A HIGH RISK GAME Analysis of the policy of the Colombian government at the time of the U.S. presidential campaign.

By Ricardo Ávila, EL TIEMPO, September 12, 2020


(Translated by Eunice Gibson, CSN Volunteer Translator)

The speed of the voting in Washington yesterday that established the name of the new President of the Inter-American Development Bank didn’t surprise anybody. Just as observers had predicted, Mauricio Claver-Carone of the United States ended up being chosen to head the multilateral agency for the next five years. The unspoken agreement lasting throughout six decades—that a candidate from Latin America would fill the position—was buried in one fell swoop.

Beyond what the change might mean for an institution that provides the region with between 12 and 15 billion dollars in loans annually, it is undeniable that Colombia stood out as the country that backed the candidacy of the lawyer from Miami with the most enthusiasm. There is no shortage of people that insist that this is a diplomatic triumph for Bogotá, getting behind the winner early on.

One reading of what happened stresses that once again this country is lining up with the White House and that will bring profits in the near future. Given the extent of the crisis caused by the pandemic, counting on support from Washington could serve not just to help with pre-existing problems, but also with the new challenges, both economic and social.

However, there are those who think differently. The principal concern of a number of analysts is that far from maintaining neutrality with regard to the presidential election in the United States at the beginning of November, what happened is a demonstration that the President’s Office has chosen sides and the side was not exactly Joe Biden’s.

Last Wednesday, Juan Manuel Santos stated that he had received calls from the North American capital reporting that officials in the Duque administration are offering their help for the re-election of Donald Trump. “That’s very serious, because not only is that illegal, but it also generates a reaction in the Democratic Party, which now knows what’s going on,” said the former President.

What’s at play

The warning is a wake-up call. If there is one constant in the bilateral relationship, it has been its bipartisan nature. From the very beginning of Plan Colombia at the start of this century, the governments in power in Bogotá worked hand in hand with Democratic and Republican administrations, as well as with members of Congress of both parties. That last is key, because in the Capitol is where they decide the amounts that will be appropriated, and those have totaled nearly 15 billion dollars in the last 20 years.

And the reason is simple and strategic. By preserving a State policy, this country has been able to avoid falling into the back-and-forth that comes along with election results. With the levels of polarization we can see in the land of Uncle Sam, that is an extremely important asset. In fact, not a few United States legislators and officials have said in the past that this is perhaps one of the few subjects where there has not been conflict.

Of course, there have been ups and downs, as in all relationships. Álvaro Uribe, for example, had to go through a difficult period when the Democrats won both Congress and the White House in the elections of 2008. Then there were entanglements for several years over the approval of the free trade agreement because the Democrats had concerns about acts of violence against labor leaders and the adoption of labor standards.

In the North American Capitol, furthermore, there are people that will never be satisfied with everything. On one side there are those that want to frame the relationship only from the human rights perspective, and on the other side, those that see this country as a beachhead from which to overturn Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela.

But the strength of Colombia’s foreign policy, up to now, is that it has found the center of the ideological spectrum, guaranteeing an almost unanimous support for the things that are most important. That is the basis for the warning that we may be playing with fire.

“It wouldn’t surprise me if representatives of the government have delivered their support to the Trump campaign,” says former Ambassador Gabriel Silva. “The government from the beginning has been dedicated to eroding the bipartisan character of our bilateral policy with the United States because of their political alignment with the White House, and they have irritated and greatly disturbed the Democrats with their farfetched initiatives,” he added.

Being and seeming

That kind of attitude—if the abundant rumors in Washington are confirmed—would be very different from the norm. Traditionally the Colombian Ambassadors have attended the conventions of both parties, because the representatives of the diplomatic corps receive invitations, except for now, when the pandemic forced them to make use of virtual means.

It was even an accepted practice to make explicit contact with one side and with the other side, always and only when everything happens on the up and up.

For example, in the time of Andrés Pastrana, he took advantage of a trip to Houston in Texas to get together with the then-Republican candidate George W. Bush, not without previously informing the Al Gore campaign, then Bill Clinton’s Vice President and running for president.

Considering the current antagonism, what experts would advise in this matter would be to avoid suspicion. There are inevitable contacts between one and another government, but it’s normal for the trips or the visits to be reduced to a minimum. Just as in the well-known adage about Caesar’s wife, not just to be neutral, but also to seem neutral.

Moreover, it doesn’t take more than a look at the surveys. Even if his margin may have gone down, Joe Biden is still nearly eight percentage points ahead of Donald Trump in the polls. The difference is less in the swing states, but still Barack Obama’s Vice President is running ahead.

It’s true that the most intense part of the race is still to come, and that four years ago the polls predicted that Hillary Clinton would win. And even though he has broken with most of the canons of good behavior in politics, the current President of the United States has the support of a considerable group of citizens that follow him faithfully, so it’s impossible to write him off.

Not less important is that both insiders and outsiders agree that it’s highly improbable that the Democrats would lose control of the House of Representatives. For the Senate, now in the hands of the Republicans, the gap could be closed.

That calculation is fundamental because in recent years, Congress has taken charge of increasing the aid package allocated to Colombia, after repeated attempts by the White House to reduce it. Making enemies of key members of Congress could be very costly in the current circumstances.

For that reason, winking at neither party is the better option.  A flight of fancy by a high official or even a consul could be sufficient motive to end up trapped in a debate that can only bring counterproductive results for this country.

Who’s paying the piper?

That there’s a noise in the air is unquestionable. Brian Winter, editor of the weekly Americas Quarterly, says he doesn’t believe that Iván Duque would be inclined to either side. “But there is definitely a contrary perception in Washington, in the sense that the Colombian government has cultivated a proximity with Trump that is seen as more than a typical bilateral relationship, and where perhaps it has crossed a line,” he adds. He indicates that “there are individuals in particular inside the Colombian administration that feel an ideological affinity with the White House and they have not been timid about it.”

At the same time, Michael Shifter, of Diálogo Interamericano, opines that “It’s conspicuous that President Duque was the only president in Latin America that publicly and robustly supported the United States candidate for the presidency of the BID.” The analyst’s interpretation is that Bogotá “is betting that Trump will be re-elected or that, if he loses to Biden, the risk of damaging the good bilateral relationship would be minimal.”

He underlines that that hypothesis could conceivably be right, because the Democratic candidate is not vindictive. “He will be looking to repair and not to damage alliances,” Shifter concludes. “If Biden wins, it’s not very likely that he would want an accounting, because that’s not his nature. Besides, he will inherit a very complicated world in January of 2021, and he will need friends to manage it,” added Winter.

However, it’s also true that there would be some friction with Bogotá. The apparent dead end in Venezuela, the killing of social leaders, the use of US funds in wire-tapping operations or the defense of human rights would be relevant and a there would be a different approximation if there is a change of command in the White House. And if that is not the case, the squeeze will land in the US Congress, where there will be more than one interested in getting an accounting.

One of the first sticking points could turn out to be the choice of Claver-Carone last Saturday. “It’s hard to see how this will end well for the BID or for Colombia, never mind who ends up being the President in January,” warned a high level assistant to an important member of the US Congress.

Contrary to the claims that this is the way to get an injection of capital for the multilateral agency, and the flow of loans to Latin America will be much higher, all of it points to an incredible confrontation because of the dynamics of internal politics in Washington. The greatest risk is that the Bank will end up embroiled in the midst of the polarization, just when the region needs more funding to get out as fast as possible from the crisis caused by the coronavirus.

If that turns out to be the case, the scenarios of conversation in the hemisphere will threaten to be irrelevant. The crisis of the Organization of American States is profound and apparently insurmountable. Now the Inter-American Bank enters into unfamiliar territory, including rejection of Chinese influence, where the dangers are more evident than the opportunities.

Because of all that, it’s not too much to ask what’s going on with Colombian foreign policy, the failures of which are resounding. Those who thought that the absence of Brazil or Mexico from the regional scene was an opportunity for this country, can now see that there is nothing to show, in particular because of the role of Juan Guaidó, who at one time managed to add supporters, but didn’t manage to solve the Venezuela problem.

Even though the connection between the United States and Colombia continues to be strong, regardless of who wins the election, it would be a mistake to think that we can see how this is going to end. And whether it’s by action or by omission, whether it’s a scene of continuity or of change, some difficult moments are on the way.

If Trump is the winner in November, we will pay the price of having gone along with his posturing, which could be expressed in new demands and it will be hard to say no, after having pampered him. And if Biden wins, the challenge will be to build his confidence in us.

In conclusion, they say that with Uncle Sam we are living in a kind of bed of roses, but it’s better not to get our hopes up. Because in the stems of the roses there are also thorns.

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