U.S. policy toward Colombia has come up only rarely during the long U.S. presidential campaign. The pending free-trade agreement was discussed on occasion, including a brief mention in the final presidential debate between Barack Obama and John McCain. Colombia has been mentioned, usually in vague terms, in the candidates’ few policy declarations about Latin America. And McCain paid a visit to Colombia in early July that got little media attention.
Nonetheless, between those few words, their records, and their choice of advisors, it is possible to divine how the two candidates would, if elected, carry out U.S. policy toward Colombia.
One thing is certain from the start. The arrival of a new administration – even an Obama administration, with its promises of “change” – would not mean Year Zero for U.S. policy toward Colombia. Nobody is proposing to start over. President Ãlvaro Uribe and his government would continue to be one of the United States’ only close friends in South America. Colombia would continue to be one of the world’s largest recipients of U.S. military assistance. Despite its evident failure to reduce cocaine supplies, the current drug-war paradigm will not shift quickly.
While neither candidate proposes to rethink the entire approach, each would take U.S. policy toward Colombia in significantly different directions.
Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona)
Past Latin America experience: McCain was born in the Panama Canal Zone where his father, an admiral, was stationed. During the 1980s, he was an ardent supporter of the Reagan administration’s military support for El Salvador and sponsorship of the contra insurgency in Nicaragua. McCain was associated with the U.S. Council for World Freedom, a far-right organization headed by retired Gen. John Singlaub, a key figure in the Iran-Contra scandal. In 1985, McCain traveled to Chile for a “friendly and at times warm” meeting with then-dictator Gen. Augusto Pinochet. He traveled to Colombia at the beginning of July to pay a very friendly visit to President Uribe.
Most visible Latin America advisors:
- Adolfo Franco, a Cuban-born lawyer who headed the Inter-American Foundation in 1999-2000, then spent five years during the Bush administration as the assistant administrator for Western Hemisphere Affairs at USAID.
- Otto Reich, a Cuban-born official who held Franco’s USAID post from 1981-1983 before serving as director of Public Diplomacy at the State Department, ambassador to Venezuela, and, for a brief time during the Bush administration, as assistant secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs.
Reich is considered one of Washington’s hardest-line conservatives where Latin America policy is concerned; the “extreme” label doesn’t apply as much to Franco, though both advisors would maintain or strengthen the Bush administration’s approach to Cuba.
Recent statements mentioning Colombia:
- Appearance on “Good Morning America” from Colombia, July 2
- Statement on the Colombia Free Trade Agreement, April 11
- Remarks on Cuban Independence Day, May 20
Relations with President Uribe: For geopolitical reasons – the utter lack of governments in the region who are anywhere near as friendly to the United States – both candidates are likely to continue the special relationship that has developed between the U.S. government and Uribe’s administration.
As he made clear during his July visit to Colombia, though, McCain views Uribe as the model of the type of leader whom he would support in the region, and he would tighten this relationship still further. Criticisms of human rights abuse, or concerns about checks and balances on presidential power in Colombia, would likely be muted at best.
Plan Colombia and U.S. aid: Due to the U.S. financial collapse and the cost of the federal bailout, there may be less money available for foreign aid over the next few years – regardless of who is elected president. In fact, it is not unreasonable to expect an across-the-board worldwide cut in the foreign aid budget, in which Colombia would participate.
Even if the size of Colombia’s pie is reduced, however, we can expect a McCain administration to fight the Democratic Congress to ensure that the majority of this aid continues to go to Colombia’s armed forces and police. We can expect a McCain administration to continue the Bush administration’s anti-drug strategy in Colombia.
Free trade: The McCain campaign has repeatedly affirmed its support for the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement, and Sen. McCain has attacked Sen. Obama for opposing its ratification this year. The brief discussion of the topic during the last presidential debate is illustrative of the contrast between the candidates on the FTA issue.
Outlook: During the 1980s McCain aligned himself with the Oliver North wing of the Republican Party when it came to Latin America policy. It is not clear whether, in the moments when he has focused on Latin America or Colombia over the intervening years, his thinking has evolved. A McCain presidency, at least at first, might resemble the first terms of Ronald Reagan or George W. Bush, when those running U.S. policy toward the region were from the party’s more ideological, less pragmatic tendency.
Sen. Barack Obama (D-Illinois)
Past Latin America experience: Senator Obama has done very little work on U.S. policy toward Latin America in the past, though his upbringing in Indonesia would indicate a familiarity with the challenges faced by developing countries. During his four years in the Senate, he co-signed at least two letters expressing concern about human rights in Colombia. [PDF] [HTML]
Most visible Latin America advisors:
- Dan Restrepo worked on Western Hemisphere issues on the House Foreign Affairs Committee in the 1990s, when Rep. Lee Hamilton (D-Indiana) and Rep. Sam Gejdenson (D-Connecticut), both of them foreign-policy moderates, were the respective committee and Western Hemisphere Subcommittee chairs. Restrepo now directs the Americas Program at the left-of-center Center for American Progress, which has hosted events for President Uribe and top Colombian government officials, while also publishing a 2007 report by Columbia University’s Aldo Civico urging greater U.S. support for a negotiated peace in Colombia.
- Arturo Valenzuela, a professor at Georgetown University, directed Western Hemisphere affairs at the National Security Council during President Clinton’s second term. He was an important supporter of the Plan Colombia aid package in 2000.
Recent statements mentioning Colombia:
- Statement on Recent Events near Colombia’s Borders, March 3, 2008
- Remarks of Senator Barack Obama: Renewing U.S. Leadership in the Americas, May 23, 2008
- Debate Reality Check: Obama’s Position on the Colombia Free Trade Agreement, October 2008
Relations with President Uribe: The above statements have included praise for Alvaro Uribe and his government. However, it is easy to infer that an Obama administration’s embrace of President Uribe might not be as tight as it was under George Bush or would be under John McCain. Some distancing in the relationship could result from (a) Obama’s opposition to ratification of the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement; (b) a greater emphasis on human rights, which could lead to disagreements about impunity and some of President Uribe’s past statements about human rights defenders; (c) concerns about the relationship should Uribe seek a third term; and (d) a perception – fair or not – that President Uribe and his circle favored McCain during the 2008 campaign, including Uribe’s status as one of a small handful of world leaders to have met with Sarah Palin in New York in September.
Plan Colombia and U.S. aid:While the financial crisis may force a reduction in aid to Colombia no matter who is elected, it is likely that an Obama administration, working with the Democratic Congress, might seek a greater balance between military and non-military aid. (That balance right now is 65% in favor of military aid.) An Obama administration could take a more stringent approach to enforcement of human-rights conditions that foreign-aid law applies to military aid. And while the Obama campaign’s statements about anti-drug programs in Colombia have been vague – along the lines of “we’re going to stop doing what’s not working, and do more of what is working” – there is at least some possibility that this could translate into a move away from the failed aerial herbicide fumigation program, and toward a more comprehensive rural governance strategy to curb coca production.
Free trade: Obama has made clear during the campaign that he opposes quick ratification of the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement, citing concerns about labor rights. He has also made clear that he supported the Peru FTA, however, which probably means that he would probably not seek to re-negotiate the similar Colombia agreement. Obama said in the last debate that instead, he wants to see improvements in levels of violence against Colombian labor leaders, and in levels of impunity for past cases.
Outlook: While a Democratic administration and a Democratic Congress might place greater weight on human rights, labor rights, poverty and inequality, the Democratic Party is not a monolith. It was the Democratic Clinton administration, after all, that gave us a package of mostly military aid in the 2000 “Plan Colombia” appropriation, while bitterly opposing congressional Democrats’ efforts to attach human rights conditions to the aid. The Clinton administration also supported the North American Free Trade Agreement, which continues to be unpopular with organized labor, and signed into law the Helms-Burton provisions tightening the embargo on Cuba. To its credit, though, it also launched some important multilateral forums, such as the Summits of the Americas and the regular Defense Ministerials, which have foundered during the past eight years.
An Obama presidency’s policy toward Colombia, and indeed toward Latin America as a whole, could be the product of constant give-and-take – and occasionally outright disagreement – between the more pro-elite, “realist” officials that dominated during the Clinton years, and the more progressive, human-rights-and-development tendency that has been strongly represented among the Democrats’ congressional leadership. The Colombia policy that results would likely be stronger on human rights, economic development, and encouragement of multilateral solutions, while maintaining the security focus and rhetorical support for President Uribe that have characterized the U.S. approach over the past several years.