Implementing Colombia peace deal ‘impossible’ without US aid

Barack Obama

Barack Obama

The United States has lent a strong but subtle hand in helping the government of Colombia and FARC rebels reach a peace deal, but Washington is likely to have an outsized role as the plan’s bankroller.

The government of Juan Manuel Santos and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) concluded a final deal on August 24, heralding the end of a 52-year armed conflict that has killed around 250,000 people and forced millions from their homes.

Colombian voters must now approve the agreement in an October 2 referendum. The popular vote has bitterly divided Colombians, even if recent opinion polls suggest support is growing for the “Yes” camp.

The referendum is widely seen as the final, decisive hurdle for the peace plan after nearly four years of hard-fought negotiations in Cuba. But there is at least one more missing component that will be critical to its success: more than $400 million (355 million euros) in financial assistance from the United States.

“The aid package is a tremendous amount of help,” said Gimena Sanchez-Garzoli, a Colombia expert at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA). “With all the problems in Europe, other countries have decreased funding to Latin America. The US is providing the bulk of what is needed.”

Asked if the Colombia peace plan could be implemented without the financial backing of Washington, Sanchez-Garzoli replied, “No. Really, it can’t.”

In February of this year, President Barack Obama said he would request a $450 million package (400 million euros) from Congress to help the Colombia peace deal meet its goals, adding that the US would contribute $33 million (29 million euros) more to a global demining initiative led by Norway.

Since then, the US House of Representatives has drafted a funding bill that would exceed that amount to reach around $530 million (470 million euros), while the Senate has offered its own version of the bill for an amount slightly lower than was suggested by the Obama administration.

WOLA’s Sanchez-Garzoli said US funding would be aimed primarily at generating economic alternatives for coca growers, including the build-up of road and market infrastructure in very rural areas. “There are no incentives to leave coca farming when there are no roads, because coca buyers come to you,” she explained.

The Colombia expert said another priority for the US was to bring Colombian government institutions – especially the justice system – to rural areas that have been largely abandoned by the government during the decades-long conflict.

From the Colombian point of view, US funding will be critical in training programmes for FARC fighters transitioning into civil society, and shifting the focus of its massive armed forces. Between 2000 and 2015 the US gave Colombia $10 billion (9 billion euros) in assistance, the bulk of which went to its armed forces.

Bi-partisan support

Sanchez-Garzoli said that while there were a few detractors in the US Congress, a comprehensive aid package for Colombia in 2017 was likely to be approved by lawmakers. “Most members of Congress support the peace process. It is one of the few issues that Democrats and Republicans have agreed on,” she said.

There was nevertheless some doubt about exactly when Congress would reconcile and pass the funding bill, especially in a presidential election year. If there are no surprises, funding for the Colombian peace deal will be adopted by Congress during the so-called lame-duck session between November and January.

Looking past the elections on November 8, Sanchez-Garzoli said a victory for Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton would represent a “continuation of the policies put in place by Obama”, meaning strong support for the peace plan and the Santos administration.

However, a win for Republican rival Donald Trump represents an unknown. Besides forcing Mexico to build a larger wall along the border with the United States, Trump has largely refrained from sharing his policy goals for Latin America. “With Trump, we just don’t know,” Sanchez-Garzoli said.