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Apr 24, 2017 | 09:15 GMT

6 mins read

Shedding Light on a Discreet Meeting in Mar-a-Lago

Colombian authorities destroy coca plants at a field in Villagarzon municipality, Putumayo department, on Dec. 16, 2008.
(MAURICIO DUENAS/AFP/Getty Images)

A recent low-profile meeting in Florida has raised questions about the future of Washington's policy toward Colombia. On April 14, former Colombian presidents Alvaro Uribe and Andres Pastrana met with U.S. President Donald Trump at his property in Mar-a-Lago without the Colombian government's knowledge or consent. Though Pastrana announced the visit on his Twitter account, neither he nor Uribe offered any details about the event. Both former leaders oppose Bogota's ongoing attempt to demobilize the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the country's largest and longest-running insurgency, and their trip to Florida comes just ahead of Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos' own meeting with Trump in May.

Colombia's one-time leaders have appealed to the United States to weigh in on Bogota's policies before. In addition to meeting with Trump, Uribe sent a letter to Congress outlining the security threats that certain trends in Colombia — including rising cocaine production, authorities' reliance on the manual eradication of coca plantations instead of crop spraying, and Venezuelan officials' involvement in the Colombian cocaine trade — pose to the United States. Uribe also criticized Bogota's decision to move forward with the FARC peace accord even after losing a popular referendum on the matter. He pointed to the FARC's reluctance to hand over weapons and use of child soldiers as reasons why Colombia should not strike a bargain with the rebels.

The two ex-presidents are likely hoping their call to action falls on a receptive audience in the White House. It's no coincidence that Uribe opened his letter to Congress by discussing the recent uptick in Colombian coca and cocaine production. After a decade of consistent decline, coca cultivation has risen to encompass some 100,00 hectares across the country. (In 2013, coca cultivation comprised no more than 50,000 hectares.) The resurgence can probably be attributed to the Colombian government's cutbacks and eventual suspension of aerial spraying over coca plantations in 2014, as well as to a hike in U.S. demand for cocaine.

Uribe's overtures to U.S. officials were clearly intended to frame Colombia's rising cocaine production and the FARC peace talks as security threats in need of Washington's attention. And given Uribe's long-standing opposition to negotiations with the militant group, it's not surprising that he reached out to the Trump administration while it is still in the process of forming its foreign policy agenda. But whether his lobbying will have the desired effect largely depends on Washington's priorities. Many foreign policy goals and crises abroad will compete with Colombian security issues for the president's attention in the coming years. Even the most concerning problems in Colombia — militancy and drug production — are less pressing than issues such as Russia's encroachment into U.S. areas of interest, the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, and North Korea's nuclear weapons program. In fact, the only policy issue on which the immediate interests of Uribe and Trump may overlap is Venezuela's slide into a one-party state.

Rising Coca Cultivation in Colombia

At some point in Trump's term, the White House will have to choose whether to shift its stance on Colombia's peace talks and counternarcotics activities or stick to the previous administration's position. Should the new president abandon his predecessor's approach of supporting the FARC negotiations, most of the Colombian political establishment would likely turn against the pursuit of an agreement with the rebels, despite the fact that the United States has provided little direct funding for the peace process. Meanwhile, if the United States tries to ramp up pressure on Colombian drug dealers or the FARC, the timing of its decision will be everything. Colombia's Congress is in the process of approving new legislation that would provide the legal support needed to implement the FARC peace deal. If lawmakers complete this process before elections are held in May 2018, there will be very little any incoming government could do to reverse the agreement. 

Should the United States change tack on Colombian issues, however, measures taken by Bogota at Washington's behest could throw a wrench in the rebels' negotiations and cast doubt on their outcome. For example, urging the Santos administration to reinstate the aerial spraying of coca crops — something that has long angered poor farmers, who provide a base of political support for the FARC in certain areas of Colombia — is likely to slow and even destroy the peace talks. The same can be said of other avenues of putting pressure on the FARC's drug trafficking operations, such as increasing scrutiny of the rebels' demobilization or requiring militant leaders to account for personal assets. Colombian political elites would also be less willing to lend support to a deal that the country's main security and trade partner doesn't approve of; the rebels, in turn, would feel betrayed if Bogota gave the appearance of bowing to Washington's demands. Unease among Colombian politicians and a loss of confidence in the government among the rebels would almost certainly delay the implementation of any peace deal, giving Uribe's party an opportunity to influence the conversation if it wins the presidency in 2018.

Still, it's not clear that the United States will actually alter its position on Colombia. The Trump administration is currently concentrating on several other crises abroad, and even with its clear emphasis on border security and domestic crime, the White House probably recognizes that a collapse of the Colombian peace talks would lead to renewed militancy. Career U.S. military officers and diplomats will undoubtedly warn the president of this outcome if he tries to shift the administration's stance on the FARC negotiations.

In the meantime, the Colombian government will race against the clock to approve and begin enacting the last few items on the table in the peace talks. The country will hold the first round of its presidential election in May 2018, followed by a runoff in June. The Santos administration would like to see the FARC demobilized and certain aspects of the peace process implemented by the time a new government enters office in August 2018. The Colombian Congress passed a law in April that prevents future administrations from amending the legislation underpinning the peace process. Consequently, even if Uribe's Democratic Center party gains office next year, it would not be able to easily amend or undo the terms of the FARC's disbandment without encountering stiff opposition in Washington. Lacking a congressional majority — something the Democratic Center and its allies are unlikely to win in Colombia's fragmented political system — doing so would be nearly impossible.

So, despite Uribe's recent outreach to the Trump administration regarding the FARC peace deal, he probably won't succeed in unraveling the talks altogether. Instead, the best the former president can hope for is to see his party win the presidency next year, giving it some measure of influence over the pace of the peace deal's and counternarcotics policy's implementation.

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