Here’s an English translation of a long and wide-ranging exchange with journalist Cecilia Orozco, which ran in Colombia’s El Espectador newspaper this morning. It was a good opportunity to explain (and vent about) the current state of U.S.-Colombian relations.
If you prefer Spanish, haga clic aquí.
“Colombia doesn’t know which Trump it will have to face”: Adam Isacson
October 28, 2017 – 9:00 PM
Cecilia Orozco Tascón
Interview with Adam Isacson, a senior official at WOLA, an influential civil-society organization in Washington that promotes human rights on the continent. Isacson, a scholar of Colombian conflicts, talks about the United States’ “hostile tone” with Colombia since Trump’s arrival in the White House, the way the domestic right wing influences that government against Santos’s administration, and that false information it spreads to discredit the peace agreement.
Q: Despite the friendly letter Trump sent President Santos in recent hours, several signs from Washington would indicate that relations between the United States and Colombia are not, today, so sincere and in solidarity. Do you agree with this perception?
I would go further and say that the bilateral relationship has reached its worst moment since the government of Ernesto Samper. It’s not as serious as 1998—nobody’s going to revoke the visa of any top government official—but after almost 19 years of hardly any U.S. public criticism of Colombia, today there is a steady stream of scoldings, expressions of impatience, and of public distancing from the peace policy. The disagreements have ideological roots: a hard-line government has come to power in Washington, one very much in tune with the Colombian right. But the hostile tone comes from the President himself, who is also disrespecting allies elsewhere around the world, from NATO to Australia to Mexico.
Q: Do you think President Trump’s change of tone is sincere when he writes President Santos, in the last hours, in the following terms: “The United States is ready to support you in your counternarcotics efforts (and) simultaneously I am working diligently to combat internal consumption”?
I imagine that letter was written after several weeks of witnessing the negative result of the quasi-decertification language of September 13. It must have been obvious to them that the binational relationship was damaged and, perhaps, the words of the now-retired Bill Brownfield were the last straw. Diplomats must have insisted on making a conciliatory gesture. It’s important that it reaffirmed co-responsibility in drug policy, but Colombia does not know which Donald Trump it will have to face at any time. He can easily go on the attack again the next time he talks about the country.
Q: The most frustrating episode for the Santos government with respect to Trump was the quasi-decertification of the country due to the growth of hectares cultivated with coca leaf. He didn’t flunk Colombia, but he threatened to. Is that report a preamble to decisions that Washington may make soon, or is it pressure designed for the medium and long term?
Beyond a group of officials close to Trump, that statement was frustrating for everyone. Saying “we almost put Colombia in the same category as Venezuela” is a slap in the face and a serious strategic error. I was happy to read that, in a recent interview with El Tiempo, the former Assistant Secretary of State and former Ambassador in Colombia Bill Brownfield shared this assessment. That interview indicates that the hostile language came directly from the White House and not from the State Department. But from whom in the White House, if General Kelly (chief of staff, former commander of the Southern Command) knows and admires Colombia? It may be, rather, Senator Marco Rubio (R-Florida), with whom Trump consults U.S. policy regarding Cuba, Venezuela and Colombia. Senator Rubio, in turn, frequently consults with Álvaro Uribe. Anyway, ultimately nobody believes that he will decertify Colombia. It’s another empty threat, like the “military option” for Venezuela, forcing Mexico to finance a wall or throwing “fire and fury” on North Korea.
Q: As you mention it, the Trump government may be close to the most conservative Colombian politicians. Since this group is the opponent of the Santos administration and the peace accord, is it possible that the American officials who make decisions in Washington are influenced by these domestic figures?
Yes. There is a sector of the Republican Party (and some Democrats too) that receives much of its information about Colombia via the opposition. But sometimes these critical perspectives also come from the Colombian community in the United States, which, like many diasporas, is more conservative than the population that lives in the country. That’s normal, it always happens. The problem arises when this information includes false information such as “the transitional justice mechanism is composed of people from the FARC who will submit the military to kangaroo courts” or that “stopping the fumigation of illicit crops was agreed in the peace accord.”
Q: After that first “barely scraping by” certification warning, the DEA published another report on the same subject: coca crops. Does that insistence imply that the United States is pressuring Colombia to abandon manual eradication and instead reactivate aerial spraying?
The DEA report is annual and its purpose is to report its production and trafficking estimates, which follow the same trendline as those of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). But at least the DEA report doesn’t blame the crop increase on the peace agreement—a distortion of reality that’s heard a lot in Washington—and reports on other serious factors that affect the phenomenon, such as the Gulf Clan [Colombia’s largest organized crime group]. Both the Obama administration—less noisily—and the Trump administration have said they would prefer aerial fumigation in Colombia: despite the evidence, many officials view this method as an “indispensable tool.” But they’re not seriously pressing the Santos administration to start it again. The real pressure may fall on the next administration [which takes power in August 2018].
Q: Colombian officials are between a rock and a hard place: on one hand, Washington demanding results on decreasing crops. And on the other, the peasant populations who want to collaborate with eradication but only if they’re offered an alternative means of subsistence. Is there a third way that respects the rights of peasants and that simultaneously makes eradication effective?
No solution exists that, first, manages to reduce crops in the short term and, second, maintains those reductions permanently. It’s either the first or the second: choose one. Obviously, the Trump administration is much more interested in the first: short-term reduction. But if eradication happens without establishing a government presence that can provide basic services, what will happen? There will be replanting almost immediately. The National Comprehensive Crop Substitution Program (PNIS), from the fourth chapter of the peace agreement, is also short-term if it is carried out without that basic state presence. Substituting crops for two years is fine, but what happens when those two years expire, but governance and services aren’t in place? The result would be the same: replanting. A long-term strategy is urgent. However, I believe—as former assistant-secretary Brownfield has said—that this year’s eradication will lead to a reduction in next year’s coca measures. I hope that this gives Colombia space to work on longer-lasting strategies free from constant scolding.
Q: What could be a sustainable strategy over time? It seems impossible…
A long-term strategy means that the government arrives in areas so abandoned that inhabitants go months or years without seeing any non-uniformed state representatives. Disarming the FARC was a good first step, because the government can now arrive in those areas without having to conquer territory. Reintegrating the FARC is crucial to maintaining this security, but that effort is lagging badly behind. The second step is to initiate large investments in the countryside, investments foreseen in the first chapter of the Agreement and in the programs of the Territorial Renewal Agency (ART). This implementation is also moving at a snail’s pace, and with very little budget. Once there is progress in these areas, eradication and substitution of crops can be done with some hope of long-lasting effects. But unfortunately, due to the pressures generated by the coca bonanza and Washington’s messages, Colombia is starting out with the last step.
Q: Do the increase in the use of police force against the civilian population and, despite this, the continuous increase in the number of hectares, show the failure of manual eradication and, along with that, of the pacts foreseen in the peace agreement?
It’s too early to judge the performance of the peace agreement pacts, whose implementation has barely begun. But the use-of-force episodes are symptomatic of what happens when forced eradication happens without the government offering even basic services to the population. People tend to resist going hungry. The most notorious example of this happened in Bolivia at the beginning of the century. There, the so-called Dignity Plan, supported by the United States, drastically increased forced eradication. And yes, there was a temporary reduction in coca. But also a movement of rejection that brought Evo Morales to national notoriety and then to the Presidency. Without the Dignity Plan, who would Evo Morales be today? Probably the head of a cocalero union, leading a social movement with little influence outside the far-off Chapare region.
Q: The United States also intends to reduce its economic assistance to Colombia, and if it is consistent with the general policies of the Trump administration, there will also be cuts in technical assistance, logistics, etc. Do these purposes indicate that the U.S. government might gradually withdraw its support for the peace accord and for the Santos government beyond the diplomatic words it sends?
The Trump government has sought to cut off both military and economic assistance to the entire world. For Colombia, its request to Congress for 2018, released in May, sought to reduce it from US$391 to US$251 million. (Approximately US$50 million more goes through the Defense budget). But the Republican majority in Congress has rejected that proposal, since they’re not completely following the “America First” slogan. The House decided to give US$336 million, and the Senate held the “Peace Colombia” package at 2017 levels, at US$391 million. Congress has not finished working on the aid budget for 2018, but the figures make clear that it is more interested in the peace accord’s success than the White House is.
Q: It has been reported in several media that Ambassador [Kevin] Whitaker’s replacement may be Joseph MacManus. If this appointment happens, would it be a demonstration that the United States is going to be more or less cooperative with Colombia and its peace accord?
Joseph MacManus has been a career diplomat since 1986, and diplomats usually conceal their personal political beliefs and serve the incumbent president. I don’t know him, because he has only spent a few years of his career working on Latin American issues. To some extent, his appointment is a relief: it had been rumored that the White House intended to appoint a “political” ambassador, that is, an ally from outside the professional diplomatic corps, someone who is a true believer in Trumpism. It may turn out that MacManus has such personal proclivities, but on the other hand, he was also a senior adviser to Hillary Clinton and John Kerry when they led the State Department in the Obama administration. That’s why some right-wing media outlets have reported opposition to MacManus from the most conservative quarters of the administration. We’ll see.
Q: But on the other hand, El Espectador reported what the web site The New American* described this as a “scandalous push to install MacManus as U.S. ambassador to Bogota…”
The New American is a small digital publication with a strong pro-Trump line, one of the right-wing outlets that seeks to block MacManus for being, in their opinion, too attached to the Obama administration. That group is pushing for Trump to name someone more “pure” in “America First” ideology. But in fact, the appointment of a hardliner is not likely to succeed because it would need Senate approval. And there, although the Republicans have 52 of 100 seats, a number of senators are now anti-Trump—among them the head of the Foreign Relations Committee, Bob Corker—and they would never vote for an ambassador with those attributes.
“Nobody should lose their life”
Q: The conflicts between peasants and the security forces are happening repeatedly. The situation in Tumaco, where there were several deaths, is symptomatic. Are Colombia and the United States responsible for this tension, whose pressure to reduce crops may have caused a rush to show results?
There’s a pattern here that I find extremely serious. In March, the United States and Colombia agreed on a six-point plan to reduce crops. The fifth point was “a strategy to deal with the political realities of coca growers’ protests driving away eradicators.” Since then, in public forums, former Secretary Brownfield complained several times about eradication being frustrated by protests. “This is absurd,” he said in mid-September. “The government must give the Police and Army clear authorities and rules of engagement.” I imagine that, privately, the messages were stronger. My suspicion is that these pressures created an environment conducive to episodes like that of Tumaco. Instead of “you have to clarify your procedures for the use of force,” the message that was heard seems to have been “you have to hit the protesters harder.” No one, neither a coca-grower nor a security-force member, should lose his life to the pursuit of an ephemeral statistic of fewer hectares.
“The Colombian right has a semi-direct line to the White House”
Q: A few months ago there occurred a social incident that was minor but not unimportant: the ex-presidents Uribe and Pastrana, opponents of Santos and the peace accord, may have cordially greeted Trump at Mar-a-Lago days before the latter received a visit from the Colombian head of state. What does that meeting mean to you?
Media reports indicate that Senator Rubio played a role in arranging that meeting. It’s a good example of how the Colombian right has established a semi-direct line to the White House to be heard on policy issues regarding their country.
Q: If the Trump administration were to withdraw its support for the peace accord altogether, how much do you think that would affect the success of the process in Colombia?
It would be very serious. The United States financed Colombia’s war a hundred times more generously than any other country. That’s why its political support for peace is so important. Withdrawing that support would take away an important source of legitimacy from the accord. Even now, the absence of a special envoy to Colombia (of the Trump government for accord-related matters) has left an important vacuum.