Colom­bia vows peace de­spite the coca surge

En­voy touts al­liance with Trump

The Washington Times Daily - - FRONT PAGE - BY DAVID R. SANDS

A surge in coca pro­duc­tion has cast a shadow over the peace process, but Colom­bia re­mains com­mit­ted to im­ple­ment­ing a deal with left­ist FARC guer­ril­las to end a half­cen­tury of civil war, Colom­bian Am­bas­sador Juan Car­los Pin­zon said in an in­ter­view Mon­day.

Mr. Pin­zon, a former de­fense min­is­ter, spoke just days af­ter Colom­bian po­lice an­nounced the third-largest co­caine bust in the coun­try’s his­tory, seiz­ing 6 met­ric tons of co­caine in Bar­ran­quilla that were said to be bound for Spain. Crit­ics of the peace ac­cord, in­clud­ing con­ser­va­tive former Colom­bian Pres­i­dent Al­varo Uribe, have cited surg­ing il­le­gal coca pro­duc­tion as a main flaw of the land­mark peace deal signed in Novem­ber by Pres­i­dent Juan Manuel San­tos, Mr. Uribe’s suc­ces­sor, with FARC lead­ers.

Mr. Pin­zon said Colom­bian coca grow­ers have ad­justed to the eas­ing of harsh erad­i­ca­tion ef­forts backed by suc­ces­sive U.S. gov­ern­ments, coat­ing the coca leaves with jelly to frus­trate aerial spray­ing and plant­ing the coca amid le­gal crops or in na­tional park­land. An­a­lysts say the Colom­bian congress has also been slow to pass eco­nomic sup­port pro­grams for coca grow­ers look­ing to shift to other crops, giv­ing coca farm­ers a per­verse in­cen­tive

to ex­pand their crop to boost the com­pen­sa­tion they re­ceive when they agree to stop pro­duc­tion as part of the peace deal.

The coca grow­ers “have learned, and so must we,” the en­voy said in an in­ter­view with ed­i­tors and re­porters at The Washington Times.

“We Colom­bians are the first ones who should be wor­ried about a re­vival” of coca pro­duc­tion and ex­port, he added, call­ing the drug trade “the mother of ev­ery bad thing we face.”

De­spite the re­cent surge in pro­duc­tion — a record 378 met­ric tons of co­caine was seized last year, and 103 met­ric tons have been con­fis­cated so far in 2017 — Mr. Pin­zon said Colom­bia has gone from be­ing “vir­tu­ally a failed state” in the early 1990s to a coun­try that now trains other coun­tries around the re­gion on drug in­ter­dic­tion strate­gies.

In a wide-rang­ing in­ter­view, Mr. Pin­zon spoke on a num­ber of top­ics, in­clud­ing the ris­ing in­sta­bil­ity across the bor­der in Venezuela, the con­tin­u­ing chal­lenges im­ple­ment­ing the peace deal and Bo­gota’s hopes to work with the new Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion on a “Peace Colom­bia” plan that has suc­ceeded the “Plan Colom­bia” mil­i­tary and eco­nomic aid pack­age pur­sued un­der the Clin­ton, Ge­orge W. Bush and Obama ad­min­is­tra­tions.

Pres­i­dent Trump has called for an “Amer­ica First” for­eign pol­icy, and his first bud­get blue­print pro­posed sharp cuts in for­eign aid. But Mr. Pin­zon in­sisted Bo­gota’s first in­ter­ac­tions with the new U.S. ad­min­is­tra­tion have been strongly pos­i­tive, de­spite com­ments from Sec­re­tary of State Rex W. Tiller­son dur­ing his Se­nate con­fir­ma­tion process that the U.S.

would “re­view” its sup­port of Peace Colom­bia in light of the in­creased drug pro­duc­tion.

Mr. Pin­zon noted that Mr. San­tos, who won a No­bel Prize for his gov­ern­ment’s peace­mak­ing ef­forts, was one of the first world lead­ers to talk by phone with Mr. Trump af­ter his elec­tion in Novem­ber, and again dis­cussed U.S. con­tin­u­ing sup­port for the peace process shortly af­ter Mr. Trump took of­fice. Mr. Pin­zon has said he re­mains con­fi­dent the U.S. will pro­vide nearly a half-bil­lion dol­lars pledged un­der Pres­i­dent Obama for Peace Colom­bia, al­though Colom­bia must “make its case” to Congress and the White House that the money will be well spent.

Bi­par­ti­san back­ing

The shift from Pres­i­dent Obama to Pres­i­dent Trump “is not as schiz­o­phrenic as some make it out to be for us,” the am­bas­sador said, “be­cause sup­port for Colom­bia has long been strongly bi­par­ti­san. Of course, each new ad­min­is­tra­tion has the right to set its own pri­or­i­ties, but the sig­nals have been good, and we re­tain strong re­la­tions with many U.S. gov­ern­ment agen­cies. There was a big ad­just­ment for us go­ing from Pres­i­dent Bush to Pres­i­dent Obama, but in the end, we were able to re­tain a strong work­ing re­la­tion­ship.”

The big­gest dif­fi­culty in the tran­si­tion is one shared by vir­tu­ally ev­ery em­bassy in town: the slow pace of ap­point­ments and con­fir­ma­tions for key posts across the State De­part­ment and other key agen­cies.

“In many cases, we don’t yet have the peo­ple in place we need to talk to, and those in the very se­nior po­si­tions are very busy,” he said.

Both Washington and Bo­gota share a mount­ing con­cern over Venezuela, Colom­bia’s trou­bled neigh­bor, with whom it shares a por­ous and hard-to-de­fend 1,400-mile bor­der. The po­lit­i­cal cri­sis and eco­nomic melt­down fac­ing left­ist Venezue­lan Pres­i­dent Nicolas Maduro have pro­duced a surge of refugees who are strain­ing so­cial ser­vices and re­sources on the Colom­bian side of the bor­der. The Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion and the Or­ga­ni­za­tion of Amer­i­can States have been sharply crit­i­cal of what they say are anti-demo­cratic moves by the Maduro gov­ern­ment, and the U.S. Trea­sury De­part­ment re­cently sanc­tioned Venezuela’s vice pres­i­dent as a drug king­pin.

“It is a dif­fi­cult prob­lem be­cause Venezuela is a very im­por­tant coun­try for us,” said Mr. Pin­zon, not­ing that cit­i­zens of both coun­tries have his­tor­i­cally crossed the bor­der for fam­ily and busi­ness rea­sons. Mem­bers of the FARC and the smaller, still ac­tive Na­tional Lib­er­a­tion Army (ELN) have long main­tained sanc­tu­ar­ies in re­mote ar­eas of Venezuela while fight­ing the gov­ern­ment in Bo­gota, and just last month the San­tos gov­ern­ment protested af­ter a band of Venezue­lan sol­diers spent three days inside Colom­bian ter­ri­tory on a still-mys­te­ri­ous sor­tie.

Colom­bia has stepped up its pub­lic crit­i­cism of Caracas in re­cent days, join­ing the U.S. and a dozen other coun­tries in the re­gion in a let­ter last month call­ing on the Maduro gov­ern­ment to re­lease po­lit­i­cal pris­on­ers and hold elec­tions this year.

Ac­knowl­edg­ing that Venezuela’s in­ter­nal cri­sis is a “del­i­cate sub­ject” for his gov­ern­ment, Mr. Pin­zon did note the sharp re­ver­sal of for­tunes in the two coun­tries over the past quar­ter-cen­tury.

“There was a time when it was thought Colom­bia was on its knees, on the way to be­com­ing a failed state, while Venezuela was one of the rich­est coun­tries in the world,” he said. “Now we are seen for [meet­ing] chal­lenges and a model demo­cratic, mar­ket econ­omy, while Venezuela has gone in a di­rectly con­trary di­rec­tion.”

De­spite the re­gional chal­lenges, Mr. Pin­zon said his gov­ern­ment’s pri­or­i­ties re­main on the in­ter­nal sit­u­a­tion: im­ple­ment­ing the peace agree­ment, de­mo­bi­liz­ing and dis­arm­ing FARC forces, curb­ing coca pro­duc­tion and deal­ing with war crimes and atroc­i­ties com­mit­ted by both sides in the half-cen­tury of guer­rilla strug­gle.

“The im­ple­men­ta­tion is go­ing for­ward, but we have to keep a close watch on what is go­ing on,” the am­bas­sador said. “The peace agree­ment was de­signed to do many things, and we have to see what it will ac­com­plish. If it does not, we have the tools in place to deal with that.”


BIT­TER HAR­VEST: The cul­ti­va­tion of coca, the plant used to make co­caine, surged in Colom­bia last year, but Am­bas­sador Juan Car­los Pin­zon says that won’t de­rail the coun­try’s peace with the FARC rebels.

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