Strategic Posture Review: Colombia

Strategic Posture Review: Colombia

During the last five decades, Colombia’s foreign, defense and strategic priorities have been driven and determined by the country’s internal armed conflict, with the “War on Drugs” becoming the dominant paradigm from the 1980s onwards. This, in turn, has defined Colombia’s relations with Latin America — particularly, in recent years, with its Andean neighbors, Ecuador and Venezuela — as well as its relationship with the United States and Europe.

Colombia’s struggle to stem cocaine production, its fight against the drug cartels that sprung up around the drug trade, and its war against the largest and longest-running guerrilla insurgency in Latin America — the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the smaller National Liberation Army (ELN) — from the 1960s onwards have been the most important reference points for its foreign, defense and strategic policy.

Consumed with such domestic problems, Colombia has traditionally been inward-looking, assuming a low profile on the international stage and not playing a leading role in regional affairs and integration. Despite efforts by several administrations during the 1960s and 1970s to steer Colombia away from U.S. dependence and to forge stronger political and economic ties with Latin America, the axis of Colombia’s foreign, economic and strategic interests has been predominantly focused on the U.S.

Lying strategically on the northern tip of the South American continent, Colombia provides a convenient gateway for drug smugglers to reach the U.S. As the source of over 80 percent of cocaine entering the U.S., Colombia’s relations with the U.S. have been inextricably tied to the drug trade and shaped by Washington’s changing views about how best to deal with drug trafficking and consumption. For Washington, Colombia’s armed conflict has shifted from being a communist threat during the Cold War, to a narco-terrorist threat during the Bush administration. Since the late 1970s, Colombia has been a major recipient of U.S. aid, and close military cooperation with Washington to fight guerrilla insurgencies and stem cocaine production has led Colombia to become Washington’s most loyal ally in the region.

Such close alignment with the U.S. has also discouraged — and prevented — Colombia from being an active player in South American economic and political integration. Bogotá’s special relationship with Washington has marginalized it from the region. In recent years, it has been increasingly seen as a hindrance to regional integration in general, particularly by Venezuela and Bolivia, who view Colombia as an unconditional pawn of the U.S. and a passive executor of U.S. policy.

Colombia has also tended to link its economic prosperity to close trading ties with the U.S., rather than with its regional neighbors or Europe, leading Colombia to adopt a unilateral approach to its foreign and economic affairs over the years. From the multibillion-dollar U.S. aid package, Plan Colombia, in 1999, to the recent controversial military base agreement between Colombia and the U.S., Colombia’s special relationship with Washington has sparked unease, and drawn suspicion and strong criticism from regional leaders, including Brazil.

Since conservative President Alvaro Uribe came to power in 2002, the country’s strategic and defense objectives have been centered on crushing the FARC, as part of the government’s “Democratic Security Policy.” Foreign policy has focused on strengthening the U.S. alliance, primarily in pursuit of securing a free trade agreement (FTA) between Colombia and the U.S., which Uribe believes is fundamental for Colombia’s economic prosperity.

Over the years, Colombia’s foreign affairs have been largely led by its president and its foreign ministry, which has traditionally lacked clout, has not been the main agent driving Colombia’s international affairs. However, a more confident and forward-looking foreign ministry, under the new leadership of Jaime Bermudez, has seen Colombia actively seek new trading partners and forge new diplomatic ties, such as the recent opening of an embassy in the United Arab Emirates.

In the last two years, under increasing pressure from the country’s business leaders, Colombia’s foreign and trade ministries have reached out to Canada, China, India, Japan and various Middle Eastern nations to diversify its export market. Foreign minister Bermudez is also actively lobbying members of the Asia-Pacific Cooperation (APEC), a body that seeks to promote free trade and investment in the Asia-Pacific region, to get Colombia’s membership to APEC approved. This strategy is aimed primarily at reducing Colombia’s dependence on exports to Venezuela. These were estimated last year to be worth around $7 billion, but have been hard-hit following the recent rupture in the two countries’ diplomatic relations. Free trade talks are also underway with the European Union, Canada, and Central America.

However, while the foreign ministry has been more pro-active in diversifying Colombia’s trade links, the core of the country’s foreign policy posture, in particular toward Venezuela, remains led and determined by Uribe.

Since the arrival of President Barack Obama, though, Colombia has struggled to maintain its special relationship with the U.S. The surge in drug violence in Mexico has shifted the epicenter of the drug problem away from Colombia and nearer to the U.S. border. More urgent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have also diverted Washington’s attention from Colombia’s conflict.

Uribe sees Colombia’s armed conflict as a fight against narco-terrorism, as did the previous Bush administration. However, such a view does not fit comfortably with the Obama administration’s view of the world, especially its tendency to reject the War on Terror and its rhetoric. There are also signs that the Obama administration is looking to develop closer ties with Brazil, which the U.S. increasingly sees as a potential peace broker in the region.

In the last two years, Colombia’s foreign agenda has been dominated by deteriorating relations with its neighbors, caused by several border disputes and, more recently, fears of increased U.S intervention in the region following Bogotá’s new military base agreement with the U.S. These tensions have led to an all-time low in diplomatic relations with Venezuela and Ecuador, neither of which currently has diplomatic relations with Colombia.

Colombia’s current relationship with Venezuela can best be described as a Cold War. How to handle and contain the increasingly belligerent rhetoric from Chavez, refrain from a high-risk game of brinkmanship and avoid any escalation of simmering tensions is Bogotá’s most urgent priority on the foreign policy front.

From the Loss of Panama to the Cold War

The independence of Panama from Colombia in 1903 marked a shift in Colombia’s perception of its own role and standing in the world. The humiliating loss of what was considered one of Colombia’s richest and strategically located provinces triggered a “national catharsis” that led Colombia to adopt a more isolated stance in the region, while at the same time aligning its economic interests with the United States.

The onset of the Cold War paved the way for Colombia to forge even stronger relations with the U.S., based on shared ideological affinities. Colombia was the only Latin American nation to send troops to Korea in 1951, reflecting a rare bipartisan consensus that emerged among the two main rival political parties in Colombia — the Liberals and Conservatives — to support the U.S. against the communist threat. From the 1960s onwards, Colombia faced home-grown guerrilla insurgencies, funded by the Soviet Union and ideologically inspired by Marxist, Maoist and Leninist ideals, reinforcing the commitment of Colombia’s political elites to fighting communism both at home and abroad.

While Colombia took on a high-profile anti-communist stance, winning favors and economic aid from Washington, it isolated itself from Central America and the Caribbean. At the 1961 meeting of Inter-American states in Punta del Este, Colombia backed the U.S. in condemning the Marxist-Leninist government in Cuba as a security threat to the region. It also supported the U.S. military intervention in the Dominican Republic in 1965 for similar reasons.

Under the administration of President Carlos Lleras Restrepo, from 1966-1970, Bogotá assumed a new foreign policy posture, attempting to redirect Colombia’s orientation and priorities away from the U.S. and more toward Latin America. This saw Colombia take on a more active role in regional affairs, including participating in the founding of the Andean group in 1967, a pact of five countries seeking to advance economic, political and social cooperation through bilateral trade negotiations. Restrepo also tried to diversify Colombia’s export markets away from its leading export, coffee, and resumed commercial relations with the Soviet-bloc countries.

This new posture was maintained by President Alfonso López Michelsen in the 1970s, who also sought to reduce Colombia’s dependence on the U.S. This included Bogotá’s support of Cuba’s re-entry into the Organization of American States (OAS).

But the attempt to realign Colombia closer to Latin America was short-lived. An escalation of Colombia’s armed conflict during the late-1970s and early 1980s again brought Bogotá closer to Washington, increasing its reliance on U.S. support to stem guerrilla activity. For Washington, Colombia represented an important buffer and ally against the rise of guerrilla movements in Central America.

From 1978 to 1982, President Julio Cesar Turbay, a fervent anti-communist who shared Washington’s bipolar view of the world, renewed close ties with Washington and became the leading advocate of the anti-communist doctrine in Latin America. Under Turbay, Colombia espoused President Ronald Reagan’s notion that Cuba and Nicaragua were the principal sources of subversion and domestic unrest in Latin America. Colombia also supported Washington’s hardline stance against the Marxist guerilla insurgency in El Salvador.

As a result, Colombia’s relations with Cuba remained strained, with Colombia actively blocking Cuba’s bid for a seat on the U.N Security Council in 1979. Two years later, Bogotá broke off diplomatic relations with Cuba after it was revealed that Cuba was funding the M-19 rebels, a Colombian guerrilla group.

Turbay’s stance towards the Falklands War in 1982 drew regional criticism and further marginalized Colombia from the region. Colombia, along with the U.S, marked its refusal to support Argentina by abstaining on a key vote to invoke the Inter-American Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance, also known as the Rio Treaty. After the Falklands war, Colombia remained one of the few Latin American countries still willing to participate with the U.S. in joint naval patrols in the Caribbean.

In stark contrast to the Turbay administration, Belisario Betancur sought once again to steer Colombia’s foreign policy away from Washington, during his term from 1982 to 1986. Betancur voiced his disapproval of Reagan’s policies in Latin America, and reversed Turbay’s anti-Argentine position on the Falklands War. During Reagan’s visit to Colombia in late-1982, Betancur urged the U.S. to abandon its interventionist policies in Central America and expressed concern over the region becoming a flashpoint for the East-West conflict. In 1983, Colombia, backed by Cuba and Panama, joined the Non-Aligned Movement, then headed by Castro.

But once again, spiraling drug violence limited Betancur’s attempt at realignment. The assassination of Colombia’s justice minister, Rodrigo Lara Bonilla, by the Medellin drug cartel in 1984 produced a shift in relations with Washington, making the drug issue the focal point in Colombian-U.S. relations and hardening the government’s anti-drug strategy.

As a matter of principle and a question of sovereignty, Betancur had initially refused to extradite Colombian drug traffickers to the U.S., as agreed in a bilateral extradition treaty signed between the two nations in 1979. But the increasing drug violence forced Betancur to change his position. He later extradited Colombian drug kingpins to stand trial in U.S. courts, in order to stem the cartels’ corrupting influence on the country’s justice system and police force.

The War on Drugs

U.S. military cooperation with Colombia reached record levels during the administration of President George H.W. Bush. In 1989, during a televised speech to America, Bush officially launched his War on Drugs, recalling a phrase first coined by Richard Nixon. Bush singled out cocaine as the “most serious problem” facing the U.S, and committed to the War on Drugs with fervor, providing the coca-producing countries in the Andean region unprecedented military aid and U.S forces — of which Colombia received the lion’s share.

With the drug problem now perceived as a national security threat by the U.S., Colombia became the epicenter of Washington’s newfound policy priority. The War on Drugs subsequently formed the basis of both Colombia’s foreign and defense policy, and bilateral relations between the two nations. In fact, in the 1990s, Colombia’s foreign affairs became increasingly overshadowed by its domestic problems. Foreign policy and diplomacy only became important to the extent that they satisfied domestic security objectives — namely, to contain drug-related violence and to capture Public Enemy No. 1, Pablo Escobar, who headed the Medellin drug cartel. Capturing Escobar became even more urgent due to his increasing use of corruption to extend his reach inside the police and justice systems.

During the Cesar Gaviria administration, from 1990 to 1994, drug violence surged to new heights amid a climate of general mayhem. In one notorious incident, the Medellin cartel blew up a plane in mid-flight, killing more than 100 passengers on board.

Under increasing pressure from Washington, the embattled Gaviria managed to negotiate the surrender of Escobar. But he was initially confined to a luxurious prison, from where he continued his reign over the drug trade. Escobar eventually escaped in July 1992, raising serious concerns among U.S. officials about widespread corruption and its impact on Colombia’s ability to fight the War on Drugs. A manhunt involving a dozen U.S. state agencies ensued, until Escobar was finally shot down by Colombian security agents in December 1993.

But whatever reassurance his killing inspired was subsequently lost during the administration of Ernesto Samper, from 1994 to 1998, when U.S. confidence in Colombia as a credible ally was shattered. Bilateral relations sank to an all-time low following revelations that Samper’s presidential campaign had been bankrolled by the Cali drug cartel in 1994. Samper became persona non grata in Washington, and his U.S. visa was cancelled in June 1996, a source of national humiliation. Finding that Colombia was not cooperating with its War on Drugs, Washington decertified the country twice, in 1996 and 1997, resulting in the suspension of U.S economic aid and bilateral trade.

The moves eroded Colombia’s credibility and identified the country as a pariah state. Colombia became increasingly ostracized by the international community. During his term, Samper received only two official visits, from Venezuela and Ecuador.

When the FARC became involved in drug smuggling and coca production from the mid-1990s onwards, the Colombian government’s strategy towards the insurgency started to change. Viewing the FARC more like a drug cartel than an insurgency, the government increasingly focused its efforts on cutting off the FARC’s cash flows pouring in from drug trafficking.

By the late-1990s, the 20,000-strong rebel forces controlled large swathes of the country. Colombian armed forces were on the defensive and suffering almost daily defeats at the hands of the insurgents. Rebel attacks on oil pipelines and kidnappings were commonplace, posing serious security problems and driving away foreign investors in droves. Hundreds of thousands of wealthy Colombians, too, migrated abroad, seeking refuge as the conflict claimed the lives of some 7,000 people a year.

Right-wing paramilitary groups that sprung up to fight the guerrillas wound up gaining territorial control and strength. With the government brought to its knees by the combined effects of guerrilla, paramilitary and drug violence, a sharp recession and 20 percent unemployment, there were widespread fears, both in and outside of Colombia, that the country was on the brink of becoming a failed “narcostate.”

Plan Colombia

When Andres Pastrana succeeded Samper as president in 1998, he set out to restore Colombia’s credibility in Washington and among the international community, and to secure military and economic support from the U.S. to tackle the drug trade.

Pastrana made two bold decisions. He established a clear distinction between Colombia’s domestic priority, which centered on seeking a negotiated peace settlement with the rebels, and U.S. interests in the country, which focused on the War on Drugs. Pastrana turned to Washington and proposed a Marshall Plan-type aid package, known as Plan Colombia, to fight drug trafficking. The deal aimed to reduce coca production by half within six years and to strengthen Colombia’s armed forces.

Plan Colombia heralded a new phase in U.S.- Colombian relations. U.S. military cooperation in Colombia increased, reinforcing Bogotá’s unconditional alignment with Washington and making Colombia the world’s third-largest recipient of U.S. military aid, after Israel and Egypt.

Pastrana embarked on an arduous peace process with the FARC and ELN, granting FARC rebels a demilitarized zone the size of Switzerland, demanded by them as a precondition for peace talks to start. The talks awoke much-needed interest from the European Union, which backed Pastrana’s ambitious peace initiative.

At the same time, Pastrana sought to increase Colombia’s military strength by modernizing and restructuring the country’s demoralized armed forces.

When Pastrana visited Washington in 1999, he was well-received by the Clinton administration. Nevertheless, there was growing skepticism in Washington regarding the viability of the peace process with the rebels, which led the U.S to concentrate its attention on the drug problem from the supply end. In practice, this meant reducing the amount of cocaine entering the U.S. by intensifying aerial crop-spraying campaigns over coca fields.

Approved by the U.S. Congress in 2000, Plan Colombia allocated up to $700 million a year, mainly in military assistance, to Colombia over a six-year period. The U.S. trained and equipped new army battalions. Among other military hardware, Colombia received around 60 UH-60 Black Hawk and 42 UH-1 Huey utility helicopters, as well as upgrades to its A-37 counterinsurgency aircraft.

While Plan Colombia reinforced Bogotá’s special relationship with Washington, it came under attack from regional leaders and, once again, marginalized Colombia from its neighbors. Consistent with their traditional disapproval of U.S. intervention in the region, Latin American governments distanced themselves from the plan. Some worried that the arrival of U.S. military hardware, along with 500 U.S. military advisers and 300 contractors, could trigger an arms race in the region.

Neighboring leaders also raised legitimate fears that Plan Colombia’s stepped up military offensive against the FARC would cause Colombia’s conflict to spill over its borders — a security concern that remains a thorny issue between Colombia and its Andean neighbors today. Brazil feared Colombian drug traffickers would be pushed across its jungle border, while Ecuador expressed concerns that it would receive more refugees escaping the fighting. Chavez warned of “Yankee imperialism” and the deal’s broader destabilizing effect on the region.

In late 2000, Colombia was forced to defend the deal to regional leaders during the Fourth Meeting of Defense Ministers of the Americas in Brazil. More significantly for Pastrana, opposition to Plan Colombia further dampened the possibility that key regional actors could serve as facilitators in the peace process with the rebels.

Relations With Europe

From the outset, Europe was not involved in Plan Colombia and was sidelined from negotiations. Despite Colombia’s hope that Europe would match the U.S. pledge of roughly $3.5 billion, no European official was invited to take part in discussions. Colombia also publicized its projected contribution from the EU without consulting Brussels. Reflecting Colombia’s traditionally unilateral approach to international affairs and its lack of engagement with Europe, the move set the stage for the EU’s critical stance towards Plan Colombia. Apart from Spain’s pledge of $100 million, no other serious funding arrived from Europe, with officials from France and Scandinavia disapproving of the plan’s strong accent on military aid.

Over the years, Colombia has struggled to get Europe to play a greater role in tackling drug trafficking. Europe’s lack of engagement stems partly from Colombia and Europe having few bilateral trading ties and interests. But more significantly, it stems from divergent views about the root causes of Colombia’s armed conflict, as well as different ideological stances towards drug trafficking and consumption.
In contrast to the U.S., Europe does not view drug production and trafficking through the prism of major security threats. Instead, Europe tends to see drug consumption as a social problem and public health issue. Meanwhile, for Europe, Colombia’s longstanding armed conflict stems from poverty, social inequality and a lack of rural reform. As such, European aid to Colombia has focused on humanitarian assistance, supporting the rule of law, and social development programs.

Recently, though, Colombia has stepped up efforts to engage and shore up European interest. With cocaine consumption on the rise in the U.K. and Spain, Colombia’s vice president has courted European public opinion, arguing that Europe, as a major consumer of cocaine, has a “shared responsibility” with Colombia to tackle drug trafficking.

The Uribe Government

The collapse of Pastrana’s peace talks in 2002 paved the way for a new hardline approach against the guerrillas. Later that year, Alvaro Uribe, an austere Harvard and Oxford-educated lawyer, won the presidency in a landslide victory by vowing to crush the rebels.

Uribe quickly implemented his new strategy, the Democratic Security Policy, which since then has played a defining role in shaping Colombia’s defense, security, foreign and domestic policy. It centers on regaining territory through an intensified military offensive against the FARC, and extending the state’s presence by deploying police detachments to rural areas across the country.

Under the Uribe administration, defeating the FARC has become the government’s overriding priority and defining objective, and has tended to overshadow all other social, strategic and domestic priorities during his seven years in power. Uribe believes that improving security, which he equates with weakening the FARC, is a prerequisite for social and economic progress, as well as the best way to attract much-needed foreign investment.

He denies the existence of an ideological conflict in Colombia, and instead frames the country’s internal struggle as a fight against narco-terrorism, with the FARC as one of the country’s leading drug cartels. As such, Uribe makes little distinction between counterinsurgency and counternarcotics priorities, but rather conflates the two as complementary methods of weakening the rebels.

The government’s two-pronged strategy seeks the eradication of coca crops in order to cut off drug revenues to the guerrillas, while at the same time waging war against the rebels to pressure them directly. The central premise is that a sustained military offensive, combined with breaking the link between drugs and the insurgency, will eventually force the FARC to surrender, or else bring them to the negotiating table.

In 2004, Uribe launched a new military offensive at a cost of $300 million per year, known as Plan Patriota. The plan focused on attacking FARC strongholds and rebel-controlled coca fields in the country’s southern provinces near the Ecuadorian border. Over 20,000 troops, many of them U.S.-equipped and trained, made the push south.

Continuing the policies of the Pastrana administration, Uribe has strengthened Colombia’s armed forces, allocating record amounts of government funds to Colombia’s war machine. During the last decade, defense spending has increased from 2.2 percent of the country’s GDP to 4.6 percent. Next year, for the first time in Colombia’s history, spending on security and defense will exceed the education budget.

As a result, Colombia now has the highest troop levels of any country in South America, boasting 430,000 personnel in its armed forces and police. These include new anti-guerrilla high mountain battalions, backed by 117 combat aircraft, four submarines, and 119 army helicopters.

But for Uribe, defense spending and military power are seen as a means to an end, as part of the government’s overall aim of defeating the FARC, rather than serving as a geopolitical tool to assert Colombia’s military strength and influence in the region. He has taken the same tough approach against the drug issue. Dozens of drug barons have been extradited to the U.S, more than any other previous administration.

After the Sept. 11 attacks and America’s subsequent War on Terror in 2001, Colombia, once again, as it did during the Cold War era, fit in easily with Washington’s view of the world. This heralded the rekindling of Colombia’s special relationship with the U.S., with both George W. Bush and Uribe wholeheartedly embracing the war on terror and its rhetoric. In 2003, Colombia backed the U.S-led invasion of Iraq, while the Bush administration reiterated its commitment to defeat the FARC and ELN, both classified as terrorist groups by the U.S. State Department.

With the arrival of leftist governments to Latin America from 1998 onwards, Colombia became even more important to Washington, which saw it as a key buffer against a sea of leftist populist governments, especially Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez. The Bush administration went so far as to link the success of Uribe against the FARC with the security and stability of the entire region.

The other leg of Uribe’s security strategy was to seek a controversial peace deal with over 30,000 right-wing paramilitaries groups who had been fighting the FARC since the 1980s. As a result, Colombia attracted staunch criticism from international rights groups concerned about the lenient prison sentences offered to paramilitary chiefs who had committed widespread human rights abuses.

Uribe’s Democratic Security Policy has undoubtedly produced results. Several of the FARC’s top commanders have been captured or killed in combat, and the rebels have retreated away from urban areas to remote jungle border areas. In recent years, thousands of foot soldiers have deserted, reducing guerrilla ranks by around half, to some 9,000 fighters today.

But gains made against the FARC remain fragile. The group continues to launch attacks in towns and maintains control in some coca-growing regions. The rebels are not a spent force and show no signs of wanting to negotiate a peace settlement. As a result, dealing with the FARC insurgency will continue to dominate Colombia’s domestic and strategic policies for years to come, whether through a continuation of Uribe’s military approach or through the pursuit of a negotiated settlement.

Under the Uribe administration, the focus of international diplomacy has been to change perceptions about Colombia and improve its poor image abroad. Uribe and the vice president’s office have made it their personal mission to regain Colombia’s credibility among the international community, courting foreign investors — especially from the mining and oil sectors — by offering attractive fiscal regimes. The Uribe government has also increased bilateral cooperation with Mexico in the war against the drug cartels. In August 2009, the two nations announced an agreement for Colombia to train Mexican counternarcotics police, and agreed to improve bilateral intelligence-sharing.

Border Tensions

Colombia’s long and porous jungle borders and waterways are shared with five Latin American nations — Brazil, Venezuela, Peru, Panama and Ecuador — creating shared security concerns between Colombia and its neighbors. Regional leaders have grown alarmed about the increasing difficulty in containing Colombia’s conflict within its borders and in keeping FARC and drug traffickers at bay.

While Colombia’s domestic security situation has improved, the military offensive in the south has indeed caused its conflict to spill over its borders, leading to serious border disputes and tension with Ecuador and Venezuela. In recent months, these disputes have become the focal point of diplomatic tensions, and are likely to be the scene of flashpoints in the future.

Over the years, Colombia’s jungle borders have not been a priority for the Colombian government, and many areas still lack basic infrastructure and state services. Border areas remain largely uncontrolled, and bilateral cooperation in policing these areas is almost non-existent. This has provided a relatively easy corridor for guerrillas as well as drug and arms smugglers to exploit in recent years.

Aerial crop-spraying campaigns have also resulted in uprooted Colombian coca farmers migrating to Ecuador, while hundreds of thousands of Colombians, the majority of them indigenous people, have crossed the border to escape fighting between government troops and the FARC. As a result, simmering tensions have flared up between the two countries in recent years. They came to a head last October, when Colombian security forces raided a clandestine FARC camp across the border in Ecuador, killing Raul Reyes, a top guerrilla commander.

The incident was staunchly condemned by regional leaders, particularly Chavez, as an unprovoked attack on Ecuador’s sovereignty. It led Ecuador to break diplomatic relations with Colombia and file a lawsuit against Colombia’s defense minister.

In recent months, with the help of discreet brokering by former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, Ecuador and Colombia have taken tentative steps toward restoring some diplomatic relations. Both nations have recently appointed a charge d’affaires, and efforts have been made to improve bilateral cooperation along border areas. But Colombia insists full diplomatic relations cannot be fully resumed while the lawsuit against its former defense minister is still in place.

While relations with Ecuador have stabilized, Colombia’s relations with Venezuela have deteriorated significantly in recent months, as a result of ingrained mistrust between two ideologically opposed leaders. Colombia is convinced that Chavez is both providing support to the FARC and turning a blind eye to drug traffickers and guerrillas moving freely along the two countries’ shared border. Chavez believes that U.S. military intervention in Colombia poses a security threat, and even a possible risk of invasion, to Venezuela.

This view gained force in Caracas following the recent signing of a 10-year agreement that gave the U.S. access to seven Colombian bases, including three air bases and two naval bases, for counterinsurgency and counternarcotics operations. In response, Chavez froze diplomatic relations with Colombia, upped his belligerent rhetoric and ordered his troops to “prepare for war.” Recently, Venezuelan troops destroyed several footbridges connecting the two countries.

Suspicions about U.S. military motives are widespread, not only in Caracas, but throughout the continent. The fact that the Colombian government did not consult with its lawmakers or with regional leaders before signing the agreement contributed to the strong criticism the deal received. Once again, Colombia’s unilateral approach to diplomacy marginalized it in the region, forcing it to defend its special relationship with the U.S. to regional leaders at a heads of state summit of the Union of South American States (UNASUR) in Argentina this year.

The slow reaction of regional bodies, like UNASUR and the Organization of American States (OAS), to condemn Chavez’s belligerent threats towards Colombia have further eroded the Colombian government’s faith in such bodies to act as mediators during diplomatic disputes.


Colombia faces a period of prolonged tensions with Venezuela, with both sides showing no willingness to restore diplomatic relations. Tensions between the two countries will continue to dominate Colombia’s foreign policy, and are likely to be focused around the border areas and two main crossing points, where low-level skirmishes between Venezuelan and Colombian troops are at risk of flaring up at any time.

Colombian diplomacy will also focus on recovering from the political fallout over the latest U.S.-Colombian military pact, which continues to provoke reverberations in the region, isolating Colombia from its neighbors.

The Uribe government remains intent on lobbying U.S. lawmakers to approve the bilateral free trade agreement. But the deal is obviously not as high a priority for the Obama government as it was for the previous Bush administration. Concerns among U.S. Democrats over Colombia’s human rights record continue to be a major stumbling block to the deal’s passage.

The question of border security, and the funding of troop patrols along shared border areas, is another challenge that Colombia faces. The Uribe government should increase its efforts to improve border security by pushing for multilateral support and funding through regional bodies.

On the domestic front, the problem of reintegrating thousands of former paramilitary fighters into civilian life will continue to be a serious challenge. As such, Colombia would do well to actively seek closer cooperation with Europe on this issue.

There is growing awareness among officials in Bogotá that the nature of Colombia’s special relationship with the U.S. is changing with the arrival of Obama to the White House. Colombia is gradually losing relevance and its privileged status in Washington. However, despite this shift, the Uribe government has done little to adapt its strategy towards Washington or to compensate for the economic and geopolitical impact such a change in America’s stance will bring.

Colombia will also have to compete with Mexico for U.S. counternarcotics funding. Plan Colombia is likely to be gradually reduced, with more U.S. aid being directed to social and development programs, and less to military assistance. Seven years of a sustained military offensive has severely strained government finances as well, and it is increasingly difficult for the Uribe government to secure funding, both in and outside of Colombia, to fight the insurgency.

The question of Uribe’s possible re-election has also provoked muted criticism from regional governments, including Chile and Brazil and U.S. officials. If Uribe were to be re-elected for an unprecedented third term, it would damage Colombia’s standing on the international stage and associate him with other Andean leaders who have changed their countries’s constitutions to perpetuate their hold on power.

However, given Colombia’s reliance on U.S. military cooperation and aid, as well as its strong economic ties with Washington, no matter who wins Colombia’s presidential elections next year, the U.S. will continue to be the axis of Colombia’s foreign, defense and strategic priorities.

Anastasia Moloney is a Bogotá-based journalist and a World Politics Review contributing editor. She has lectured on U.S. foreign policy in Latin America at the Javeriana University in Bogotá. She has been a regular contributor to the Financial Times, and her coverage of Colombian politics, education, human rights and culture has appeared in the London Times, the Guardian, the Independent, the Times Higher Education Supplement and the Times Educational Supplement, among other publications.