An Empire Upside Down, Part 3

Christy Thornton

This is the final part of a three-part article on the United States and Latin America in the Trump era, originally published in the July/August issue of Dollars & Sense magazine. Part 1 focused on Argentina, part 2 focused on Peru, and this part focuses on Colombia. Christy Thornton is an assistant professor of history and international studies at Rowan University.

Ramping up the Drug War

Beyond issues of trade, the White House visit this May from President Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia reveals how the United States under Trump is poised to stymie important progressive changes led by Latin American governments—particularly when it comes to the drug war. Colombia has long been the United States’ staunchest ally in the region, as the Colombian ambassador reinforced before Santos’ trip, telling reporters, “There are very few countries that will come and tell that we love the United States, and we want to partner with the United States.” Colombia, he insisted, loves the United States. And Santos himself, who holds degrees from Harvard and the London School of Economics, has long had a relationship with his counterparts in Washington: before becoming president in 2010, he was the country’s defense minister, working very closely with the U.S. on drug and security issues. The visit, then, appeared cordial, and both presidents issued statements reaffirming the close ties between their countries.

During their joint press conference, however, Trump implicitly reprimanded his Colombian counterpart, drawing attention to the issue of coca growing in Colombia. The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) recently reported that coca production had reached record-high levels in the country in 2016. The increases came after the termination of a controversial aerial eradication program in which U.S. pilots sprayed suspected coca crops—and frequently the people, animals, and plants in their proximity—with glyphosate, a chemical that the World Health Organization (WHO) has linked to cancer. Ending the aerial spraying of the chemical put Colombia at odds with a crucial part of the United States’ counter-narcotics strategy in the country, though the Colombian government allowed on-the-ground eradication efforts to begin again this year. For many observers, this change marked a new willingness of Colombia to defy the United States.

Santos, for his part, has been at the helm of two significant changes in Colombian politics: negotiating the end of the decades-long civil war between the government and the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) guerrilla group, and advocating an international rethinking of counter-narcotics strategy. Donald Trump, however, looks to stand in the way of both—and therefore in the way of crucial changes in the region. In April, weeks before Santos’ official visit to the White House, Trump met secretly at his Mar-a-Lago resort with former Colombian presidents Álvaro Uribe and Andrés Pastrana, both of whom had been actively campaigning against Santos’ peace deal. Uribe’s vehement fight against the agreement brokered by Santos led to a narrow rejection of the first version of the deal in a national referendum, sending Santos back to the bargaining table. A revised deal was reached in November, and while progress in implementing it has been slow and uneven, the demobilization of the guerilla groups has begun.

But while his efforts at ending the half-century long Colombian civil war earned Santos the Nobel Peace Prize, critics here in the United States have pointed to the peace plan as an important cause of the increase in coca cultivation. They argue that when peace negotiations got underway in 2014, it became clear that an important part of demobilizing the FARC would be providing incentives for those growing coca to switch to alternative crops. As word of this provision spread, critics alleged, people in FARC-controlled territory planted more coca to take advantage of the coming subsidy. But as groups like the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) have pointed out, this narrative oversimplifies the varied and complex reasons that coca cultivation is on the rise—which include a strong dollar relative to the peso, which has pushed up the peso price of coca. Nevertheless, critics have been able to link the accord to the increase in coca cultivation, and therefore to put it squarely at odds with the stated objectives of the U.S.-led war on drugs. While we don’t know what Uribe and Pastrana discussed with Trump during their secret meeting, the president’s focus on coca cultivation levels in his press conference with Santos indicates that this narrative has been presented forcefully to Trump.

The political economy of the drug war here in the United States—where defense contractors get billions in federal dollars to build helicopters and drones, and where politicians want to keep those dollars coming to their districts—has proven difficult to change even when there is political will to do so. Trump’s focus on coca is in keeping with his administration’s promises to return to the punitive and militarized war on drugs that the Obama administration had started, tentatively, to scale back.  And Trump’s return to the militarized status quo ante puts him in direct conflict with Santos. The Colombian president had been critical of the drug war since at least the 1990s, and had been part of a growing clamor for drug-consuming countries, like the United States, to recognize and address the crucial role played by demand for drugs in their own countries. Soon after being elected in 2010, the Santos openly declared the drug war an abject failure, even affirming, in an interview with The Guardian, his openness to legalization (a position he has since walked back in favor of “controlled experiments in regulating drug markets”). His position stems in no small part from the devastation that the drug war has visited on his country; as he argued in a widely cited op-ed, Colombia has “carried the heaviest burden in the global war on drugs.” Indeed, in Colombia, the drug war has cost nearly half a million lives since 1990 and created the world’s largest population of internally displaced people—more than seven million refugees in their own land. The corruption of the political system, the diversion of economic resources to the military, and the environmental devastation have also been staggering. Given this burden, Santos spearheaded initiatives within the OAS and the UN system to address the failures of existing counter-narcotics strategy, and was a central convener—together with the presidents of Guatemala and Mexico—of the 2016 UN General Assembly special session on the world drug problem. Though intended to mark a turning point in global drug policy, the declaration that emerged out of the special session was fairly weak, as powerful countries like Russia and China largely upheld the status quo, and largely seen as a disappointment by those advocating a change in drug policy. But Santos vowed to continue the fight, and public opinion continues to turn toward new solutions.

Now Trump and his Attorney General Jeff Sessions seem poised to join those countries in advocating a strong return to the punitive and militarized policies of the past. But despite Trump’s open chiding of Santos, and Sessions’ grandstanding about domestic drug users, the president’s proposed budget actually slashes the aid meant to assist Colombia in drug-control efforts. Trump’s initial numbers include a 13% cut to International Narcotics Control aid, as part of a larger, 36% cut in total aid to the country. When adjusted for inflation, Trump’s proposal for non-military aid to Colombia would bring it to the lowest level since 1986, the year that DEA informant Barry Seal, who had infiltrated the Medellín cartel, was assassinated. While there may be some increases in Department of Defense appropriations for the country—congruent with a militarized strategy that Colombia would prefer to leave behind—as with so many issues in the Trump administration, the money simply isn’t where his mouth is. The proposed budget cuts could significantly hamper the Colombian government’s ability to enact the peace accord with the FARC, and the heated rhetoric will surely stymie the ongoing process to strengthen the 2016 UN agreement. Donald Trump’s government stands squarely in the way of Colombia’s push for progress.

An Empire Upside Down

In the coming weeks and months, there will likely be more revelations about the intentions of the Trump administration in Latin America, a region that has been overshadowed by the president’s rhetoric regarding Asia, Europe, and the Middle East. But the state visits by the presidents of Argentina, Peru, and Colombia reveal the broad ways in which U.S. empire is being reconfigured in the region. Where Trump stands to make a buck, he has proven willing to ignore U.S. business interests and his promise to put “America First,” as the deal over Argentina’s lemons demonstrates. But where leaders are forging ahead with a broader free-trade agenda, as in Peru, Trump’s disinterest is encouraging leaders to turn to other foreign partners and investors—particularly China. This diversification may benefit the countries of Latin America by allowing them to break a dependence on U.S. capital, but it is unlikely to change the extractive, primary-commodity model that has long dominated in places like Peru. What’s more, Trump’s anti-free-trade bluster has not yet demonstrated that it will have any positive effects for U.S. workers or consumers. And finally, Trump has demonstrated a rhetorical commitment to a hard line on the decades-long war on drugs, but also wants to drastically slash the foreign aid that has long sustained it.

The new directions in Trump’s approach to Latin America, then, reveal the changed status of U.S. influence in the region. Latin America has long been seen as what historian Greg Grandin called “empire’s workshop,” the region where the United States tested out new political, economic, and military strategies that it would later deploy throughout the globe. With a new cohort of center-right, business-friendly, free-trade leaders taking power in the region, the old Washington-Consensus model would have Latin America being drawn even more firmly into the U.S. orbit. But today, as Trump pursues his own business interests above all, abandons long-held trading relationships, and cuts the aid that has long sustained U.S. interests in the region, Latin America may be pulling away from the strong gravitational pull of the Colossus of the North—and the consequences, good and bad, are yet to be seen. Indeed, from Latin America, the view of the United States under Trump might begin to reveal an empire turned upside down.

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