace consolidation in Colombia depends on the climate at the table in Havana. If the peace talks’ “homestretch” takes place with the same maturity, speed, and constructive attitude that we’ve seen in the past few months, it will be much easier to win over skeptics with their hands on the foreign-aid spigot.