The Obama Administration and Colombia in 2010

Assessing the Upcoming Presidental Election

With the Colombian 2010 presidential race heating up, now it's the time to assess what’s at stake for the United States and its historically staunchest ally in the region, writes Stephanie Miller.

Colombia President Álvaro Uribe, who continues to enjoy widespread support due to the important security gains achieved during his presidency, may seek a third term. The Obama administration must focus on helping Colombia achieve consolidation of its security gains by promoting social and economic development. (AP/Fernando Vergara)
Colombia President Álvaro Uribe, who continues to enjoy widespread support due to the important security gains achieved during his presidency, may seek a third term. The Obama administration must focus on helping Colombia achieve consolidation of its security gains by promoting social and economic development. (AP/Fernando Vergara)

Colombia’s Minister of Defense, Juan Manuel Santos, announced his resignation from office earlier this week and declared his intention to run for president in next year’s elections if President Álvaro Uribe does not attempt to seek a third term. Legislation calling for a national referendum to allow President Uribe to do so—supported by members of the same party—also was approved by the Senate this week, making the likelihood of a third term more probable even though the country’s Constitutional Court will ultimately have the final say on the matter.

All this maneuvering signals the beginning of Colombia’s 2010 presidential race even though the elections are a year away. The political jockeying is also an opportune moment for the Obama administration to assess what is at stake for the United States and its historically staunchest ally in the region.

The reasons? The Obama administration and members of the U.S. Congress have signaled to Colombia their intention to eventually turn over the majority of “Plan Colombia” responsibilities to the Colombian government, the bulk of which is dedicated to financing military and police training and providing equipment. And the long-stalled U.S.-Colombia free trade agreement is finding new life as U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk announced earlier this week the administration’s desire to renew the push for ratification.

U.S. approval of the trade agreement hinges on finding appropriate solutions, such as potential benchmarks, to violence toward and assassination of labor unionists. Coupled with this are conversations on the impact of Plan Colombia, which are circulating both as a topic of debate in the upcoming Colombian presidential elections and as a point of reflection for the Obama administration. That’s why it is important to take stock of what the Colombian government has achieved in terms of security and the economy since Plan Colombia’s inception in 1999.

Since Plan Colombia started the United States has spent $6 billion dollars in counternarcotics and counterterrorism activities in Colombia. Most of the money has gone to training Colombia’s armed forces and helping the government regain control of Colombia’s national territory, with some money allocated to social and economic programs. At the end of the 90s, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, and other guerrilla groups controlled as much as 40 percent of the national territory. Today, there is government presence in all 1,099 municipalities, albeit weakest in the country’s rural areas.

Santos’ resignation signals the end of an important chapter in Colombia’s four decade-long fight against the FARC. During Santos’ nearly three years at the helm of Colombia’s Ministry of Defense, the Colombian armed forces have delivered their most important blows against the FARC. Three members of the FARC’s previously untouchable secretariat have died on Santos’ watch: two from either military action taken by Colombia’s armed forces or from defections within the FARC, and a third, the FARC’s founder and leader, presumably from natural causes.

Santos also oversaw the now infamous “Operación Jaque” during which the Colombian military was able to trick the FARC into releasing 15 of its most valued hostages, including French-Colombian Ingrid Betancourt, who was abducted while campaigning for president in San Vicente del Caguan, a FARC-controlled area in 2002. Santos thus leaves the position of Minister of Defense with an array of accomplishments that make him a natural candidate to continue President Uribe’s policy of “democratic security.”

Not everything during Santos’ time as Defense Minister, however, has been perfect. In October 2008, President Uribe fired 27 high-ranking members of Colombia’s armed forces, including three generals and four colonels, in connection to the “false positives” scandal in which 11 men from the town of Soacha were killed at the hands of the armed forces. “False positives” refers to the practice of some members of Colombia’s armed forces murdering innocent civilians and passing them off as guerrillas killed in combat in order to elevate body counts.

Currently, more than 400 soldiers and officers are being detained for potential involvement in extrajudicial killings, and more than 2,000 security officers have or are being investigated by the office of the Prosecutor General for potential involvement in extrajudicial killings. The purging of 27 members of Colombia’s armed forces and eventual resignation of Colombia’s veteran top army commander, General Mario Montoya, are an indication that Colombia’s military and civil institutions are beginning to address the issue which is to be commended. Investigations that lead to convictions, however, are an ongoing and unfinished process.

The list of military successes paired with accounts of devastating violence echo a similar pattern among security and economic gains in the country more widely. Since President Uribe took office in 2002, Colombia has been able to boast considerable security gains throughout its territory, and in particular the country’s urban centers. Since 2002, kidnapping rates have dropped 80 percent, the incidence of terrorist attacks has declined by 75 percent, and the number of homicides has dropped 45 percent nationwide.

Economically speaking, Colombia has also made significant strides during the Uribe administration. The unemployment rate in 2008 stood at 11.8 percent, down from nearly 16 percent in 2002. Foreign direct investment grew by 203 percent from 2002 to 2006, and Colombia’s economy grew by 7.5 percent in 2007 followed by 3.5 percent in 2008 as the effects of the global economic downturn began to reverberate worldwide.

Of course, pervasive economic inequality, social conflicts, and violence persist in Colombia’s rural and poorer regions. Due to armed confrontations between leftist guerrillas, resurgent groups often emerging from factions of demobilized paramilitaries, and government forces, millions of Colombians have been internally displaced. About 380,000 people were displaced in 2008 alone, making Colombia the country with the second-largest population of internally displaced people in the world—second only to Sudan.

Furthermore, more than 17 percent of Colombia’s population lives on less than $2 a day. The nation’s per capita gross domestic product calculated according to purchasing power parity is nearly $9,000. In comparison, The United States’ GDP per capita calculated in this way stands at $48,000.

It is within this context that the Obama administration must determine its foreign policy toward Colombia. The signals to date, however, have not been entirely clear. During President Obama’s first four months in office, for example, the administration first announced it would match Plan Colombia previous aid levels for fiscal year 2009, which ends September 30, 2009, by allocating roughly $660 million for military and police aid as well as economic and social aid. Then several weeks later, the Obama administration announced it would reduce fiscal year 2010 aid levels by $33 million and that both countries needed to prepare for the eventual “Colombianization” of Plan Colombia—a process that will transfer the majority of Plan Colombia’s financial burden to the Colombian government.

As the United States grapples with an economic recession, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and an ever-increasing allocation of resources to help Mexico deal with rising narcotics-related violence, the Colombianization of Plan Colombia after 10 years is understandable and to be expected. After alarm bells rang off in Colombian news reports about the reduction in aid, Colombia’s Ambassador to the United States, Carolina Barco, assured the media that the reduction would be gradual and consistent with Plan Colombia’s original inception, which was never intended to exist indefinitely.

Regardless, Uribe continues to enjoy abundant and widespread support among Colombia’s citizens due to the important security gains achieved during his presidency. Uribe’s current approval rate stands around 70 percent after having reached an all-time high of nearly 90 percent shortly after the string of military successes against the FARC in 2007 and 2008. Current polling done by Invamer Gallup shows that if Uribe sought a second reelection today, he would easily win against all other potential contenders.

Uribe claims that he does not want to perpetuate himself in power. Yet Uribe is quick to add that he does not want to be “politically irresponsible” by letting his policy of democratic security end after his administration. Uribe has said that what he wants to ensure is the continuity of his policies, not his presidency.

Uribe’s nuanced position on a possible second reelection is difficult to square with the efforts of members of his own party in Congress to push for a popular refendum to decide whether Uribe can run for a third term. Furthermore, when pressed about the issue during his latest trip to Europe by a reporter for BBC Mundo, President Uribe’s response was curt and borderline snide. Uribe told the reporter to worry about his own country’s democracy, not Colombia’s.

In such a highly charged political environment, the potential clearly exists for Uribe to perpetuate himself in power in a manner that echoes actions taken by the presidents of Colombia’s neighboring countries, neither of whom is an ally of the United States. The United States therefore needs to establish what its foreign policy objectives for Colombia will be regardless of who is elected into office in May 2010.

The Obama administration must focus on helping Colombia achieve consolidation of its security gains by promoting social and economic development and stronger civil institutions that uphold institutional checks and balances. Doing so will help make the “Colombianization” of Plan Colombia a success, and could well help the Obama administration navigate the U.S.-Colombia free trade agreement through skeptical factions of the U.S. Congress. The result would be an institutionally and democratically strong Colombia entering the last legs of a presidential election campaign next year. This is clearly in the interest of the United States.

Stephanie Miller is currently a consultant on U.S.-Latin America relations and was formerly the Research Associate for the Americas Project at the Center.

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