Latin America

How Trump Can Make the Americas Great Again

Hint: Start with robust U.S. support for Colombia's peace process.

Dear President Trump....

Photographer: RAUL ARBOLEDA/AFP/Getty Images

Latin Americans are understandably edgy these days. The region's economy is struggling, corruption scandals have spread like mosquito-borne disease, and Washington’s new management seems all too caught up in overheated talk of bad hombres and big beautiful walls.

But Latin America doesn't have to be another zone of contention on the Trump administration's fraught wall map. Indeed, a few judicious U.S. policy gestures and some patented tough talk directed at some of Latin America’s few remaining rogues could improve the U.S. brand and foster reciprocal good will in a region that, when it's not being stepped on, has often felt invisible.  

There's already a flicker of good sense. The U.S. has toned down some of the most exalted anti-Mexico talk, committing to renegotiate rather than outright scuttle the North American Free Trade Act, and hedging its vows to make Mexico pay for a border wall. More than a slight to a loyal ally, the Mexico-bashing resurrected the choleric, anti-gringo nationalism that both countries had mostly overcome.  Dialing back could save the U.S. from stirring up stale feuds and help Trump with nervous members of the Republican establishment.

Last week, the U.S. also gave much-needed comfort to the opponents of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro by placing his just-minted Vice President Tareck El Aissami on its sanctions list for his alleged ties to the international drug trade.

But the best opportunity for patching up U.S. relations with the Americas may be in Colombia, where a controversial plan to end the western hemisphere's oldest guerrilla insurgency hangs in the balance. The obstacles to demobilizing as many as 14,000 ex-guerrillas, shepherding them through special tribunals, assuring that their victims receive reparations, and then converting yesterday's combatants into tomorrow's law-abiding citizens are daunting enough. Winning over the Colombians, who narrowly rejected an earlier version of the peace deal last year, and remain sorely divided over the effort, will be much harder.

Washington's backing -- or indifference -- could be critical. For the last 16 years, Colombia has counted on Republican and Democratic leaders in Washington in its pursuit of peace. The partnership began with Plan Colombia, a costly military campaign to defeat the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. The battlefield wins slashed the FARC's ranks and pushed the remnant insurgents back to the jungles, setting up peace talks in Havana, where U.S. diplomats played a key role.

Now comes the toughest part, as President Juan Manuel Santos, who won the Nobel peace prize for the deal he brokered, works to advance its intricate implementation, appease chary Colombians and fight the blowback from fierce political adversaries ahead of next year's presidential election.

So when word got out last weekend that Presidents Santos and Trump had spoken by telephone, the Colombian commentariat went shrill. Doubters seized on the conversation's odd protocol -- the Feb. 11 call was unannounced and it took the White House two days to release the readout -- to claim on social media that the phone call was a fabrication.

The 11-line precis of the conversation, with its anodyne nod to the "importance of continuing the long history of cooperation with Colombia," hardly helped.  Would the U.S. stand behind Colombia and send the $450 million Barack Obama had pledged to Plan Colombia last year? Or would Washington put the whole matter under review, as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson suggested in his confirmation hearings last month, a prospect tailored to delight Santos's bilious archrival, the Trump-like Alvaro Uribe?

The peace plan is still on track, but behind schedule and facing risks. Drug gangs are taking over villages once controlled by the FARC and recruiting former guerrillas, Bloomberg News reported. Cocaine production has spiked again. If the peace plan fares well, Santos (who is not a candidate) could see an ally elected next year. If the plan falters and Santos's rivals return to office, the peace itself could be in jeopardy.

In over half a century of almost constant conflict, Colombia has seen its homicide rate plunge twice: From 2002 to 2010, when the government waged all-out war against the FARC, and again after 2012, when the weakened guerrillas agreed to sit at the peace table. The U.S., crucially, stood by Colombia through both those periods. Scrapping that pact now would also be the U.S.'s loss. Sad!

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Mac Margolis at mmargolis14@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    James Gibney at jgibney5@bloomberg.net

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