Trump, ex-lead­ers had se­cret meet­ing

Sun Sentinel Broward Edition - - FRONT PAGE - By Franco Or­donez and Anita Ku­mar Sun-Sen­tinel wire ser­vices

BO­GOTA, Colom­bia—Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump qui­etly meta pair of for­mer Colom­bian pres­i­dents last week­end at Mar-a-Lago, thrust­ing his ad­min­is­tra­tion into an ugly power strug­gle in Latin Amer­ica that threat­ens to un­der­mine the coun­try’s con­tro­ver­sial peace agree­ment with rebel lead­ers.

Colom­bian Pres­i­dent Juan Manuel San­tos is ex­pected to meet with Trump next month for the first time, and push him to sup­port the peace ac­cord with the Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Armed Forces of Colom­bia. He wants the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion and Congress to main­tain the $450 mil­lion in for­eign aid promised by Pres­i­dent

Barack Obama to im­ple­ment the plan to end Latin Amer­ica’s long­est armed con­flict.

The meet­ing be­tween Trump and the for­mer pres­i­dents, Al­varo Uribe and An­dres Pas­trana, is said to have been ar­ranged by U.S. Sen. Marco Ru­bio. The Repub­li­can from Mi­ami is an in­flu­en­tial U.S. critic of the plan. The meet­ing was not on the pres­i­dent’s sched­ule and was not dis­closed to re­porters who trav­eled with him to Palm Beach.

White House press sec­re­tary Sean Spicer ini­tially de­clined to an­swer ques­tions about the meet­ing, lead­ing to a rash of spec­u­la­tion in Colom­bian me­dia. Colom­bian news­pa­pers, web­sites and ra­dio sta­tions de­bated the meet­ing’s sig­nif­i­cance — and whether it had hap­pened. “I don’t have any­thing for you at this time,” Spicer said Wed­nes­day when asked.

The White House later con­firmed the meet­ing to McClatchy but down­played its sig­nif­i­cance, say­ing it was a mere co­in­ci­dence that both for­mer lead­ers op­posed to the peace pact were at the pres­i­dent’s club.

“They were there with a mem­ber from the club and briefly said hello when the pres­i­dent walked past them,” spokes­woman Sarah Huck­abee San­ders said. “There wasn’t any­thing be­yond a quick hello.”

But the lead­ers’ own com­ments con­tra­dict the White House’s char­ac­ter­i­za­tion.

In a tweet fol­low­ing the meet­ing, Pas­trana thanked Trump for the “cor­dial and very frank con­ver­sa­tion” about prob­lems in Colom­bia and the re­gion.

Uribe was un­avail­able for an in­ter­view, but his for­mer vice pres­i­dent, Fran­cisco San­tos, said it­was im­por­tant that the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion and U.S. Congress hear a more com­plete pic­ture of the real­ity in Colom­bia. He de­scribed the meet­ing as short, but with a clear mes­sage. The for­mer pres­i­dents raised con­cerns about the sit­u­a­tion in Venezuela and Colom­bia, in­clud­ing dam­age they say the peace process has caused.

“We’re very wor­ried,” said Fran­cisco San­tos, who is the Bo­gota chair­man of Uribe’s Demo­cratic Cen­ter po­lit­i­cal party and the cur­rent pres­i­dent’s cousin. “You have a per­fect storm, and the gov­ern­ment says ev­ery­thing is go­ing fine and we’re liv­ing in peace. And that’s not true.”

The Mar-a-Lago meet­ing co­in­cided with a let­ter Uribe wrote to the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion and Congress, which he pub­lished on Twit­ter, warn­ing that San­tos’ ef­forts to com­plete a peace deal with the rebels could lead to Colom­bia be­com­ing an au­thor­i­tar­ian state sim­i­lar to Venezuela.

The undis­closed meet­ing also raises a num­ber of ques­tions about the ease with which peo­ple try­ing to in­flu­ence Trump can ac­cess him through mem­ber­ship in his club with­out fear of pub­lic dis­clo­sure; a Mara-Lago mem­ber­ship costs $200,000 for the ini­ti­a­tion alone.

“It sug­gests that the peo­ple who pa­tron­ize the pres­i­dent’s busi­nesses have more in­flu­ence than the rest of us,” said Noah Book­binder, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of Cit­i­zens for Re­spon­si­bil­ity and Ethics in Wash­ing­ton, a gov­ern­ment watch­dog group.

The White House did not say which Mar-a-Lago mem­ber had ac­com­pa­nied the lead­ers to the re­sort. Mem­bers’ names are not pub­lic, though some have leaked out since Trump be­came pres­i­dent.

The meet­ing also raised ques­tions about whether Trump in­tends to sup­port the Colom­bia peace plan, the re­sult of years of ne­go­ti­a­tions to end five decades of com­bat with the in­sur­gency group, which is known by its Span­ish ini­tials as the FARC. San­tos re­ceived the No­bel Peace Prize last year for his ef­forts at ne­go­ti­at­ing a deal.

Spicer and San­ders did not an­swer ques­tions about whether Trump sup­ports the peace pact.

Ru­bio, whose wife is Colom­bian, has been crit­i­cal of the peace process.

He shares the views of many Colom­bians that it is in­ap­pro­pri­ate to ne­go­ti­ate with a guer­rilla group known for drug traf­fick­ing and kid­nap­pings. He re­peat­edly has noted that the FARC re­mains a U.S.-des­ig­nated for­eign ter­ror­ist or­ga­ni­za­tion, and he has ar­gued that Congress shouldn’t com­mit any ad­di­tional money to the Colom­bian gov­ern­ment un­til the peace plan is ap­proved by the Colom­bian peo­ple.

An ini­tial peace deal nar­rowly lost in a ref­er­en­dum in Oc­to­ber. San­tos then re­opened ne­go­ti­a­tions with the rebels, but he by­passed a ref­er­en­dum in fa­vor of sub­mit­ting the deal to the Colom­bian Congress, which ap­proved it in Novem­ber.

The Colom­bian gov­ern­ment crit­i­cized the for­mer pres­i­dents for go­ing out­side diplo­matic chan­nels and tak­ing the coun­try’s “dirty laun­dry” to the White House.

Juan Car­los Pin­zon, Colom­bia’s am­bas­sador to the United States, said it was im­por­tant not to over­sim­plify the meet­ing. He noted that Colom­bia has a long record of strong bi­par­ti­san re­la­tions with the U.S. Congress.

San­tos was the sec­ond Latin Amer­i­can pres­i­dent to speak with Trump af­ter the Amer­i­can was sworn into of­fice. In their 25-minute call, San­tos asked Trump to sup­port the U.S. fund­ing to back the coun­try’s peace deal. San­tos, who is seen as an “Oba­man­ista” who pub­licly lob­bied for Trump’s Demo­cratic ri­val, Hil­lary Clin­ton, has de­scribed Trump’s pol­i­tics as “not in line with what Colom­bia wants.”

Pin­zon said the Colom­bian gov­ern­ment must re­spect that Trump had his own way of do­ing things but that it was dan­ger­ous for the for­mer pres­i­dents to take Colom­bia’s po­lar­ized pol­i­tics to the United States, which could dam­age the coun­try’s bi­par­ti­san sup­port.

“We need to ad­dress these is­sues at home ,” Pin­zon toldW Ra­dio in Colom­bia .“We need to was hour dirty laun­dry at home.”

Ar­lene Tick­ner, a pro­fes­sor of in­ter­na­tional re­la­tions at Rosario Univer­sity in Bo­gota, said it was dis­con­cert­ing for the lead­ers to be cam­paign­ing against a sit­ting pres­i­dent and the peace process.

“I think they’re hop­ing to get the Congress to hold back on fund­ing to the gov­ern­ment in order to gain lever­age vis-a-vis the process,” Tick­ner said. “And ob­vi­ously Uribe is pos­tur­ing, try­ing to po­si­tion him­self and his party with an eye to the next elec­tions.”

Last year, Obama promised to throw the White House’s full sup­port be­hind the his­toric peace ac­cord, in­clud­ing a pledge of $450 mil­lion in aid an­nu­ally to help pay for re­gional devel­op­ment and to de­mo­bi­lize and rein­te­grate around 7,000 fight­ers.

That money is now in doubt as the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion plans to slash for­eign aid as part of 31 per­cent cuts to the State Depart­ment’s bud­get.

“If you’re go­ing to re­duce for­eign as­sis­tance, you have to go to the places where as­sis­tance is pro­vided,” said Eric Farnsworth, a for­mer State Depart­ment of­fi­cial who is now vice pres­i­dent of the Wash­ing­ton-based Coun­cil of the Amer­i­cas.

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