BOGOTA — Last week, a government press release celebrated the news that Colombia’s President Alvaro Uribe and U.S. President Barack Obama were arranging a private meeting at the Summit of the Americas. But the news coming out of the press office on Friday squashed the excitement: The meeting was off.
Whether a snub to Colombia or a simple matter of logistic impossibility, the cancelled meeting is one more signal of a shift in the traditionally close and special relationship between the U.S. and Colombia.
“I think it’s an indication that [Obama] wants to strengthen relationships with other countries, and I don’t think that Colombia is as fundamental to U.S. objectives in the region,” says John Lindsay-Poland of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, a U.S. human rights group with programs in Colombia.
(Though it's not all bad news for Colombia. Here's the latest from the Summit of the Americas).
Under the Bush administration, Colombia was regarded as the U.S.’s strongest — and sometimes only — ally in Latin America. Uribe’s hard-line approach to governance and fighting Colombia’s war on terror and drugs was akin to Bush's policy. Since 2000, Colombia has received some $6 billion from the U.S. in anti-narcotics aid under Plan Colombia, most of it directed towards the military.
And while several analysts expect the United States to continue supporting Colombia, they say the Colombian government should brace for change.
“I don’t think we’ll see the same relationship as we had with Bush,” says Alvaro Camacho, a professor at the Institute of Political Studies and International Relations at the National University in Bogota. “Colombia will lose importance to the United States.”
Already, the Obama administration has reached out to re-engage the U.S. with the Latin America that exists beyond Colombia’s borders. Obama and several high-level officials have visited Mexico. Vice President Joe Biden traveled to Chile and Costa Rica to meet with the heads of state of a host of Latin American countries. Colombia was not one of them.
In an op-ed published in newspapers across Latin America, Obama pledged to “renew and sustain a broader partnership between the United States and the hemisphere.”
Part of the shift is a matter of perspective.
Under the Bush administration, Colombia was seen as the “good guy” among a sea of leftist populist governments, says Michael Shifter, vice president of policy at the Washington-based Inter American Dialogue. “Obama doesn’t see the world as divided between friends and adversaries.” And that opens the field for engagement with a variety of Latin American countries.
Not only is Obama’s worldview expected to dilute attention paid towards Colombia, his pragmatism is also expected to do so. Despite the internal armed conflict that continues in Colombia, it has been replaced by Mexico as the most pressing security problem in the hemisphere. Brazil’s position as the region’s big economic power lends it strategic importance to the U.S.
“It’s not that Colombia is seen as unimportant, but I think this administration elevates those other two countries [Mexico and Brazil] in terms of what needs to be focused on,” says Shifter.
With Mexico now competing for U.S. anti-narcotics funding, “there will be a reduction in the support for Plan Colombia,” says Camacho. “The Colombian government will have to assume the costs.”
Camacho also expects a shift in drug policy from Obama’s administration, and the recent trend of assigning more anti-narcotic funding to development rather than military aid is expected to continue. “This is something Uribe will have to accept,” he says.
What support Colombia does receive from the U.S., analysts say, Uribe will have to work harder for it – largely due to the emphasis Obama’s administration places on human rights.
Obama and the Democrats have held up a Free Trade Agreement between the two countries — originally negotiated in 2006 as a Bush priority — due to concerns over Colombia’s human rights record and the targeted assassinations of trade union leaders.
“Colombia must improve its efforts," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee soon before she was sworn in, according to Reuters.
In Trinidad, Obama sent Trade Representative Ron Kirk to meet with Uribe to start discussions on how to move forward on the trade agreement. Uribe discussed these issues with Obama over lunch at the summit.
Analysts expect Obama to demand concrete progress on human rights in relation to the trade pact as well as military and anti-narcotic support. “Progress has been made but more will be necessary,” says Shifter.
Gustavo Duncan, a professor of political science at the University of Los Andes in Bogota, points to the challenges Uribe’s government faces. Scandals continue over links between his government and narco-financed paramilitaries. The military stands accused of a widespread practice of killing innocent civilians framed as combatants to increase body counts. Last month, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt) announced the freezing of $72 million in aid until there are results in the investigation of several military officers.
“Because of all these issues,” says Duncan, Colombia's relationship with the U.S. “will be a lot more complicated for Uribe.”
More GlobalPost dispatches from Colombia: