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| 10/25/2010 12:00:00 AM

Winds of Change

Colombia and the United States seek to continue being close allies. However, traditional issues like drugs, terrorism and the Free Trade Agreement are no longer priority number one.

Colombia's foreign relations have been re-engineered since Juan Manuel Santos’ election, and relations with the United States have been the latest subject in such a shift. Although cooperation has been intense and fruitful in recent years, there are clear signs that the outline that worked during George Bush's and Álvaro Uribe’s administrations no longer fits with the current governments of Juan Manuel Santos and Barack Obama. Bilateral ties were excessively focused on military cooperation to combat terrorism, on the pursuit of an elusive Free Trade Agreement (FTA) and on an anti-drug strategy which has been partially successful. The latter has reduced Colombia’s participation in the illegal business, but hasn’t been enough to break the core of the global phenomenon.

The bilateral agenda had already showed symptoms of exhaustion since the Uribe’s government last years. However, due to Juan Manuel Santos’ arrival and to his brief interview with Barack Obama at the recent United Nations’ General Assembly in New York, both governments have taken the task of re building their relationships more seriously. This week, a U.S. delegation will be in Bogotá. It will be led by James Steinberg, number two at the State Department, along with his colleague from the Ministry of Energy, David Ponman. The group includes 45 functionaries, some of which are the leading team at the division for Latin America of the U.S. Chancellery. There are very few precedents for such an event.

Traditional issues, such as security, drugs and the FTA won’t disappear, but will no longer be the only priorities. Both administrations understand that the political will to promote the trade agreement, now in the hands of the U.S. Congress, isn’t enough to guarantee its approval. There’s reluctance among some sectors in the Democratic Party due to human rights violations against Colombian union members. Also, the development of a radical-nationalist and protectionist wing in the Republican Party doesn’t give much hope for a favorable change after midterm elections, next November 2. The Colombian government knows that the FTA’s approval is very likely to happen, but its also almost certain that this won’t be immediate. "We won't see any more 'lobby' with visits of the President or the Ambassador to the congressmen. We must be patient", said a diplomatic source. In a similar way, the fall of the military cooperation agreement by a Constitutional Court’s decision left the issue in a comfortable freezer, given that the project was controversial among some of Colombia’s neighboring countries.

More than a replacement of topics, what both countries are seeking is to broaden the bilateral agenda. This week’s meeting with the U.S. commission will be aimed at exploring opportunities in three main areas: human rights, energy and science and technology. According to Gabriel Silva, recently positioned Ambassador of Colombia to the White House, the idea is "to build a new coalition. Colombian allies have always been those countries which shared its vision on security and drugs issues. Now, with a broader agenda, more countries may be linked”.

The revival of relations will surely have some setbacks. The main one is that Latin America is definitely not on Washington’s radar, and there’s a high probability that, with the passage of time, Plan Colombia’s aid will diminish. On the other hand, major trouble can arise in case there isn’t a sensible reduction of impunity and human right violations. At the same time, the new Colombian discourse has opportunities: the land restitution project is well received in Washington and is much more 'sellable' than Uribe's counter-terrorism concept.
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