Updates from WOLA tagged “U.S. Aid”

Blog entries, commentaries, and statements from WOLA’s Colombia team

The relationship between Colombia and the United States could change soon

August 5, 2020
“If Trump loses the elections in November, Washington will support the peace process, the protection of social leaders, and the defense of human rights in Colombia”

(Commentary cross-posted and translated from Razón Pública)

A Google search for appearances of “Colombia” during the first six months of 2020 at house.gov, the domain of the U.S. House of Representatives, yields no more than 20 meaningful results.  Most of those were brief mentions of the country’s record coca cultivation levels, or the impact of Venezuela’s crisis.

While the Senate is controlled by the Republican Party, the Democrats won the majority of the House in the 2018 elections. Since then, the House has spoken little about Colombia. But surprisingly, over the last few weeks, it has made statements about Colombia’s peace process, its social leaders, and its military espionage scandals.

On July 6, 94 Democratic legislators signed a letter expressing their concern about these issues.

Days later, the 2021 foreign aid budget bill passed the full House.  This bill, and its accompanying narrative report, do much to move U.S. assistance to Colombia in a more pro-peace, pro-human rights direction.

  • It appropriates $458 million in new assistance for Colombia in 2021, of which less than $200 million would go to the country’s police and military forces. By contrast, the Trump White House had requested, in February, $413 million, of which more than $250 million would go to the armed forces and police. 
  • It lists specific purposes for which U.S. aid should be used, placing implementation of the peace accord at the center, along with a greater presence of civilian state institutions in ungoverned zones. It calls for greater attention to victims, small farmers, women, and indigenous and Afro-Colombian peoples, as well as coca substitution “as agreed to in the peace accord.”
  • It conditions fumigation, freezing 20 percent of the State Department’s $189 million in International Narcotics Control and Law Enforcement funds until the Department certifies that Colombia’s coca reduction strategy “is not in violation of the 2016 peace accord.”
  • As in past years, it adds human rights conditions holding up 20 percent of $38.525 million in one of the main military aid programs, Foreign Military Financing (FMF), until the Department certifies that Colombia’s justice system is holding gross human rights violators accountable; that the Colombian government is taking effective steps to protect social leaders and ethnic communities; and—in a new measure—that the Colombian government “has investigated and is taking steps to hold accountable” officials involved in illegal surveillance of civilians, “including the use of assets provided by the United States for combating counterterrorism and counternarcotics for such purposes.”

Two Amendments About Colombia

In addition, on July 21, the House passed its version of the 2021 Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), the annual bill making adjustments to the law underlying the Pentagon and the U.S. military, including budget guidelines. This is perhaps the only major bill likely to pass through both chambers and become law before the November election. The NDAA includes two amendments on Colombia.

The first, proposed by Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Massachusetts), requires the Secretary of State, working with the Secretary of Defense and the Director of National Intelligence, to submit a report assessing allegations, revealed by Revista Semana in January and May, that U.S. aid to Colombia has been misused for “unlawful surveillance or intelligence gathering directed at the civilian population, including human rights defenders, judicial personnel, journalists, and the political opposition.” That report must detail:

  • Any use of U.S.-provided assistance for such activities;
  • Colombian security forces’ involvement in illegal intelligence gathering between 2002 and 2018;
  • An assessment of the full extent of such activities, including identification of units involved, relevant chains of command, and the nature and objectives of such surveillance or intelligence gathering”;
  • Steps that U.S. diplomatic, defense, or intelligence agencies took to respond to misuse of assistance;
  • Steps that the Colombian government took in response to misuse of U.S. assistance; and
  • The adequacy of Colombian military and security doctrine and training for ensuring that intelligence operations are in accordance with human rights standards.

The second amendment, introduced by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-New York), places limits on U.S. support for aerial herbicide fumigation in coca-growing areas. Though it will probably not block any U.S. aid for aerial glyphosate spraying, it is noteworthy that a high-profile Congresswoman expresses concern about the issue. A spokesperson told Business Insider that aerial fumigation was a destructive tactic of the US’s failed drug war. It negatively impacted the yield of many farmers and the public health of many Colombians.

The amendments prospered in significant part because of Rep. McGovern’s chairmanship of the Rules Committee, a powerful committee that meets each evening to approve (rule “in order”) amendments to be debated during the next day’s proceedings. Rep. McGovern is the member of the House who has most closely followed Colombia from a pro-peace and pro-human rights perspective. He told Business Insider on July 27, “If it was up to me, I would end security assistance to Colombia right now. Those who are responsible for illegal acts ought to be held accountable … Clearly that doesn’t happen in Colombia.”

In the days following the amendments’ passage, McGovern appeared in numerous Colombian media outlets, including El Tiempo, El Espectador, and Semana. His message was quite critical of the current direction of U.S. policy, and voiced strong dismay at the Colombian military’s human rights abuses and the excesses of forced coca eradication undertaken by the Duque administration.

Two Incompatible Stances

It is clear that the Trump administration and the House have completely different priorities in Colombia today. The White House brings up record numbers of hectares of coca, and upholds Colombia as a partner and an ally in diplomatic efforts against Venezuela. In contrast, the House condemns slow implementation of the peace accord and the human rights abuses covered up by the Colombian government. 

While Democrats are increasingly reluctant to accept these realities, very few Republicans today openly defend a militarized approach in Colombia. In the 1990s, a group of Republicans in Congress pressured the Clinton administration to increase military aid and fumigation in Colombia. In contrast, no Republican in Congress today advocates something similar with such force.

As a human rights advocate, I’ll give some credit to my own community: we are a solid group of experts and activists who have been working together since the 1990s to give higher priority to peace and human rights in U.S. policy toward Colombia. We have deep detailed knowledge, and a lot of institutional memory. Strategically minded donors have helped maintain this installed capacity, and when opportunity strikes, we can seize it.

What will happen in the next elections?

The next steps are in the Senate, where the 2021 State and Foreign Operations appropriations bill has yet to be drafted. There, the Appropriations Committee will probably reveal its bill after the August legislative recess. It will not become law before the November election. The NDAA, meanwhile, may pass after conciliation between the House version and the Senate version, which does not include the McGovern or Ocasio-Cortez amendments.

The Colombian government appears to have been blindsided by the House Democrats’ July barrage. We’ve seen an angry note from Ambassador Francisco Santos to some of the signers of the 94-person letter, repeating the Duque administration’s talking points—which leave out key information—defending its protection of social leaders and rejecting concerns about peace accord implementation.

That letter’s brusque tone indicates that the Duque government has decided to continue refraining from engaging the increasingly progressive Democrats. With public opinion running strongly in the Democrats’ favor 13 weeks before major elections, adhering mainly to the Republican Party seems like a strategic error.

Tags: Human Rights, Illicit Crop Eradication, Military and Human Rights, Social Leaders, U.S. Aid, U.S. Congress, U.S. Policy

Protect Colombia’s Peace: New Report with Key Recommendations for U.S. Policy

July 23, 2020

(Español abajo)

Despite an outpouring of civic action by Colombians—many of them victims of the conflict—to make the peace accords real, the Colombian government’s actions have been limited and have failed to protect those risking their lives for peace.

On July 23, the Latin America Working Group (LAWG), alongside the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) and 22 other international and local civil society organizations, published a report entitled, Protect Colombia’s Peace.

The report outlines the current challenges of Colombia’s peace process, including: the obstacles to fully reintegrating ex-combatants, despite advances; the very partial implementation of the ethnic chapter and gender provisions; the increasingly dire situation of human rights defenders; the halting implementation of rural reforms; the return to drug policy solutions that are not sustainable and undermine the accords; and the impact of the Venezuelan refugee crisis on Colombia. 

It is not too late to preserve Colombia’s peace accords.

The U.S. and the international community can play a critical role in catalyzing support for a sustainable peace, only if they boldly encourage compliance with the 2016 peace accords.

Key recommendations in the report advocate for U.S. aid and stronger diplomacy to call on the Colombian government to implement the peace accord’s ethnic chapter and gender provisions, ensure justice for the victims of the armed conflict, protect human rights defenders, advance sustainable drug policy and rural reforms to reach Colombia’s small farmers and Afro-Colombian and Indigenous communities, end abuses by the Colombian armed forces, and dismantle the paramilitary successor networks.

The U.S. government’s diplomatic efforts in Colombia helped pave the way for peace, and this wise investment should not be wasted. 

Read the full report in English here.
Read the executive summary in English here.


Protejan la paz en Colombia: Nuevo informe con recomendaciones claves para la política estadounidense

A pesar de la gran cantidad de acciones ciudadanas de los colombianos— incluidas muchas de las víctimas del conflicto— para lograr hacer realidad el acuerdo de paz, las acciones del gobierno colombiano han sido insuficientes y no han protegido a las personas que arriesgaron sus vidas por la paz.

El 23 de julio, el Grupo de Trabajo de América Latina (LAWG), junto con la Oficina en Washington para Asuntos Latinoamericanos (WOLA) y otras 22 organizaciones internacionales y nacionales de la sociedad civil, publicaron un informe titulado, Protejan la paz en Colombia.

El informe describe los desafíos actuales del proceso de paz en Colombia que incluyen: los obstáculos para lograr la plena reintegración de los excombatientes, a pesar de los avances; la muy incompleta implementación del capítulo étnico y las disposiciones de género; la situación cada vez más difícil de los defensores de los derechos humanos; la vacilante implementación de las reformas rurales; el regreso a las soluciones de políticas de drogas que no son sostenibles y debilitan el acuerdo; y el impacto de la crisis de los refugiados venezolanos en Colombia.

Aún no es demasiado tarde para preservar la frágil paz colombiana

Los Estados Unidos y la comunidad internacional pueden desempeñar un papel fundamental para catalizar el apoyo a una paz duradera, solo si actúan con determinación para impulsar el cumplimiento del acuerdo.

Las recomendaciones claves en el reporte abogan por la cooperación de Estados Unidos y una diplomacia más fuerte para pedirle al gobierno colombiano que implemente el capítulo étnico y las disposiciones de género del acuerdo de paz, garantice la justicia para las víctimas del conflicto armado, proteja a los defensores de los derechos humanos, promueva una política de drogas sostenible y reformas rurales para alcanzar a los campesinos y las comunidades afrocolombianas e indígenas de Colombia, ponga fin a los abusos de las fuerzas armadas colombianas y desmantele las redes sucesoras de los paramilitares.

Los esfuerzos diplomáticos del gobierno de los Estados Unidos en Colombia ayudaron a allanar el camino hacia la paz y esta sabia inversión no debe desperdiciarse.

Lea el informe completo en español aquí.
Lea el resumen ejecutivo en español aquí.

Tags: Civil Society Peace Movement, ELN Peace Talks, FARC, U.S. Aid, U.S. Policy

Latest Table of Aid to Colombia

July 9, 2020
Click to enlarge. If you’d prefer this as a spreadsheet for easier copying-and-pasting, go here.

The House of Representatives’ Appropriations Committee finished work on the 2021 State Department and Foreign Operations bill on July 9. In addition to offering some language very supportive of peace accord implementation, the narrative report accompanying the bill provides a table explaining how the House appropriators (or at least, their strong Democratic Party majority) would require that this money be spent.

The table above shows how the House would spend the 2021 aid money, and how it fits in with what the Trump White House requested, and what aid has looked like since 2016, the year before before the outgoing Obama administration’s “Peace Colombia” aid package went into effect.

If the House were to get its way, less than $200 million of the $458 million in 2021 U.S. aid to Colombia would go to the country’s police and military forces. However, the bill must still go through the Republican-majority Senate, whose bill may reflect somewhat more “drug war” priorities. A final bill is unlikely to pass both houses of Congress until after Election Day.

Sources for most of these numbers:

Not reflected here is assistance to Colombia to manage flows of Venezuelan refugees.

Tags: U.S. Aid, U.S. Congress, U.S. Policy

Podcast with Rep. Jim McGovern: “What if I was in Colombia? Would I have the courage to say what I believe?”

May 20, 2020

(Cross-posted from wola.org)

Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Massachusetts), the co-chair of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission in the U.S. Congress, is a longtime advocate of human rights, worldwide and in Latin America.

McGovern joins WOLA in this episode for a conversation about Colombia, a country to which he has traveled several times, and where he was one of the House of Representatives’ leading advocates for the negotiations that ended with a peace accord in 2016.

We’re talking weeks after new revelations that U.S.-aided Colombian military intelligence units had been spying on human rights defenders, journalists, judges, politicians, and even fellow officers. The Congressman calls for a suspension of U.S. military assistance to Colombia while the U.S. government undertakes a top-to-bottom, “penny by penny” review of the aid program. “If there’s not a consequence, there’s no incentive to change,” he explains.

He calls for the Colombian government and the international community to do far more to protect the country’s beleaguered human rights defenders, to change course on an unsuccessful drug policy, and to fulfill the peace accords’ commitments. Human rights, Rep. McGovern concludes, should be at the center of the U.S.-Colombia bilateral relationship.

Listen to the podcast above, or download the .mp3 file.

Listen to WOLA’s Latin America Today podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, iHeartRadio, or wherever you subscribe to podcasts. The main feed is here.

Tags: Attacks on social leaders, Audio, Human Rights, Human Rights Defenders, Military and Human Rights, Podcast, U.S. Aid, U.S. Congress, U.S. Policy

An outdated interpretation of counter-terror law has painted U.S. Colombia programming into a corner. The way out is simple.

March 11, 2020
The Humanicemos website uses a lot of the same mission language as U.S. government documents. But U.S. officials can’t even buy its members a cup of coffee.

(Español)

Humanicemos is a non-governmental organization dedicated to clearing landmines in Colombia. Its personnel are former combatants from the FARC guerrillas, who demobilized after the signing of a 2016 peace accord and are now embarking on new lives. It gets support from the UN and the European Union, and works with Colombian government agencies.

This sounds like the sort of feel-good group that the U.S. government would want to support. But it does not support it. In fact, for U.S. officials, the members of Humanicemos are untouchable.

In January, Andrés Bermúdez Liévano writes at JusticeInfo, Angela Orrego of Humanicemos reported to a Bogotá hotel to participate in a 2020 planning meeting of groups working on de-mining.

But when Orrego and two of her colleagues from Humanicemos, one of those organizations created to destroy landmines, arrived, another government official barred them from entering.

“I’m very sorry,” she told them. The meeting was partially funded by the U.S. State Department, she explained, and that meant they could not participate.

At issue is a U.S. law prohibiting “providing material support to terrorists” (18 U.S. Code Sec. 2339A). Though it demobilized nearly three years ago, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, FARC, remain on the State Department’s list of foreign terrorist organizations, and all of its members are still considered to be terrorists. As a result, it is a crime—punishable with fines or up to 15 years in prison—for U.S. citizens to provide any FARC party members with money, lodging, training, expert advice or assistance, communications equipment, facilities, or transportation.

As currently interpreted, the prohibition doesn’t apply to former FARC members who demobilized individually and have in some way renounced membership in the FARC political party. Individual demobilized receive some U.S. support through the Colombian government’s Reincorporation and Normalization Agency.

The rest, though—the thousands of former FARC members who maintain some identity related with the FARC political party, like Ms. Orrego—are frozen out. It is illegal even to buy them a cup of coffee, much less instruct them in a skill like landmine removal.

This “material support” statute—or rather, the way it’s being interpreted right now—is more than an annoyance. It’s becoming an obstacle to U.S. interests in Colombia. The State Department, the Defense Department, and USAID all place a high priority on supporting “stabilization” in Colombia. That’s the term they and the Colombian government use to describe introducing a functioning government presence, with basic services and security, in vast ungoverned rural areas where coca and armed groups thrive. In these areas, thousands of former FARC members circulate freely today. Many have a strong interest in the goals of stabilization, which overlap closely with the first chapter of the peace accord (“rural reform”).

This means that today, U.S.-supported stabilization efforts are frequently running into engaged former FARC members, with bizarre results. In off-the-record conversations going back to 2017, U.S. officials have told WOLA staff of incidents in which former low-ranking guerrillas have been barred from Colombian government meetings to plan Territorially Focused Development Plans (PDETs) or to consult with communities about government services, just because the U.S. government was partially or fully covering the meetings’ cost.

In some cases, U.S. officials only found out afterward that low-level former guerrillas had attended U.S.-funded events. When that has happened, because that ex-guerrilla may have had a sandwich or drink provided by the conference organizers, or may have received some knowledge by attending the event, U.S. officials have had to endure numerous subsequent meetings with State Department lawyers, going over every detail to document and understand what happened, what the organizers knew, and whether it was punishable.

The FARC ceased to exist as an armed group in August 2017, after handing in 8,994 weapons and more than 938 arms caches to a UN mission. “Of 13,202 ex-combatants accredited before the accord’s signing,” the Colombian Presidency’s High Counselor for Stabilization and Consolidation reported last month, “12,940 remain committed to their reincorporation.” While some estimates of ex-guerrillas’ desertions from the peace process run as high as 830, the fact remains that the overwhelming majority of former FARC members continue to be engaged with the process. That their mere presence can halt or water down U.S. support for important stability and demining efforts is an absurdity. 

“The FARC are still part of the terrorist list,” U.S. Ambassador Philip Goldberg told a Colombian newspaper in February, “because, as we know, there are some dissident groups still involved in narcotrafficking and violence.” The dissident groups are a big challenge. Their approximately 2,400 members, scattered across about 23 groups, either refused to demobilize, abandoned the process later, or are new recruits. Their numbers are growing.

But the dissident groups aren’t the ex-FARC. In fact, they are one of the main threats to the security of ex-FARC fighters who have renounced violence. To date, about 186 demobilized FARC members have been killed. Of 93 cases for which Colombian government investigators have been able to attribute responsibility, FARC dissidents are the likely killers in 36—that is, 39 percent of cases. It makes no sense, as Ambassador Goldberg did last month, to conflate FARC party members who’ve renounced violence with the FARC dissidents who are attacking them. They don’t belong on the same list.

If this is truly the reason why peace process-respecting former guerrillas remain on the terrorist list, there’s an easy remedy that doesn’t necessarily even require removing a group called “FARC” from the terrorist list. The U.S. government just needs to reinterpret the existing statute in a way that distinguishes between dissident groups and demobilized guerrillas. If the current interpretation has painted U.S. programming into a corner, then that interpretation needs to be updated for the reality of Colombia in 2020.

That would mean screening out from U.S.-funded programs not everyone who is considered a FARC party member or affiliate, but instead only:

  • The few dozen ex-guerrillas who are wanted by U.S. courts for drug trafficking or kidnapping;
  • Those facing serious and specific accusations of war crimes before the Special Jurisdiction for Peace, the Colombian government’s system of war crimes tribunals;
  • Those on the Treasury Department’s “Specially Designated Nationals” list; and
  • Those credibly alleged to be continuing to engage in illicit activity.

The number of individuals meeting these criteria is a small percentage of the total universe of non-dissident ex-guerrillas. For the rest, there should be no other barrier to participation in U.S.-funded programs. The remaining rank and file, trying to build a peaceful life and contribute to Colombia’s reconciliation, must lose their “untouchable” status.

Three years is enough: it is past time to realign the statute’s interpretation to match up with Colombia’s reality. And Congress should communicate to the State Department, in any way appropriate, that it does not object to this common-sense adjustment.

Tags: Counter-Terrorism, U.S. Aid, U.S. Policy

Latest Table of Aid to Colombia

February 24, 2020
Click to enlarge.

The Trump administration issued its 2021 State Department and foreign aid budget request to Congress on February 10. It calls for a big increase in counter-drug aid to Colombia’s police and military, along with cuts in economic aid and non-drug military aid.

Congress is certain to reverse this, as it has, on a bipartisan basis, with the Trump White House proposals to cut aid for 2018, 2019, and 2020. But in the meantime, here are the numbers from the past few years, starting before the Obama administration’s “Peace Colombia” aid package went into effect in 2017.

Sources for most of these numbers:

Not reflected here is assistance to Colombia to manage flows of Venezuelan refugees.

Tags: U.S. Aid, U.S. Policy

Snapshot of U.S. aid to Colombia

August 21, 2018

Here is a table of current aid to Colombia. In sum, it looks like Congress will once again refuse the deep aid cuts the Trump White House had requested for 2019. Aid will continue to follow the “Peace Colombia” framework that guided assistance in 2017 and 2018.

In a nutshell:

  • Economic Support Funds are economic aid administered by USAID. The table shows some ESF earmarked for specific purposes. The rest funds efforts to increase non-military state presence in post-conflict areas, aid to vulnerable populations, crop substitution, human rights, and similar priorities. The Trump administration sought to cut this from $187 million to $100 million; Congress disagreed.
  • International Narcotics Control and Law Enforcement, administered by the State Department’s bureau of the same name, pays for “hard side” programs like coca eradication and drug interdiction, and for “soft side” programs, mostly assistance to Colombia’s judicial system.
  • The Nonproliferation, Anti-Terrorism, Demining, and Related Programs account, in Colombia, is devoted entirely to demining programs.
  • Foreign Military Financing, the State Department’s main non-drug military assistance program, is funding counternarcotics battalions, aviation support, and especially the Colombian armed forces’ involvement in post-conflict construction projects.
  • Defense Department Counter-Drug Support, from the Pentagon’s budget, pays for training, boats, mostly non-lethal equipment upgrades, computers and software, and much intelligence and reconnaissance support.
  • The additional assistance for Venezuelans in Colombia figures come from a July 18 State Department fact sheet. and an August 8 USAID press release.

Tags: U.S. Aid, U.S. Policy

“Peace Colombia”: What’s New About It?

February 25, 2016

(Una versión adaptada de este artículo aparece en español en el portal colombiano Razón Pública.)

We don’t know exactly what Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos asked for when he met with Obama administration officials and members of the U.S. Congress during his early February visit to Washington. Perhaps he requested—or decided not to request—some measures that the U.S. government was not prepared to take, like removing the FARC from the State Department’s list of terrorist groups, freeing imprisoned guerrilla leader “Simón Trinidad,” or promising a post-conflict aid package of US$500 million or more.

What Santos did get in Washington were some very strong rhetorical shows of support for the peace process with guerrilla groups (which probably helps him in his domestic debates with the peace talks’ right-wing opponents), and a promise from President Obama to ask Congress for US$450 million in new aid for Colombia in 2017.

This aid package is being called “Peace Colombia.” (Perhaps an unconscious nod to the Colombian civil-society movement of the same name, which sought to promote alternatives to Plan Colombia back in 2000-2001.) It would represent an important increase in aid to Colombia from its current level of about US$325 million.

From the information we have available now, “Peace Colombia” appears to be an important and necessary step, and an improvement over past U.S. approaches in Colombia. But it is also a smaller, and more military-focused, program than it should be. The new package is different than what came before, but not radically different.

Background on U.S. aid to Colombia

Gradual change has been the rule for U.S. assistance since around 2007, Plan Colombia’s most intense moment, when U.S. aid exceeded US$750 million.  At that time, 80 percent of the aid went to military and police initiatives, including the “Plan Patriota” offensive, herbicide fumigation of nearly 400,000 acres, and the launch of a guerrilla encampment-bombing campaign and a “Territorial Consolidation” counterinsurgency plan. Since that point, every year has seen small reductions in the overall aid amount, and small adjustments away from military and police aid toward economic and social aid. Today, the “hard side” of U.S. aid is just barely over 50 percent of the total.

The US$450 proposed for 2017, while larger than this year’s amount, is far smaller than what the U.S. government was providing ten years ago. This sends the unfortunate message that Washington is more generous in times of war than in times of consolidating peace. Still, for the first time, the majority of U.S. aid will go to non-military priorities: to Colombians who do not wear uniforms and carry weapons.

What is in the Peace Colombia aid package?

The vast majority of the proposed aid will go through five programs, or accounts, in the U.S. system of foreign aid. It’s worth looking at these five programs to understand the Obama administration’s post-conflict priorities.

Tags: U.S. Aid, U.S. Policy