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The New Look of the U.S.-Colombia Relationship

July 29, 2010

In the fall of 2002, as a starry eyed intern for Henry Hyde, then the chairman of the House International Relations Committee, I had the opportunity to sit in for a private meeting between members of the U.S. Congress and President of Colombia Álvaro Uribe. Granted, the sole reason was to carry the director of protocol’s heavy box. But as Uribe walked around the small room to shake each person’s hand—interns and all—I caught the first glimpse of the leadership that this newly elected Colombian president would exhibit for the next eight years.

Now, as Colombia sees a changing of the guard on August 7 with the inauguration of President-elect Juan Manuel Santos, the U.S.-Colombian relationship is poised to continue the strong interaction forged over decades.

Eight years ago, the United States was fully committed to Plan Colombia, a policy devised and initiated by former Colombian President Andrés Pastrana to end Colombia’s internal conflict and eliminate the drug trade using better enforcement and development. In 2000, U.S. President Bill Clinton, with the support of Congress, signed into law an assistance package that provided $1.3 billion in counternarcotics assistance to Colombia. Two years later, and under Uribe, Plan Colombia won the backing of U.S. President George W. Bush. Additional U.S. congressional appropriations to Colombia and the region came in the following years.

U.S. assistance to Colombia was critical to Colombia’s success as was the bipartisan manner in which it received support. Although not without controversy and critics, U.S. Presidents from different parties along with considerable congressional support gave Plan Colombia its feet to stand on. Bipartisan support was largely achieved as a result of Colombia’s leaders placing importance on Bogotá’s relationship with Washington. The presence of Pastrana and Uribe was not uncommon in the halls of Congress. Then-Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert and members of his Speaker’s Drug Task Force met regularly with Uribe in the Capitol to discuss Colombia’s progress, U.S. concerns, and ways to move forward. Uribe also routinely met with both majority and minority leadership, powerful committee chairs, and ranking members to keep the U.S.-Colombia relationship on the front burner.

In Washington, Colombia has received an exceptional amount of attention. The drug trade sparked lawlessness that culminated in violence between leftist rebels and rightist paramilitary groups. Innocent Colombians were caught in the crossfire and hundreds of thousands were displaced from their homes as they fled to safety. During this chaos, Uribe stepped into the scene with campaign promises to end the violence and restore order. He succeeded.

President Uribe has brought Colombia from a region of unlawfulness to a state that is now providing security to more citizens than anytime in recent history. Between 2002 and 2009, homicides decreased by 45 percent and kidnappings fell by 92 percent while GDP grew from $93 billion to $231 billion.

In Washington, dedication toward Colombia has also existed but that is in similar transition as new faces take new roles. President Obama has only now filled many long empty positions in his administration as the Senate approved thousands of presidential nominations. The administration policy agenda is still in its early stages, but Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s recent travel to Bogotá and President Obama’s recent call to back the trade agreement—in limbo and waiting U.S. approval since 2006—are hopeful signals of what will be Washington’s role in the relationship. Additional opportunity for building on the bilateral relationship exists with the U.S. Congress and its role in providing oversight.

In Bogotá, the course of the U.S.-Colombian partnership is pending. It will continue to be a close relationship but the exact dynamics will wait for the inauguration of President-elect Juan Manuel Santos and the assembly of his team. This power transition will be a momentous occasion for the Colombian people who have seen such positive changes under the two terms of President Uribe. Regardless of one’s support of Uribe, it is hard to argue about the lasting impact of his presidency or his overwhelming support Colombia, which hit an unprecedented high of 82 percent in 2008.

But Santos will continue to strengthen the dynamic bilateral relationship. In turn, the leaders in Washington will receive Santos with the open doors and the optimism a new leader of an ally country deserves. A strong U.S.-Colombian relationship cannot be taken for granted, but its perseverance is possible through years of hard work and diligence.

Brian Wanko is Director of Government Relations at the Council of the Americas.