On February 20, Secretary of State John Kerry presented Bernard Aronson, the United States’ first special envoy to the Colombian peace process. This is a welcome move.
Since talks between the Colombian government and the FARC guerrillas began in 2012, U.S. support has been consistent, but distant. Its usual manifestation has been public declarations of U.S. backing—a general statement every two months or so—from a high-ranking official. But with Aronson’s appointment, a senior official will be engaged with the process on a full-time basis. U.S. support for the talks is likely to take a qualitative leap forward.
A Colombian Request
The move, Secretary Kerry said, is the result of a direct request from Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos.
“In December I met with President Santos in Bogota, and he asked me directly whether or not the time had come for the United States to perhaps take a more direct role, and be more directly supportive of the peace process.”
What prompted President Santos to make this request in December is unclear. Timing was a likely factor: the FARC’s quick November 30 release of a captured Colombian general, and its mid-December declaration of a unilateral ceasefire, gave fresh momentum to the talks, leaving a clear impression that they had moved to a more advanced phase. President Santos no doubt calculated that a more explicit show of U.S. backing was appropriate at this stage. But it is uncertain what additional roles or duties he wishes U.S. diplomats to fulfill at this time.
A change in U.S. posture
Even six months ago, in our interactions with U.S. officials, the idea of a special envoy to the peace talks didn’t quite fail the “laugh test,” but was certainly viewed as premature. A series of recent events—Santos’s reelection victory, the captured general’s release, the ceasefire, steps toward de-escalation of the conflict—changed that calculation.
Changed U.S.-Cuban relations
The December 2014 diplomatic opening to Cuba also likely made the idea of a special envoy more practical. It eased, both politically and diplomatically, the presence of a U.S. government representative in Havana on a mission unrelated to the bilateral relationship with Cuba.
A qualified envoy
Bernard Aronson served as assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs during the George H.W. Bush (41) administration. There, he oversaw a shift away from the Reagan administration’s opposition to negotiations in El Salvador, toward a stance of support for UN-brokered peace talks.
The choice of Aronson is, on balance, smart. He is experienced with U.S. support for peace negotiations in Latin America. And, since he served in a Republican administration (though himself active in Democratic politics), he has more credibility with Republican legislators, whose support is important as they now control both houses of Congress.
Aronson’s efforts were vital to encouraging El Salvador’s rightist government to stay at the negotiating table. But he is not a reserved, conciliatory career diplomat. Álvaro de Soto, the UN official who mediated the El Salvador peace talks, described Aronson as “browbeating me” about issues like negotiation deadlines and imposing a cease-fire, and criticized his State Department for the impatience with which it approached the talks and occasionally undercut his work. Investigative journalist Juanita León, meanwhile, points out that Aronson’s private-equity firm, which he founded in 1996, has investments in oil extraction projects in Putumayo and Meta, two conflictive zones with a heavy FARC presence.
The FARC is delighted
In Havana, guerrilla negotiators quickly issued a statement “hailing” Aronson’s appointment as U.S. special envoy. They voiced a view that more direct U.S. involvement in the peace process is “a necessity, given the permanent presence and impact that the United States has in Colombia’s political, economic, and social life.”