Reason for the People (Razón Publica)
March 1, 2015
(Translated by Eunice Gibson, CSN Volunteer Translator)
What does Obama hope to accomplish by designating Aronson right now?
How will this affect the Havana process in the matters of drug trafficking, extradition, and transitional justice? And how can Colombia take advantage of it?
Sandra Borda G.*
Recently the government of the United States announced the appointment of a special envoy to the peace process in Colombia. The envoy is Bernard Aronson, a politician and diplomat affiliated with the Democrats although he is also close to the moderate sector of the Republican Party.
The appointment is important and it is therefore worthwhile to explore the reasons for it, so as to understand his range and his limitations, because Aronson’s arrival has the potential to produce crucial changes in the Havana negotiations.
To begin with, I would point out the interest of Obama’s government in rebuilding its presence and improving its reputation in the hemisphere. Even though the power of the United States in Latin America has suffered a substantial decline (but maybe not as decisive as some leftist analysts and governments suggest), that does not imply that that nation is ready to give up its role as a world power in this part of the world.
Not to be present at the resolution of the last armed conflict in the Americas would have been to concede the point to those who argue that the United States is considering a return to its periods of isolationism, at least in regard to Latin America. That is far from accurate. Even less with regard to a county that, like Colombia, is considered in Washington to be a natural ally and perhaps even an unconditional ally.
But more than that – and this is also a matter of reputation – if the United States was committed to Colombia at critical moments in the war against the insurgency and against drug trafficking, it ought to do the same at the moment of seeking and finding a negotiated end to the conflict. If Washington would fail to do that, it would be conceding the point to those who accuse it of being a warlike power that is manipulated by what General and President Eisenhower himself called “the military-industrial complex”. To cooperate in the time of the conversations with the same enthusiasm as in the time of war sends the message that there is a genuine interest in resolving “the Colombia business”.
Why now, and why Aronson?
Why did the United States government decide to send Aronson now—when the Santos administration has been asking for a person of this stature for a long time?
It could be that in the United States there is a perception that the negotiations are going in the right direction. If there are fewer probabilities that the negotiations will fail, there is also less risk of the appearance of political and diplomatic weakness if Washington participates in those negotiations.
In fact – and without obscuring the minimal attention that the Obama government has given to the region – this President could go down in history as one who markedly changed the distinguishing features (and predominantly negative) of the relations between the United States and Latin America: his recent measures in the area of immigration (which benefit Latinos most of all), his 180-degree shift on Cuba, and his participation in negotiations to end the conflict with “the oldest guerrillas in the world” would be enough to achieve that.
On the other hand, in choosing Bernard Aronson, Obama is trying to pull “the Colombia business” out of the bloody battle that is going on in Washington between Democrats and Republicans. Aronson is a man who is skillful and able to swim between both streams. That could facilitate a compromise under which the United States would contribute to building peace in our country and also could avoid, in the event that the next administration is Republican, a drastic policy change on peace in Colombia.
The interests of the United States
There are also fairly concrete interests that the United States brings to the negotiation table. Make no mistake: neither the great power nor any other international actor takes part in the dialogs out of pure altruism. Every one has its own agenda and its own objectives. And the Obama government is no exception.
One of those interests is to maintain Washington’s position on drug trafficking, which has been a key point on the bilateral agenda for several decades. Without downplaying the changes in the United States with the referendums in several states and cities where the anti-drug policy has become more flexible, the federal government is still not ready to give in on this subject. And much less internationally.
It has to remain clear that Aronson probably is not coming to impose the United States position, intransigent and inflexible, on the war on drugs. Washington understands perfectly that that position would change it into an obstructionist that is not working for the success of the negotiations.
But it would also be ingenuous to think that the United States has not set definite limits that it will not allow to be exceeded. So on that point, more than just a companion, Washington intends to play the role of a negotiating party and take on the task of persuading not just the FARC (no easy task) but also the Colombian government to support its position. What comes out of that interaction will be decisive for the new position of Colombia on the subject of drugs after the peace process.
The other area where the proximity of the United States to the negotiation table could produce important effects is the area of the justice system. Several FARC leaders have requests for extradition by the United States, for crimes related to drug trafficking. Any item agreed to by the Colombian government and the FARC on the penalties that the guerrillas are to pay for crimes related to drug trafficking will have to be negotiated in some manner with the United States if it is to be carried out.
Once again, on this subject, the analysis cannot be as simple as suggesting that the great power will impose its “red lines” and are just taking part in the process in order to communicate those. Here is another area where Washington will have to act more as a negotiator than as a companion and will have to be disposed to find intermediate positions in order to achieve peace in Colombia.
Advantages for Colombia
It is possible that the diplomatic muscle of the United States could help Colombia in its effort to design a formula in the area of transitional justice that would simultaneously facilitate the achievement of peace and be in accord with this country’s international commitments.
In any case, the international community will have to be somewhat flexible in its demands in order to accept that formula. In that context, the United States could help Colombia to adapt and facilitate the process.
The ability to make use of the United States envoy for the objectives of peace will depend largely on the ability of the negotiating parties to persuade and to transform Washington’s traditional positions into something new. If a change such as the change in the United States foreign policy toward Cuba could be accomplished, there will have to be some room for maneuver. We are not condemned to the unilateral and eternal imposition of those policies.
But there has to be some boldness and some negotiating skill. Here the challenge is greater for the government than for the FARC. The Colombian government has become accustomed to speaking softly to the great power and not to contradict it very often. But negotiations are a setting where everybody involved has to contradict because they have significant variants and a certain disposition to change their own positions.
Because of that, this peace process is a superb opportunity to change our way of relating to the world, as well as the manner of our interaction with the power of the United States. I hope the FARC and the government are able to take advantage of this opportunity.
* Director, Center for International Studies (CEI is the Spanish acronym.) and Associate Professor of Political Science, University of the Andes.