Full Testimony: House Committee on Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Western Hemisphere Hearing on Colombia’s Descent to Socialism: Assessing Gustavo Petro’s Presidency
Washington, August 10, 2023
Tags: Foreign Policy
House Committee on Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Western Hemisphere
I want to thank Chairwoman Salazar and Ranking Member Castro for the privilege of submitting this statement into the Record of this hearing.
The United States is the destination of choice for tens of thousands of people fleeing the endemic violence and extreme poverty that characterize many Latin American countries. For years U.S. leaders have insisted that, in the long run, the best way to respond to the migration issue is by addressing the “root causes” so that people will not need to flee, but instead can remain in their countries of origin and contribute to the development of their societies. The appropriate lens, therefore, for assessing the policies of a foreign government is whether those policies protect the rights of its citizens and improve their quality of life. Gustavo Petro has not yet completed a year in office. But there is plenty to suggest that his government is in fact trying to respond to the root causes of the violence and poverty that have plagued Colombia, while embracing and respecting human rights.
I have traveled to Colombia many times over the past 22 years. I have visited Arauca, Montes de Maria, Cauca and Valle, Cali and Sumapaz. I have spent days in Cartagena and Barrancabermeja, Sucre, Putumayo, Cordoba, and Antioquia. I have had the privilege to meet in their home communities with people victimized by the armed conflict, human rights defenders, journalists, Afro-Colombian and indigenous leaders, parents who have lost children to violence, campesinos forced off their land, and women who organize to sustain their communities. They have in common their desire for peace and social justice.
As Members of this subcommittee are aware, Colombia has been ravaged by internal armed conflict for decades. The U.S. strategically supported the negotiations that produced the 2016 peace accords with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia guerrilla movement (FARC), leading to the demobilization of 13,000 FARC members, most of whom remain committed to civilian life today. The 2016 accords provided a comprehensive framework for addressing deeply rooted structural inequalities in the rural sector, which not incidentally contributed to incentivize coca production. But Colombia’s prior government, led by Ivan Duque, failed to fully implement the accords, which left the rural population at the mercy of other illegal armed actors and allowed the drug trade to continue to flourish. At the end of the Duque presidency, illegal armed groups were present throughout the country and coca leaf
production was at a record high, in spite of more than 20 years of record U.S. investment in counter-narcotics, and de facto, counter-insurgency.
The Petro government is deeply committed not only to fully implementing the 2016 accords, but to advancing peace processes with other illegal armed groups in order to consolidate peace throughout the country. The government’s plans are ambitious – they may be overly ambitious. But after a year in office, the government has held three rounds of negotiations with the last remaining major guerrilla group, the National Liberation Army (ELN), and a fourth round is scheduled to begin August 14. The UN Security Council, the European Union, the OAS, Canada, and the United Kingdom are all on board.
Surely a Colombia fully at peace is in the interests of the United States. Yet some Members of Congress are seeking to put obstacles in the path of these negotiations because Cuba is a guarantor country – as it was for the negotiations with the FARC. I am thankful that the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has just come out strongly in support of Colombia’s peace process with the ELN.
On counter-narcotics, the Petro government has been clear that it will pursue a different strategy that will target large drug traffickers, money launderers, corrupt officials, and organized crime, instead of small cultivators. The government’s interest in trying something different can hardly come as a surprise. In 2020 the final report of the congressionally-mandated Western Hemisphere Drug Policy Commission found that “[w]hile Plan Colombia was a counterinsurgency success, it was a counternarcotics failure.” The war on drugs in Colombia has been costly in money and lives, and it has not produced the desired results. We should, at a minimum, remain open to the opportunity to develop a new approach with our long-standing ally.
In 2022, as the government of Ivan Duque was drawing to an end but before the election of Gustavo Petro, the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), of which Colombia is a member state, reported that Colombia had “one of the highest levels of poverty, income equality and labor market informality in Latin America.” The OECD recommendations to Colombian authorities included raising more revenue from personal income taxes; fostering the formalization of employment; merging the two existing public health systems into a single system; and creating a basic non-contributory pension benefit. These recommendations targeted structural problems in the Colombian economy that have existed for decades that successive governments failed to adequately address and that contributed to the explosion of street protests in 2021 that the Duque government brutally repressed.
The labor, health and pension reforms presented by the Petro government and currently being considered in the Colombian congress, and the new National Development Plan, approved by a vote of 120-12 and focused on environmental protection and green energy transition, may or may not be sufficient to fix these long-standing structural distortions. But the Petro government’s decision to attempt reform is an appropriate response to deep-seated problems that have long fostered social unrest. Members of Congress should encourage these initiatives, monitor their development closely, and refrain from dismissing them out of hand.
At a time of constant concern over democratic backsliding and growing fear of the spread of authoritarianism, Colombia is a bright spot. Not only does Freedom House rate Colombia as “free,” but in a report marking the 17th consecutive year of decline in global freedom, Colombia showed the greatest positive improvement in the western hemisphere. Civil society is vibrant and active; there is no foreign agent law; and there are no barriers to receiving foreign resources. Over the last year, protests by opponents of the Petro government, including retired military and police openly calling for the removal of the government, have proceeded without repression or killings, in stark contrast to the treatment of protesters by the Duque government, which earned rebukes from the Inter-American Human Rights Commission and the UN. Upon assuming office, Petro immediately moved to strengthen compliance with international human rights standards by joining new agreements, removing limitations on visits and investigations by international rights bodies, and renewing the mandate of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights for another nine years. Well-known human rights defenders staff key positions in the new administration, up to and including the Minister of Defense. The reforms the government has proposed are being debated and approved – or not – in the Colombian congress.
President Biden and the State Department have been both supportive and judicious in their support of many of the economic, social, development, and human rights initiatives of the Petro government. In short, long-held U.S. and congressional priorities and investments in Colombia continue to advance. Of particular note is the bilateral agreement to work with Colombian Vice President Francia Elena Márquez Mina, a former human-rights and environmental activist and lawyer, on the implementation of the ethnic chapter of the 2016 peace accord. Also notable is the cooperation between our countries on issues such as extradition, migration, and Venezuela. While discussions continue around the best counterdrug strategies to pursue, the new government has had noteworthy successes in narcotics interdictions.
I’m sure the testimony of the hearing’s Administration witnesses will reveal the many important interests that the U.S. has in Colombia. Those interests are best served by respectful, informed engagement and dialogue, and collaboration on mutually beneficial initiatives to improve the wellbeing and lives of the Colombian people.