Friday, February 5, 2016

A plan for peace in Colombia (Feb. 5, 2016)

U.S. President Barack Obama announced he would seek $450 million in aid for Colombia. The funding is a significant increase for the longstanding Plan Colombia, which will be renamed Peace Colombia to reflect new objectives, he announced yesterday in Washington.

The money "will be devoted to helping to reinforce security gains, reintegrate former combatants into society and extend opportunities and the rule of law into areas denied them for decades," Obama said, according to Colombia Reports.

The new Peace Colombia initiatives will be aimed at helping Colombia rebuild after a 50 year civil war that has left at least 260,000 dead and millions more displaced.

The U.S. government would also commit $33 million to a global program to help the country remove land mines in the next five years, and Obama said he would help mobilize more international aid if the peace deal is reached, reports Reuters.

But there are questions about whether an aid program built to defeat a rebel insurgency can be changed to consolidate peace, reports the Christian Science Monitor.

Already the U.S. foreign aid agency USAID is supporting government reintegration programs for demobilized fighters, including those who have deserted the FARC while formally still at war with the state, noted the U.S. 

Ambassador to Colombia Kevin Whitaker, according to Colombia Reports. The plan now is to broaden the activities to the entire post-conflict process that will follow a peace accord with the FARC, he said.

The signing of an agreement with FARC guerrillas could occur as soon as next month, and is a delicate moment for rebel controlled territories, according to U.S. News and World Report. The government must reintegrate about 8,000 fighters and the population under their territorial control without strengthening organized crime groups who might seek to fill the drug trade vacuum.

The piece cites Eric Farnsworth, vice president of the Americas Society and Council of the Americas, who looks at the example of post-conflict El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, where drug and gang crime have led to rampant violence. 

The biggest challenge will be demobilizing and reintegrating FARC fighters, notes the Associated Press.

As peace agreements move forward in Colombia, security forces and drug traffickers alike are preparing for changes, reported the Washington Post earlier this week. An important part of Colombia’s billion-dollar cocaine trade will be up for grabs once the FARC lays down arms, and a drug organization known as Clan Úsuga could seek to fill the gap and hire out-of-work fighters. The Úsuga organization is by far the country’s most powerful criminal syndicate, with 1,500 to 2,000 members, a presence in more than half of Colombian territory, and an arsenal that includes mortars, rockets and land mines.

The new program will end funding for fumigation and help Colombia more directly strike drug gangs' infrastructure and their products, reports the Wall Street Journal

Earlier this week Colombia's defense minister stated the top priority for a new plan would be replacing coca harvests with alternative crops, reports InSight Crime.

Post-peace, Colombia's security forces will focus more on criminal networks, according to the WSJ.

U.S. funding is vital for the implementation of the peace accords, notes Reuters, especially as Colombian revenues are hit by plunging oil prices.

But Obama is already facing rejection from some Miami Republicans, say the peace deal largely benefits the FARC and not U.S. and Colombian citizens, reports the Miami Herald. They share the concerns of many Colombians, in Miami and in Colombia, who don't trust the FARC.

Nonetheless, though the numbers are big, it's only a tiny portion of what Colombians will need to raise, notes Silla Vacía's Juanita León.

The proposed 25 percent increase in U.S. aid over 2016 levels is significant, but still below the $500 million Santos was seeking, reports the Los Angeles Times. Colombia will still have to come up with tens of billions more for big-ticket programs, from bringing infrastructure to remote regions to modernizing the agriculture sector, according to the Wall Street Journal. A special commission in Colombia's congress estimated the price tag would reach $2.2 billion next year alone.

Obama and Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, who is on a state visit to the U.S., celebrated the successes of the fifteen year plan (see Wednesday's post). The country has seen a a 50-percent drop in homicides and a 90-percent decline in kidnappings since 2002, notes the White House press release. "Thanks in part to increased security, Colombia’s economy has grown an average of 4.3 percent since 2007 and unemployment and poverty are at historic lows." It's a major turnaround for a country that only fifteen years ago was on the verge of being a failed state, according to the Washington Post.

The two leaders mutually congratulated each other for seeking rapprochement with Cuba in the case of Obama and pursuing peace negotiations with the rebel FARC in Santos' case, reports the New York Times.

Plan Colombia, which provided about $10 billion in aid over the past decade and a half, was notably skewed towards military initiatives, and was criticized by some for disregarding human rights, notes the NYTimes. (See Wednesday's post.)

It is important for U.S. diplomacy to get this next phase right and show that a long-term partnership can have positive outcomes, explains the CSM.
"Colombia has been a success story, and there haven’t been too many of those recently, if you look at Iraq and Afghanistan and so forth," Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, told the CSM. "So in the future, in other circumstances where the opportunity or need for collaboration presents itself, I think [the US] wants to be able to point to this as a collaboration that worked."

Analyzing the relationship between the two countries, and specifically the two presidents, the NYTimes quotes Cynthia Arnson, the director of the Latin America program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, who said Santos had been "a close ally at the same time that he has struck out on his own, in ways that have sometimes been inconvenient for the U.S."

And Human Rights Watch criticizes the transitional justice clause of the peace deal with the FARC, under which people accused of war crimes or human rights violations will avoid jail time. "In fact, this deal surrenders justice, and with it the likelihood of achieving a lasting peace."

On the issue of the peace negotiations, a Christian Science Monitor editorial notes the importance of seating victims at the table in facilitating the four year process. It is a example of importance for other initiatives, such as Syrian peace talks.

Though a peace deal with the FARC is critical for peace, the negotiations with the second largest rebel group in the country, the ELN, seem stalled, notes the BBC. The much smaller group has about 1,400 armed fighters, but are still kidnapping civilians, capturing soldiers and killing members of the security forces in confrontations.

Santos is expected to request that the U.S. remove the FARC from its list of foreign terrorist organizations once an agreement is signed with the guerillas. Doing so is at the discretion of the secretary of state, whom Santos will meet with today, reports U.S. News.

"Any effort by the United States to allow us to apply transitional justice, for example by suspending the arrest warrants, would help us tremendously," Santos told the Associated Press before leaving Colombia. 

The state visit from Colombia marks the beginning of a year of Latin American diplomacy for Obama, notes the NYTimes. He is aiming for a Cuba visit as early as March, and could visit Colombia in the same trip. And he'll be in Peru in November for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum.

The close relationship between Colombia and the U.S. developed over the past years will allow the two countries to expand collaboration, announced the White House, including in the fight against the spread of the Zika virus, notes VOA.

Note: Wednesday's post mistakenly said Santos would seek $5 billion per year in aid from the U.S. The correct number is $5 million.

News Briefs

  • Zika! Colombian authorities confirmed the first three deaths of patients infected with the Zika virus, who had contracted the apparently related Guillain-Barré syndrome, that attacks the nervous system and causes paralysis, reports the Guardian.
  • Calls from Zika affected countries to postpone pregnancy in light of potential links to birth defects have been met with silence from the Catholic Church, which has not  eased its proscription on artificial contraception and abortion, reports the Guardian. The rights of women to make decisions about pregnancies must be at the forefront of the response to the Zika crisis, Tewedros Melesse, director general of the International Planned Parenthood Federation, said yesterday. The poor women in rural areas who are most likely to be exposed are also those least likely to have access to contraception, he said.
  • Latin American health ministers have agreed on a roadmap to fight the Zika virus, reports EFE. In a meeting yesterday they established region-wide clinical protocols and directives for treating the mosquito-borne diseases, providing attention to newborns, soliciting international cooperation and greater resources and acquiring expensive medications. They also agreed to coordinate education campaigns preparing the public for dealing with the problem, preventing and controlling the disease, as well as creating awareness and reciprocal support capabilities for diagnosing Zika cases.
  • Brazilian officials deny claims that the country's export controls are delaying international researchers access to samples of the Zika virus, reports the Washington Post. Scientists who have carried out research in Brazil say that getting biological materials, such as tissue samples, out of the country requires a tremendous amount of paperwork. Researchers around the world are trying to establish the relationship between the mosquito-borne virus and microcephaly. 
  • The number of affected babies might be lower than initially expected, according to new Health Ministry data, reports the Wall Street Journal.
  • Between Zika and economic recession, Brazil is very gloomy ahead of the upcoming Rio Olympics, reports the Guardian. "The daily tales of woe are overshadowing the build-up to the first Games to be staged in South America."
  • On a more cheerful note, this year's carnaval will feature an unlikely new Brazilian hero: Newton Ishii, an unassuming, middle-aged police officer of Japanese descent who has become an omnipresent figure in high-profile corruption arrests and a beloved symbol of Brazil's fight against white-collar crime. He even earned a nickname: Japonês da Federal, or the Japanese Cop, reports the Wall Street Journal.
  • The Haitian political crisis, with no successor for outgoing President Michel Martelly who must step down this Sunday and no agreement on how to hold elections to pick one, can be resolved, says the head of an OAS special mission to the country. But it seems the goal post shifts every day, he said, according to the Miami Herald. Yesterday lawmakers finally inaugurated this year's legislature, but came to no agreement as to the political impasse. A decision could be taken by tomorrow.
  • Venezuela will overhaul it's notoriously impossible currency controls, reports the Wall Street Journal. The changes will be announced in coming days, according to the the country’s trade and investment minister.
  • Two former cabinet ministers under late Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez are seeking an investigation to trace the fate of some $300 billion allegedly embezzled during the past decade through the currency control system, reports Reuters.
  • A small group of Venezuelan opposition lawmakers launched a bill Tuesday proposing to oust President Nicolas Maduro, reports AFP. The leftist Radical Cause party, a minority member of the opposition MUD coalition, said it presented a proposed constitutional amendment to cut Maduro's mandate short by two years and call a general election by the end of this year.
  • Homicide stats, which are vital to understanding violence in the region, can be difficult to get a handle on. At Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights, David Smilde analyzes new data published by the Venezuelan Attorney General, and how it contradicts other estimates.
  • Get ready for Pope-mania 2016 edition: Pope Francis urged Mexicans to battle against corruption and grisly drug gang violence, just days before his tour of some of Mexico's most violence-scarred regions begins, reports Reuters.

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