- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 4, 2017

NEWSMAKER INTERVIEW:

A surge in coca production has cast a shadow over the peace process, but Colombia remains committed to implementing a deal with leftist FARC guerrillas to end a half-century of civil war, Colombian Ambassador Juan Carlos Pinzon said in an interview Monday.

Mr. Pinzon, a former defense minister, spoke just days after Colombian police announced the third-largest cocaine bust in the country’s history, seizing 6 metric tons of cocaine in Barranquilla that were said to be bound for Spain. Critics of the peace accord, including conservative former Colombian President Alvaro Uribe*, have cited surging illegal coca production as a main flaw of the landmark peace deal signed in November by President Juan Manuel Santos, Mr. Uribe’s successor, with FARC leaders.

Mr. Pinzon said Colombian coca growers have adjusted to the easing of harsh eradication efforts backed by successive U.S. governments, coating the coca leaves with jelly to frustrate aerial spraying and planting the coca amid legal crops or in national parkland. Analysts say the Colombian Congress has also been slow to pass economic support programs for coca growers looking to shift to other crops, giving coca farmers a perverse incentive to expand their crop to boost the compensation they receive when they agree to stop production as part of the peace deal.

The coca growers “have learned, and so must we,” the envoy said in an interview with editors and reporters at The Washington Times.

“We Colombians are the first ones who should be worried about a revival” of coca production and export, he added, calling the drug trade “the mother of every bad thing we face.”

Despite the recent surge in production — a record 378 metric tons of cocaine were seized last year, and 103 metric tons have been confiscated so far this year — Mr. Pinzon said Colombia has gone from being “virtually a failed state” in the early 1990s to a country that now trains other countries in the region on drug interdiction strategies.

In a wide-ranging interview, Mr. Pinzon spoke on a number of topics, including the rising instability across the border in Venezuela, the continuing challenges implementing the peace deal and Bogota’s hopes to work with the new Trump administration on a “Peace Colombia” plan that has succeeded the “Plan Colombia” military and economic aid package pursued under the Clinton, George W. Bush and Obama administrations.

President Trump has called for an “America first” foreign policy, and his first budget blueprint proposed sharp cuts in foreign aid. But Mr. Pinzon insisted that Bogota’s first interactions with the new U.S. administration have been strongly positive, despite comments from Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson during his Senate confirmation process that the U.S. would review its support of Peace Colombia in light of the increased drug production.

Mr. Pinzon noted that Mr. Santos, who won a Nobel Prize for his government’s peacemaking efforts, was one of the first world leaders to talk by phone with Mr. Trump after his election in November, and again discussed continued U.S. support for the peace process shortly after Mr. Trump took office. Mr. Pinzon has said he remains confident that the U.S. will provide nearly a half-billion dollars pledged under President Obama for Peace Colombia, although Colombia must “make its case” to Congress and the White House that the money will be well spent.

Bipartisan backing

The shift from President Obama to President Trump “is not as schizophrenic as some make it out to be for us,” the ambassador said, “because support for Colombia has long been strongly bipartisan. Of course, each new administration has the right to set its own priorities, but the signals have been good, and we retain strong relations with many U.S. government agencies. There was a big adjustment for us going from President Bush to President Obama, but in the end, we were able to retain a strong working relationship.”

The biggest difficulty in the transition is one shared by virtually every embassy in town: the slow pace of appointments and confirmations for key posts across the State Department and other key agencies.

“In many cases, we don’t yet have the people in place we need to talk to, and those in the very senior positions are very busy,” he said.

Both Washington and Bogota share a mounting concern over Venezuela, Colombia’s troubled neighbor, with whom it shares a porous and hard-to-defend 1,400-mile border. The political crisis and economic meltdown facing leftist Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro have produced a surge of refugees who are straining social services and resources on the Colombian side of the border. The Trump administration and the Organization of American States have been sharply critical of what they say are anti-democratic moves by the Maduro government, and the U.S. Treasury Department recently sanctioned Venezuela’s vice president as a drug kingpin.

“It is a difficult problem because Venezuela is a very important country for us,” said Mr. Pinzon, noting that citizens of both countries have historically crossed the border for family and business reasons. Members of the FARC and the smaller, still active National Liberation Army have long maintained sanctuaries in remote areas of Venezuela while fighting the government in Bogota, and just last month the Santos government protested after a band of Venezuelan soldiers spent three days inside Colombian territory on a still-mysterious sortie.

Colombia has stepped up its public criticism of Caracas in recent days, joining the U.S. and a dozen other countries in the region in a letter last month calling on the Maduro government to release political prisoners and hold elections this year.

Acknowledging that Venezuela’s internal crisis is a “delicate subject” for his government, Mr. Pinzon did note the sharp reversal of fortunes in the two countries over the past quarter-century.

“There was a time when it was thought Colombia was on its knees, on the way to becoming a failed state, while Venezuela was one of the richest countries in the world,” he said. “Now we are seen for [meeting] challenges and a model democratic, market economy, while Venezuela has gone in a directly contrary direction.”

Despite the regional challenges, Mr. Pinzon said his government’s priorities remain on the internal situation: implementing the peace agreement, demobilizing and disarming FARC forces, curbing coca production and dealing with war crimes and atrocities committed by both sides in the half-century of guerrilla struggle.

“The implementation is going forward, but we have to keep a close watch on what is going on,” the ambassador said. “The peace agreement was designed to do many things, and we have to see what it will accomplish. If it does not, we have the tools in place to deal with that.”

* Mr. Uribe’s first name was incorrectly given in the original posting of this story.

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