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Duque and Biden: What Was Missing from This Picture

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Author: Lisa Haugaard

This is article was first published in Spanish as an op-ed in El Espectador. Read it here.


The main outcome of President Duque’s long-awaited meeting with President Biden was the news that Biden would designate Colombia as a “major non-NATO ally.” In Latin America, Colombia would join Brazil and Argentina in obtaining that status. The status confers greater access to certain forms of U.S. military equipment, defense research, and training—but the principal impact is its symbolic value.   

It is a pity President Biden chose to do this at this moment. It is perhaps inevitable that Colombia would receive this status.  But offering it now sends a cynical message, as it less than a year after the Colombian National Police brutally repressed protesters throughout the country. Comprehensive police reforms such as establishing external controls over the police and moving the police to a civilian ministry have yet to be even considered. Justice is far from being achieved for the young protesters killed and wounded. This cynicism is intensified by the laudatory messages about the police during the recent U.S.-Colombia high-level dialogue and the empty rhetoric from the apparently year-long bilateral celebration of 200 years of U.S.-Colombian relations.

The second outcome was the announcement of a hemisphere-wide migration framework to be unveiled at the Summit of the Americas. The idea of a hemisphere-wide migration pact is laudable—it takes cooperation from many countries to manage massive migration and refugee flows. President Biden appropriately recognized Colombia’s remarkably generous policies towards accepting Venezuelan refugees and migrants. But the United States also has its own responsibility. U.S. civil society organizations supporting immigration reform hope any such migration agreement respects the rights of migrants and refugees to choose where they want to seek safety and protection. And any such agreement should not replace the United States’ obligation to restore access to protection and asylum screening at the U.S.-Mexico border. President Biden has so far failed to fully restore asylum access, blocked by courts from ending the cruel policy forcing asylum seekers to remain in Mexico, and choosing not to lift the Title 42 Border Order, which uses the excuse of the pandemic to turn asylum seekers away from the border.

The joint published statement from Presidents Duque and Biden following their meeting covered the complexity of the U.S.-Colombia agenda, including security cooperation, counternarcotics and migration, but also mentioning peace accord implementation, racial equity, sustainable energy, and human rights. And indeed the United States is actively supporting some of these vital goals, including through USAID’s strategic programs working with Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities, advancing land titling, and supporting victims’ quests for truth and justice.

Yet the Presidents’ public remarks, and the main takeaways of the encounter, showed two Presidents using each other. Biden using Colombia on Ukraine, countering Russian influence in Latin America, and absorbing refugees. Duque trying to shore up his party’s international image a mere three days before Colombia’s congressional elections. The Presidents’ speeches were remarkable for what they failed to focus on. And that was—Colombia. Especially the ongoing human rights crisis in the country.

As I listened to Presidents Biden and Duque congratulate each other and talk about Ukraine, migration, and the wonders of U.S.-Colombian security cooperation, I kept thinking about the Colombians who are struggling to build peace on the ground, task made more difficult by an unraveling peace accord. The 138 human rights defenders killed in Colombia last year, according to Front Line Defenders, more than in any country in the world, three times more than in the next most dangerous country. The Afro-Colombian leaders at risk for leading their communities to eradicate coca without enough support and protection from the Colombian government. The indigenous communities facing forced recruitment of their children by illegal armed groups. The leaders struggling to convince the government to faithfully implement the promises of the accords’ Ethnic Chapter. The over 300 former FARC combatants who laid down their weapons—and were killed. The more than 78,000 Colombians forced to flee their homes last year in a conflict that never ends. The brave victims who are putting their trust in the transitional justice system and giving their heart-wrenching testimony and reports to the Truth Commission and the Special Jurisdiction Court (JEP). The undaunted women who won’t stop trying to ensure justice for the crimes of sexual violence that occurred in the armed conflict.

And I am thinking about the young people of the Primera Línea, who demonstrated for their rights, and were teargassed, wounded, and killed by police. The people of Siloé, Cali, who were shot at by public security forces as they gathered for a candlelight vigil for a young man who was killed the day before. The indigenous MINGA, bringing their music and their peaceful determination, who were attacked by armed civilians and police. The human rights defenders, faith leaders, and first-aid brigades who tried to help the protesters—and became targets themselves. The mothers and fathers of the young people killed in the protests, who have yet to see justice for what happened to their sons and daughters.

The killing of human rights defenders in Colombia is unabated. The right to protest is under assault. Colombia’s fraying peace accord desperately needs attention. But that didn’t seem to be the subject of our Presidents’ conversation.