On March 10, Colombian President Iván Duque sent a shock wave through the country’s delicate peace process with the former FARC guerrillas. He sent several objections to Congress—sort of a line-item veto—about the law underlying the transitional justice system at the heart of the accord, the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP).
All governments that have supported Colombia’s peace process, along with the United Nations, voiced concern—except for one: U.S. Ambassador Kevin Whitaker went on national radio in support of Duque’s objections, saying they were necessary for the U.S. government’s ability to extradite former combatants who may have committed crimes after the November 2016 peace accord signing.
This week, Colombia’s House of Representatives overwhelmingly rejected Duque’s objections, in a thunderous and embarrassing defeat for the president. Meanwhile, news began to leak out about Ambassador Whitaker’s quiet lobbying for the objections with members of Colombia’s Congress in early April.
Here is a full English translation of the most thorough account of the Ambassador’s meetings to appear so far in Colombian media, which was posted last night to the Bogotá daily El Espectador. It shows Kevin Whitaker, a career diplomat now completing his fifth year as ambassador, sounding unhinged, gone “full Trump.”
In the accounts of legislators who leaked the meetings’ contents, Whitaker hints that all U.S. aid to Colombia will be cut if Congress defeats the objections. He indicates that the Obama administration kept him distant from the 2012-2016 peace negotiations because of his personal distaste for them. He doesn’t rule out President Trump “decertifying” Colombia in September for being a poor partner in the drug war. And he is personally rude to those who disagree with him.
If even half of what is reported here is accurate, then April 2019 is the month when the U.S. government moved officially from support of Colombia’s peace process to open opposition. Read on:
Details of the Breakfast between Whitaker and Congress
By Lorena Arboleda Zárate and Alfredo Molano Jimeno
El Espectador (Colombia), April 13, 2019 (boldface items are from El Espectador)
This is an account of meetings the U.S. diplomat held with senators and representatives of the House, to seek to prevent the government’s defeat in the legislature on the objections to the Statutory Law of the JEP.
This week will go down in history as one of the most difficult for the government of Ivan Duque. To the defeat in the House of Representatives, which rejected, with a vote of 110 against 44, the presidential objections to the Statutory Law of the Special Jurisdiction of Peace (JEP), is added the hard complaint from the president of the United States, Donald Trump, about the increase in drug trafficking from Colombia to their country. An episode that attracted attention, since in recent days the American ambassador in Bogota, Kevin Whitaker, has moved quietly to prevent Congress from definitively sinking Duque’s objections to the norm.
After the vote on Monday of this week in the plenary of the House, information emerged about the content of a series of meetings that ambassador Whitaker convened, with the presence of senators and representatives, in his diplomatic residence. Although confidentiality of the meetings was requested—and there was even a pact not to disclose details until after the objections had been voted—El Espectador was able to reconstruct the conversations Whitaker may have had with the legislators, and also with the former president and current director of the Liberal Party, César Gaviria, a group that has led the bloc in defense of the Peace Agreement.
On Monday, April 1, Whitaker invited the senators managing the objections legislation to a breakfast. At 7:00 in the morning, José David Name (Party of the U), Iván Marulanda (Green Alliance), Paloma Valencia (Centro Democrático), John Milton Rodríguez (Colombia Justa-Libres), Antonio Zabaraín (Cambio Radical), and David Barguil (Conservative Party) arrived at the ambassador’s house in the exclusive Rosales neighborhood, in the north of Bogotá. The appetizer was eggs with bacon and, to drink, Whitaker’s favorite: Don Pedro coffee. But the main dish was the objections [to the JEP law] and, particularly, his concern about the effects of the Peace Agreement on the extradition treaty between the two countries.
“The first thing to note is that the meetings with the Senate and the House were very different. In ours almost everyone was in favor of objections, except Senator Marulanda. Therefore, the atmosphere was not tense, as it was with the representatives, and the ambassador spoke with greater ease,” detailed one of the guests at breakfast. The meeting lasted for about an hour and a half, and according to five of the six attendees, the conversation revolved around three issues: the impact that the Santrich case might have on judicial cooperation between both countries; the reprisals that the United States could take; and the displeasure with the government of former President Juan Manuel Santos and with the management that the current one, Iván Duque’s, is giving to anti-drug policy.
“He said that Santos, Jaramillo (Sergio [Santos’s high commissioner for peace]) and (Humberto) De la Calle [Santos’s chief negotiator in Havana] were liars, who had deceived Barack Obama’s government with the Peace Agreement, that Santos always said that, with the Agreement, the FARC would turn over its drug trafficking routes and that it would be easier to fight narcotrafficking, but what happened was the opposite,” said another attendee. And although some guests said that the Cambio Radical senator, Antonio Zabaraín, suggested that the ambassador go to microphones and openly say that his country felt cheated, Whitaker said it was not appropriate, among other things, because in the Obama administration a special delegate, Bernard Aronson, had been sent to accompany the dialogue table. In fact, people close to the Havana dialogues commented that ambassador’s strong position is explained because Obama always kept him apart from the peace process, given his rejection of it.
Some members of the negotiating table in Cuba we consulted explained that one of the red lines of the Santos government was not to affect the extradition treaty, to such an extent that in the Peace Agreement it was very clear that the judicial cooperation mechanism remained intact . That is, the concerns of the United States today are the product of the modulations of the laws derived from the agreement in Havana, which included a series of requirements before accepting the sending of a former member of the Farc to that country. And that of everything that happened in Cuba, Aronson was a rigorous witness. In the opinion of one of the former government negotiators, it was precisely the Jesus Santrich entrapment operation, “with a vengeful spirit,” that raised the volume of the extradition issue and put the need to shield the process within the sights of the Constitutional Court.
Those consulted agreed that the ambassador gave a brief explanation of the issues that concerned them, which were reflected in the objections, and that then each of the senators intervened explaining their political interpretation. “He also said that if Congress didn’t approve the objections relating to extradition, the United States could take measures, such as stop sending the US$500 million in aid to the country, and he foresaw this week’s Trump onslaught against President Duque,” recounted another of the guests. However, he also narrated that Whitaker had clarified that he was aware that Duque “had received a complicated inheritance.”
They also say that although the atmosphere was one of detente, [uribista senator] Paloma Valencia was uncomfortable with Whitaker’s statements about the effects of the extradition and took the opportunity to complain about the support that the U.S. government had given to the Havana table and the Peace Agreement. They relate that she even said that in that same house [ambassadorial residence], during the renegotiation after the triumph of the no [in the October 2016 plebiscite], her side warned the United States that this was going to happen. “Paloma asked him directly about the possibility of a decertification and the ambassador did not answer, but he did say that the consequences could be those that have been applied in Central America, withdrawing aid resources. Regarding Trump’s first statement this week, he said that we shouldn’t take it personally,” said one of the witnesses.
The only dissonant voice of the Senate group invited to the ambassador’s residence was that of Iván Marulanda, of the Green Alliance, an opposition party. His companions say that his discomfort was visible, that unlike his colleagues he found the ambassador’s words intimidating and rude, even more so when the diplomat spoke ill of Santos and each senator contributed some comment criticizing the former president. “The ambassador said that his government was Colombia’s largest aid donor and that since 2016, when the Agreement was signed, they had contributed US$1 billion, which would be at risk if the main interest of the United States in Colombia was affected: extradition. Marulanda replied that Colombians care more about the peace of the country than American money.“
Regarding the Santrich case, Whitaker was insistent that his government was not going to give any evidence to the JEP, that U.S. authorities were going to demand him from Colombia and that this case was a “point of honor” for the United States. “Not so much for Santrich , but for the future of the extradition treaty. He also told us he had information that other members of the FARC were trafficking drugs, although he did not give us names,” a legislator said. He added that the diplomat warned them that if the country did not hand over Santrich, Colombia would be targeted by a possible intervention, specifically by the International Criminal Court (ICC).
The senators’ meeting with the ambassador ended with a curious anecdote. Out in the parking lot, some told, Senator Zabaraín said that “the fault of all this is with (former president) Álvaro Uribe who, after winning the plebiscite, went to talk with Santos and accepted his invitation to the presidential palace.” Paloma Valencia immediately recalled that “I told him not to go.” In the end, they concluded that the presidential objections to the Statutory Law of the JEP will have the same fate in the Senate as in the House of Representatives, so for the objections’ supporters it is absolutely clear that “President Duque is going to file constitutional reforms around the special jurisdiction in the Congress of the Republic, “said one legislator.
The second meeting
Little of that encounter made it into the media, but what alerted about the ambassador’s movements in the Congress was the meeting that he maintained on Tuesday, April 2 (the following day), with the House representatives. Also at 7:00 in the morning, and with the same American breakfast, Whitaker received six of the seven legislators in charge of studying the objections in the lower house. Juanita Goebertus (Green Alliance), John Jairo Cárdenas (U), David Racero (Decentes), Carlos Ardila (Liberal Party), José Daniel López (Cambio Radical), and Álvaro Hernán Prada (Centro Democrático) attended. A composition very different from that of the pro-government majorities that visited the ambassador’s house the previous day.
El Espectador consulted five of the six attendees and, as in the Senate, they agreed on the purpose and the manner with which the meeting was held. For all, except the uribista representative, the ambassador’s exposition was intimidating, undiplomatic, and tense. They also agreed on the three positions presented by the ambassador. He told them, for example, that Congress should act as an autonomous power without attending to the decisions of the Constitutional Court, as it “could also be wrong.” He also repeated that the United States is not going to send any proof against Santrich [because the extradition agreement only requires probable cause], and will do everything possible to take him away. And, finally, he reiterated that the economic aid to Colombia could be at risk if the objections are defeated.
“Whitaker said that he expected total confidentiality of the meeting because he wanted to speak with total frankness. That his government was very worried, and he detailed his country’s central priorities. Then, Representative Cardenas explained the reasons why he opposed the objections, arguing legal and not political reasons. From that moment on, the atmosphere became tense and even, with a gesture of arrogance, he questioned Cárdenas saying: ‘I don’t understand those inanities.’ Then José Daniel (López) spoke and pointed to the principle of separation of powers and the ambassador went after him, saying: ‘Don’t come at me with legalisms’. Then he added the idea that the United States’ affection towards its friends expresses itself with money. ‘Love is money’, was the phrase he used [in English],” said a representative.
But Prada, who was representing uribismo, said that the phrase used by the ambassador should be contextualized. He noted that, from his perspective, that expression was not used in a blackmail tone but “to express to us that the United States has affection for Colombia, that bilateral relations are excellent and that they are willing to continue helping us,” he said. In addition, he criticized that the confidentiality the ambassador requested for the meeting has been broken, “taking advantage of the fact that this year we have [local] elections, making it look like the ambassador had been pressuring, and it wasn’t like that. And in addition, the ambassador has the right to know what is happening with a peace process that we are trying to remedy on some issues.”
In the second intervention the ambassador made, another lawmaker told, he said: “In my government we have invested US$1 billion since the agreement was signed, and it doesn’t seem fair if we can’t suggest anything and not be heard”; He added that Whitaker was especially rude in his treatment of representative Carlos Ardila. “He interrupted him when he was explaining his reasons and, as he was with his arms folded, he said ‘do something for your country instead of going around with your arms folded. That’s why they elected you.’ He said he did not understand how it was possible for the Court to be above Congress and spoke about the well-known Dred Scott decision.”
The representatives said that Juanita Goebertus at that time asked to speak, replied to the ambassador and told him that she knew that sentence very well, which was from 1857, and that it had cost the United States a civil war and two constitutional amendments. The ambassador looked at her haughtily and said: “I see you know a lot about us.” Juanita replied that she had studied in his country. “During the meeting, Whitaker repeated several times that he was not a lawyer, but that he did not doubt that the president’s objections were correctly presented. On extradition, he reiterated that the treaty was clear and that they were not going to provide evidence, period. He never asked for our vote, but he did say that Congress should accept the objections.” The Congresswoman of the Green Alliance concluded by telling the ambassador that, from her experience in the United States, she could say that she admired the separation of powers in that country and that she had never been in a meeting “so far out of diplomatic tone” as the one he had summoned.
The reading that some representatives gave to the meeting with Whitaker is that, according to what they said, it left in evidence a “flawed” relationship between the U.S. government and President Iván Duque: ” They do not see him with enough capacity to move his commitments forward. They see him as weak,” said one representative. Undoubtedly, the meeting with those of the House was highly tense, and that explains that why it leaked a few hours after it happened. That same day the bill rejecting Duque’s objections was filed in the chamber, and news also filtered of an ambassadorial dinner invitation to the magistrates of the Constitutional Court, which the justices rejected as highly inappropriate.
Whitaker closed the week by visiting former President Gaviria at his home to ask for a political concept on the objections. However, the government’s defeat in the House was inevitable, as was Trump’s scolding of President Duque. An epilogue of the week that shows that the United States is moving strongly in domestic politics, as in the times of Plan Colombia.