Today, Washington’s diplomatic gaze is on Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, who’s meeting President Obama at the White House.
But as Santos and Obama discuss what looks like an imminent peace accord to end Colombia’s half-century long civil war, I hope the Beltway keeps another Latin American head of state in mind: Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega.
Ortega is an apt warning about what happens when Washington turns its back on peace processes in the Americas. And by peace processes I don’t mean the talks that lead to the cease-fires. I’m talking about the harder part – the post-armistice stage when the negotiators check out of their hotel suites and their country actually has to make peace work.
In other words, the politically unsexy follow-through stage – when Washington usually loses interest, the way it did in Nicaragua after the decade-long contra war ended in 1990.
That Cold War bloodbath pitted Ortega’s first government – the Soviet-supported Sandinista regime – against U.S.-backed contra rebels. It concluded shortly after Washington’s candidate, Violeta Chamorro, defeated Ortega in the 1990 election.
That should have been the end of the corrupt and incompetent Ortega, one of the region’s lousiest Marxist caudillos. But Washington, which considered Ortega a hemispheric nemesis second only to Fidel Castro, actually started paving the way for his political comeback the day Nicaragua’s combatants put down their AK-47s.
I was there, on a remote plain in southern Nicaragua, when contras traded their guns for bags of beans and rice. Those rations probably lasted them a few weeks, which is about as long as the U.S. seemed to stay engaged in the war-ravaged country’s struggle to get back on its feet.
Thanks in no small part to American neglect – which was all the more astonishing given the brazen role we’d just played in helping wreck the place – Nicaragua’s impoverished economy remained a backward mess and political conflict kept stunting its fledgling democracy.
The voter anger that resulted helped Ortega regain the presidency in 2006. He’s still in power, every bit the crooked authoritarian he was a generation ago, with no end to his rule in sight.
Nicaragua is hardly the only example. But the U.S. can’t afford to let Colombia slip through the cracks that way, which is why Santos’ visit is one of the year’s most important.
Since 2000, Washington has spent $10 billion helping Bogotá beat back the once ferocious Marxist guerrillas known as the FARC. Along the way, Colombia has become the U.S.’s key South American ally, politically stable and economically stout compared to the mad left-wing meltdown next door in Venezuela.
A NORMAL COUNTRY
But as Santos told me in a WLRN interview in late 2014, peace with the FARC is the only way Colombia “can become a normal country.” It's the only way it can realize its potential – and remain a reliable U.S. partner for the long haul.
A truce could be inked as early as next month. Last week, the United Nations Security Council even appointed a special mission to oversee the war’s conclusion.
Still, that end is just the start of something more difficult. Now that we’ve helped Colombia put down the FARC, we have to help it rectify the feudal conditions that led the guerrillas to rise up in the first place. Colombia’s recent economic boom, for example, masks the reality that less than 2 percent of its population still owns more than 50 percent of the country’s land.
In recent days, the Obama administration – which is expected to ask Congress for substantial new Colombian aid this month – has signaled it understands the need to stick with the country and help fix its ragged infrastructure. That’s a crucial first step to letting millions of rural residents displaced by the war find their economic way again.
Other moves are just as critical – and more politically challenging. Perhaps the hardest is removing the FARC from the U.S.’s list of terrorist organizations and suspending U.S. drug warrants against its top leadership. Santos is urging those concessions to ease the peace transition, and Washington should seriously consider them – provided the FARC seriously renounces kidnapping and cocaine trafficking.
But if we don’t follow through on Colombia, we risk the sort of popular resentment that leads to the sort of populist regression Nicaragua opted for 10 years ago.
So take a good look at Juan Manuel Santos’ face today, Washington. It looks a lot better than Daniel Ortega’s.