Last fall Colombia was being called “the Brexit of the Americas.” That’s because, in stunning Brexit fashion, voters there had just rejected a peace agreement to end the country’s half-century-long civil war. Most Colombians felt the accord was too lenient toward the Marxist guerrillas known as the FARC.
Since then, Colombian President and Nobel Peace Prize winner Juan Manuel Santos has tweaked the agreement and gotten it approved by Colombia’s Congress. But U.S. support under the Trump administration is in question.
Juan Carlos Pinzón is Colombia’s ambassador to the U.S. During his visit to Miami last week, he and WLRN’s Tim Padgett sat down to discuss Colombia’s post-war prospects – and hemispheric topics like the crisis inside Colombia's next door neighbor, Venezuela. (Note: Padgett spoke with Pinzón before last weekend’s mudslide tragedy in southwest Colombia.)
PADGETT: Implementing the peace agreement has really just started. But as a former defense minister, what would you say are the bright spots – and maybe what are the things that aren’t so bright right now?
PINZÓN: What looks to me important right now: the disarmament and demobilization of the FARC – the fact that we might see some months from now this guerrilla group, that at one point was the worst terrorist and criminal group in Latin America, disarm and demobilize. It will be a very important achievement.
What is the biggest challenge right now that you see?
I think we’re going to have a challenge taking development to those areas of Colombia that are marginal, that are distant, that need to be integrated …
Because that neglect of the remote areas of Colombia is one of the reasons the civil war started in the first place?
You know, I have to tell you, during wartime that was my main effort: always trying to convince other agencies of the government to get there. What always was the case was, when roads are going to come? Teachers, the judges? This will not be a process of one year or one government. But we have a very different country now. Investors will stay and be happy.
Many Colombians – including most in South Florida – felt the peace accord should have been tougher on the FARC, especially because of the drug trafficking and kidnapping they’ve done. What did the government miscalculate when it put the plan up for a voter referendum last year?
Well, I think President Santos has been saying a lot about this and giving his opinion and perspective. I will not interpret what came to his mind, but he’s on the record.
Uh, OK. But you would say that the government did learn something about the Colombian voter?
I think Colombians are very enthusiastic about democracy, and they exercise their rights, and they said what they think, and they give their opinions with strength and, you know, that’s what we have.
THE TRUMP FACTOR
The Obama administration pledged almost half a billion dollars to Colombia’s peace implementation. But it’s still waiting for approval in Congress. President Santos said he was confident President Trump would get it approved, but there are questions about his support for it. Do you think Colombia will see that money?
Of course we saw the comments and the preliminary information about [U.S.] cuts to foreign aid. Of course we have to make our case. And I spend a lot of time in [the U.S.] Congress and telling them, you know, Plan Colombia probably is the most effective and successful bipartisan policy in recent years …
Plan Colombia being the U.S. aid program that helped your military weaken the FARC …
Yes. So “Peace Colombia” should be what makes Plan Colombia a stable and permanent result.
Do you think Latin America can have a working relationship with President Trump?
Yes, we can have a working relationship with President Trump. I’m absolutely sure. I’ve been speaking with some of the secretaries of the Cabinet. President Santos and President Trump have spoken twice already, so …
And Colombia isn’t too concerned about the rhetoric against Latinos and immigrants?
Well, we care for our people. We want the respect for their rights, their human rights. But on the other hand, we are respectful of internal U.S. politics and internal U.S. regulations.
Your next door neighbor, Venezuela, has essentially become what many call a dictatorship now. How significant is it that Colombia just signed on to a multinational letter calling on Venezuela to restore democratic norms?
I think we’re very different countries. Colombia has one set of values, and we don’t try to intervene in other countries’ internal affairs. But it’s clear we have a set of values that are being very well expressed by the position from Colombia.
The Colombian Embassy in Washington has set up a bank-based process for people to donate money to help victims of the mudslides in southwest Colombia:
Here are some relief organizations on the ground that are also taking donations:
Cruz Roja Colombiana (Colombian Red Cross)
Litros Que Ayudan (Liters That Help; provides clean drinking water in Colombia)
Mercy Corps (Oregon-based international relief group)