It’s rare these days to see bipartisan agreement on any foreign policy issues. But assistance to Colombia is one of the bright exceptions. Starting in 1999, when President Clinton launched “Plan Colombia,” successive administrations and congresses have provided financial support to combat drug trafficking and cultivation, provide economic assistance, and support the peace process that ended 50 years of civil war in this critical South American country.
Last week, I traveled with a delegation of Council board members and others to Bogotá and Medellín to see how things were going. We found a country that was flourishing in many ways, but also facing a somewhat uncertain future.
On the bright side, Colombia today is a country at peace focused on investing in its future rather than fighting the wars of the past. A peace agreement was signed in 2016 and continues to be implemented by all sides. The guerilla movement has largely disarmed and is now focused on entering the democratic process (so far with little success). Violence has been reduced significantly. Colombia used to be the most violent country in Latin America, with a homicide rate in 1989 of 78 per 100,000 inhabitants (and well over 300 homicides per 100,000 in Medellín alone). Today, the homicide rate is at a par with other Latin American countries.
Economically, Colombia has continued on a steady growth path, averaging annual growth of 4 percent of GDP and avoiding the booms and busts that have characterized many of its neighboring economies. As a result, the country’s poverty rate declined from over 30% of the population in 2010 to 17% in 2017, lifting more than 5 million people out of poverty. One key peace dividend has been significant investment in education, focused both on educating the youngest Colombians and boosting university enrollments (to over 52% in 2017). Finally, a public-private partnership has expanded investment in infrastructure, both to improve access from the countryside to cities and to boost exports by facilitating the movement of goods to the Pacific and Caribbean ports.
One would think that these improvements over the years would translate into strong support for the sitting government. Yet, President Juan Manuel Santos, who’ll leave office in June after two terms, has an approval rating of just 15 percent. Part of the reason is political, given that Santos has openly clashed with his predecessor, Álvaro Uribe, almost from the first day he entered office. That includes major disagreement about the terms of the peace Santos negotiated, which Uribe believed were far too favorable to the FARC guerrillas and led him to campaign against the agreement in a 2017 referendum (which Santos narrowly lost, forcing a renegotiation that was then approved by the legislature).
But the Uribe-Santos split is indicative of the larger political divide in a country essentially split 50-50 between the left and the right, which makes reconciliation and further economic and social progress more difficult. The presidential elections next month are likely to see a runoff between an Uribe-backed candidate on the right (Ivan Duque) and a former guerilla leader on the left (Gustavo Petro)—with Duque expected to win.
The new president’s challenge will be to reject calls to undo the progress Santos has made and instead build on it to ensure Colombia can continue to flourish in the future. That means keeping the peace agreement intact and focusing instead on growing the Colombian economy. Key to both is instituting land reform, which is both the most important task and the most difficult, given the absence of land titles and the political strength of landowners. Yet, without land reform it will be impossible to expand the agricultural sector, which is grossly underdeveloped and full of potential. Indeed, the UN estimates that Colombia’s fertile soil and climate makes it one of seven regions in the world where food production can be dramatically increased. Growing the economy also requires further developing Colombia’s natural resources (including off-shore oil and gas exploration) and further investment in infrastructure.
All of this will take financial resources. Bilateral US aid as well as multilateral loans and support can help. But real progress will require foreign investments and commercial loans—resources that will be forthcoming only if Colombia maintains the political and social stability that it currently enjoys.
Twenty years ago, America made a bet on Colombia—a bipartisan bet—and it turned out to be very successful one. The challenge for the next president of Colombia, and for the country as a whole, is to make sure it remains successful.
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Peter Baker / The New York Times
President Trump declared the US retaliatory attack on Syria, in response to Assad’s presumed use of chemical weapons against his own people, to be a success. However, many are wondering what Trump’s strategy is in Syria. Baker attempts to untangle Trump’s contradictory statements about US engagement in Syria, asserting that UK Prime Minister Theresa May and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis may be more accurate sources for discerning US intentions. For more, listen to our Deep Dish podcast about the Syria strike featuring Greg Jaffe and me.
Edward Luce / The Financial Times
Edward Luce writes that since the turn of the century the US, particularly its people, has grown tired of the country’s presence in the Middle East. This fatigue comes as a result of incessant political blunders in the region at the hands of every president since Bill Clinton. President Trump, though not to blame for the accumulation of mistakes, has almost no chance of improving the situation, Luce argues, because his biggest consideration when deliberating a foreign policy action is how it will resonate with his base of support in the US rather than its viability in the region. Attend the Council’s April 20 event with Luce in person or via live stream to hear him address the retreat of Western Liberalism.
Shawn Donnan / The Financial Times
A trade war between the US and China is imminent as neither Trump nor Xi will budge from his position. “The Trump administration appears to be willing to ignore China’s domestic dynamics as it pursues goals that are dependent on China’s leaders bending to its demands,” Donnan writes. For Trump not to proceed with his threatened tariffs “would be an act of geopolitical weakness.” On the other side, for Xi to give in to Trump’s threats and adhere to trade restrictions “would be an act of political self-harm.”
Sebastian Mallaby / The Washington Post
Contradicting popular opinion, Mallaby argues that the next big economic crisis will be in Europe, rather than a trade war between the US and China. He writes that this crisis will come as a result of political unrest and the refusal of wealthy, northern nations “to underwrite the precarious ones on the periphery, which they regard as irresponsible.” In the wake of major national elections in Europe, political and economic instability seems to have increased. “Barring a major political surprise, an eventual repeat of the euro zone crisis is beginning to seem inevitable,” Mallaby writes.
Sam Loewenberg / The New York Times
The Yemeni Civil War has produced upwards of 10,000 casualties, broad numbers of refugees, and now, the proliferation of antibiotic-resistant diseases. The Saudi-led bombing campaign that has pounded Yemen for the past few years has, too, resulted in huge numbers of civilians being treated in poorly staffed and supplied hospitals increasingly unable to treat infections with traditional antibiotics. According to Loewenberg: “The conflict is taking on aspects of warfare once found only in history books, when the real toll of a military campaign is not the immediate damage from weapons, but the long-term and far greater impact of disease that spread in the chaos of armed conflict.”
Phred Dvorak and Yasufumi Saito / The Wall Street Journal
According to a Wall Street Journal venture funding analysis, Asia now rivals Silicon Valley as the world venture capital leader. “Asian investors directed nearly as much money into startups last year as American investors did—40% of the record $154 billion in global venture financing versus 44%,” Dvorak and Saito write. If this trend continues, Asia, more specifically, China, is on track to becoming the new leading technological hub. The potential trade war between China and the US would likely affect overall investments in Asia, but because the proposed tariffs are mostly related to industrial or agricultural exports, they will probably not affect venture finance and startups.
Wesley K. Clark / The Washington Post
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