U.S. Must Follow Up Colombian Aid With Effort

By Marc Hanson

This blog first appeared on The Hill Congress Blog

Last week, my colleague Alice Thomas and I were entangled in an interminable web of meetings and traffic in Bogota. Our discussions centered on two very different, yet interrelated, challenges facing Colombia: two years of record floods that paralyzed broad swaths of the country, and the start of reparations for the victims of Colombia’s decades-long conflict. Both the conflict and the flooding have displaced millions of people. And while the government agencies responsible for responding to natural disasters and conflict are different, we noticed some striking similarities.

In both cases, the Santos Administration has demonstrated strong political will by creating new institutions, strategies, and processes for dealing with displacement. Nevertheless, serious concerns remain as to whether the Colombian government can convert savvy policymaking into real results.

As Alice documented in a report last year, while the government marshaled more than a billion dollars to respond to the floods, weak institutions at the local level hampered aid delivery. Since then, the Santos administration has taken steps to rectify these shortcomings, but significant challenges remain. Indeed, these same institutional weaknesses could also undermine implementation of the Victims Law.

The U.S. may have no better partner in Colombia than the partner it has in President Santos. He appears dedicated to healing Colombia’s deep societal wounds and is undaunted by attempts to slow progress. But he will need help to face down the mounting pressure from large land-owners, the latifundistas. A bitter irony of the Victims Law is that in its attempt to reconcile 48 years of conflict and unite the nation, it has divided Colombia’s elite. This division was on display when President Santos visited the town of Necocli in northwest Colombia last week to celebrate the start of land returns. The area around Necocli, while known primarily as a hub for banana farming, has suffered years of brutal violence at the hands of the paramilitaries, guerrillas and narcotraffickers.

During the event, Santos’s aides announced that more than 100,000 acres of land seized by armed groups – and some illegally sold by corrupt public officials – would be parceled off among the region’s many small farmers. But the country’s major banana growers shot back, with one agribusiness association accusing the president of inciting violence. Analysts I spoke to in Bogota said the statement was clearly designed to intimidate potential returnees while undermining confidence in the Santos administration. It was just one example, they warned, of the challenges Santos will face in confronting the powerful land-owners, corporations, and paramilitaries who stand in the way of justice for victims.

Outside of elite circles, there seems to be broad support in Colombian society for the goals of the Victims Law, but reservations remain. It would therefore be wise for the U.S. and donor countries to help with the implementation of the law, while also providing forthright and constructive feedback to the Colombian government. It would be the height of irresponsibility for the U.S., after channeling more than $7 billion to Colombia from 2000 to 2010, to disengage from the Colombian people just as real, long-term progress may be on the horizon.

The U.S. contributes to the UN Refugee Agency’s “protection though presence” programs that minimize displacement by monitoring and reporting on threats in the most conflict-ridden areas. But last September, the agency shuttered three of its 13 field offices. Making further cuts to assistance to Colombia would amount to failing the region’s poorest and most vulnerable people . Disappointingly, it appears the Obama administration may let a historic opportunity slip by in a short-sighted effort to trim the already strained budget for Colombia aid.

Congress can still ensure that adequate Migration and Refugee Assistance (MRA) funding is available to support the implementation of the Victims Law while addressing continued humanitarian needs.  Every year since 2009, Congress has transferred Plan Colombia funds to fill gaps in humanitarian assistance. This year, Congress must patch a $19 million shortfall left by the administration in the MRA budget for the Western Hemisphere. The stakes are high, as both the unmet needs and the potential for historic progress are immense. Thus it is more important than ever that Congress meet the immediate needs of conflict victims while investing in long-term peace and reconciliation.