Vice President Biden’s Visit to Colombia: There Should Be Frankness Between Friends

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This post first appeared as an op-ed in Colombian newspaper El Espectador on May 26, 2013, as Vice President Biden met with Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos.

Topics that the Vice President of the United States and the President of Colombia should discuss: Washington’s role in the peace process, justice for military abuses, and the Labor Action Plan…

The visit of Vice President Joe Biden to Colombia, Brazil, and Trinidad and Tobago is part of a series of diplomatic events intended to tell Latin America that it has not been forgotten. The visit follows President Barack Obama’s visit to Mexico and Costa Rica, and the leaders of Peru and Chile plan to visit the White House. In spite of Secretary of State John Kerry’s clumsy reference to Latin America as the United State’s “backyard,” these diplomatic efforts are an overdue recognition of the economic and political power and independent spirit of Latin America.

In Colombia, they will discuss economics, trade, and security issues, but one hopes that Joe Biden will also emphasize that the United States fully supports the peace process. “Just as we have supported Colombia’s leaders in the battlefield, we’ll fully support their efforts to end the conflict at the negotiating table,” Biden said before his visit.

The White House has supported the peace process since its beginning, but has done so with a low profile. It is now time to emphasize that the U.S. government wants to see successful negotiations and is prepared to support, with aid and diplomacy, the implementation of an agreement and, even more challenging, a just and lasting peace. This will require a different form of aid; aid for peace, rather than aid for war.

Despite Bush’s and Obama’s support of President Uribe, at the end of Uribe’s presidency, following the revelations of the terrible reality of false positives and the DAS scandal, the U.S. government looked with relief at the arrival of Juan Manuel Santos, with his more inclusive discourse, his openness to negotiations, and his focus on the Victims’ Law. The State Department remains concerned about the impact of the constitutional reform that opens the door for human rights violations committed by the military to be investigated and tried in military courts, despite the Colombian government’s promises that this will not be the case. Paradoxically, Washington still looks at Colombia as a great security success and a model that should be “exported” to Central America and Africa.

If there is to be frankness in the discussions between Santos and Biden, it would be good for them to share some truths with each other. Biden should tell Santos that it is extremely important to ensure that the soldiers and officers who have committed serious human rights violations should be investigated and tried in civilian courts. Biden should also remind him that the two governments signed a Labor Action Plan for the passage of the Free Trade Agreement, and that the commitments of this plan, meant to protect the labor rights of Colombians, are very far from being met.

And Santos should tell Biden that the United States needs to listen carefully to the criticisms of the war on drugs. As several [Latin American] presidents expressed, including Santos, this war is not going to be won, and the producer and transit countries pay enormous costs in violence and lost lives. After decades of the same failed policy, it’s time to listen.

Between close friends, the truth can be told.