The latest act in the drama that pits U.S. interests against its traditional allies is playing out in Colombia. In the wake of the peace accord, that in 2016 aimed to end a 50-year armed conflict with the guerrilla FARC, President Trump’s foreign policy is wielding its weight trying to influence, but its tactics undermine the country’s very own democratic processes.
The main protagonist in this scheme is the outgoing U.S. Ambassador to Colombia Kevin Whitaker, who previously declared U.S. support for Colombia in times of peace. Now Whitaker has become a bitter adversary of the peace agreement.
Colombia is as polarized as the U.S. in the age of Trump, or Britain in the age of Brexit, only that in this case, what divides Colombian society is the support of (or opposition to) the terms of the peace accord. “Was it too lenient?” is the question being debated. Did former President Juan Manuel Santos, internationally renowned for his perseverance and dedication to the peace and distinguished with the Nobel Peace Prize, give the country away to mere drug lords?
According to the University of Note Dame’s Kroc Institute, the officially designated monitoring body of the implementation of the peace accord, the answer is now. Not only did the accord lead to the end of the conflict, but Colombia also succeeded where most other post-conflict agreements fall short, namely in striking the delicate balance between the principles of justice, truth, reparation, and no repetition.
These principles are enshrined in the complex web of jurisdictions that make up the transitional justice system in Colombia, embodied by, among other things, the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP acronym in Spanish). The JEP is key because it seeks justice for the victims of the armed conflict, which to date count over 8.8 million victims, or 18% of the entire Colombian population.
Before leaving office, Santos did everything possible to shield the peace accords from its adversaries. During his tenure, the Colombian Congress approved the statutory law that provides the legal framework for the JEP, and its constitutionality was subsequently assessed by Colombia’s Constitutional Court.
When the JEP’s statutory law was finally declared constitutional by the Court in August 2018, Santos was no longer in power and the draft law was submitted to the office of the new president, Iván Duque, a fierce opponent of the peace accord. Duque objected to the draft law even though the very same bill had already been passed by Congress and declared constitutional by the Court.
President Duque didn’t take this decision lightly. It took him several months to decide, as if he were dragging the decision and pondering the costs and benefits of his next chess move in a tournament that had just begun for him. Finally, this past March, Duque announced that he was presenting six objections to the statutory law of the JEP.
His supporters claim the objections are legal and in line with Duque’s campaign promise to put the brakes on the implementation of the peace accord. However, an increasingly vocal opposition protests that objecting to a law already approved by Congress and endorsed by the Courts undermines the fundamental separation of power, weakens the legitimacy of the JEP and puts the implementation of the entire peace accord at risk.
After Duque’s announcement, all eyes were set on Congress, which was to debate the objections presented by the executive power. In the midst of this controversy, a new figure emerged on stage: U.S. Ambassador Whitaker.
Whitaker had already made public the U.S. discontent with the JEP and expressed his support for Duque’s objections. The Ambassador’s interpretation of the transitional justice system established in the peace accord is that it jeopardizes the extradition agreement between Colombia and the U.S., letting regular drug lords off the hook.
In fact, the peace accord establishes that crimes that occurred during the time of the armed conflict (and until the peace accord was signed )would indeed fall under the jurisdiction of the JEP, as opposed to the regular courts, and that extradition would be an option only for crimes that the JEP sends to the regular courts or crimes committed after the peace accord was signed.
The common contradictions of the Trump administration also surfaced in Colombia. While Whitaker publicly expressed U.S. support to President Duque’s objections to the JEP’s statutory law, the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Jonathan Cohen, had a different view and expressed full support to the JEP.
In his biography of Santos, journalist María Jimena Duzán, wrote that Whitaker was uncomfortable with parts of the peace accord and that Whitaker felt he was treated as an outsider and sidelined during the negotiations, mainly because President Obama named Bernard Aronson as a US special envoy to the negotiations. Aronson later lamented that there was a loss in not having someone of high level to oversee the implementation of the accords.
Most recently, Whitaker resorted to other, more material means to make his wishes known.
Over the last month, Colombian journalists documented Whitaker’s moves to pressure members of Congress to accept the objections presented by President Duque.
It started with invitations by the Ambassador’s office to members of the Senate and House of Representatives for private breakfasts where the Ambassador expressed his disagreement with the JEP. Subsequently, similar invitations were sent to members of the Constitutional Court, but the magistrates declined the invitation, fearing it would be wrongly perceived by the public.
The latest move by Whitaker to pressure members of Congress and the courts came last week, when the U.S. Embassy abruptly canceled the visas of at least three magistrates of the high courts in Colombia: two members of the Constitutional Court who lead deliberations on
the legal scope of the peace accords, and one member of the Supreme Court who decides on extraditions. Simultaneously, the U.S. Embassy canceled at least four aid programs that were
designed to modernize the Constitutional Court, all previously signed by the embassy.
Congressmen John Jairo Cárdenas, who participated in the breakfast invitation with Whitaker and criticized Whitaker’s insistence to accept Duque’s objections, also miraculously had his U.S. visa canceled.
It is quite extraordinary that the defense of political interests would be played out at the individual level—that a U.S. Ambassador, in trying to influence lawmakers and judges in a foreign country, would resort to withholding or canceling visas.
In the meantime, the Colombian Constitutional Court declared that the division of powers and the independence of the judiciary are at risk in Colombia. Various members of Congress and former peace negotiators have denounced Whitaker’s interference in the justice system and even asked the assistance of the UN to protect members of the high courts.
The U.S. Embassy stated that it does not comment on individual visas and that it retains the authority to grant or withdraw visas without explanations.
The greatest irony of all is that while the U.S. is basically blackmailing Colombian lawmakers, the U.S. is enthralled by the ongoing debate about the Mueller Report and the interference of a foreign power in its elections. However, the current Trump administration and its representative in Colombia seem not to find much fault in such a thing.
Luis Ortiz is the co-founder and director of Voces, a Spanish-speaking podcast for political dialogue and commentary on Latin American affairs launched with the support of the McCourt School of Public Policy, Georgetown University. Twitter @voceslatamerica