WASHINGTON (AP) – Nudging Colombia toward a peace deal that's finally within reach, President Barack Obama committed the United States on Thursday to helping the battle-scarred nation rebuild after half a century of guerrilla conflict.
Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos came to the White House on the verge of a historic truce with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, that promises to end Latin America's longest-running armed conflict. Facing the daunting task of reconstruction, Santos secured promises of financial help from Obama, who said the U.S. "will be your partner in waging peace."
"In short, a country that was on the brink of collapse is now on the brink of peace," Obama said, hosting Santos for a reception after an Oval Office meeting. "In Colombia today, there is hope."
Obama said he planned to ask Congress for some $450 million in U.S. assistance for Colombia in his final budget, acceding to Santos' request that the U.S. increase its aid to the country this year. He announced that the 15-year-old Plan Colombia, a $10 billion U.S. program to fight insurgency and the narcotics trade, would soon conclude. In its stead, Obama said the U.S. would launch a new program called Peace Colombia aimed at helping reintegrate FARC members into society and expand the government's reach into blighted areas that had long been ceded to the guerrilla group.
The president's bid to shore up an elusive peace accord came at a pivotal time for Colombia, with billions needed in the coming years to build roads, schools and health care facilities as it completes its transformation from violence and chaos to relative stability and prosperity.
For the U.S., it's a moment of reflection, with Plan Colombia's record of helping stabilize the country tainted by a legacy of extrajudicial killings by Colombia's military and human rights abuses the U.S. says are still matters of profound concern.
"We all know that it's easier to start wars than to end them," Obama said. "But after half a century of wrenching conflict, the time has come for peace."
As part of the nascent Peace Colombia, the U.S. will team up with Norway on a de-mining effort aimed at ridding Colombia of land mines within five years. The White House also said the U.S. would partner with Colombia on joint research into the Zika virus, which is little understood but stoking widespread fear as it spreads across Latin America.
Along with appeals for cash, Santos brought another request with him to the Oval Office: the removal of the FARC from the U.S. list of terrorist groups once a deal is struck. As part of the talks, the FARC has renounced kidnapping and declared a unilateral truce while demanding its removal from the terror list, which includes al-Qaida and the Islamic State.
Bernard Aronson, the U.S. special envoy to the talks, said the U.S. would consider removing the FARC once it has renounced violence, given up weapons and ceased hostile actions toward American citizens and interests — but not before.
Although Congress must approve any funds that Obama requests, aid for Colombia has traditionally enjoyed bipartisan support, as the U.S. seeks to promote stability in the country that has become America's staunchest ally in the region. Of the $450 million, about $390 million would be in foreign aid, with the rest of the funds in humanitarian assistance and Pentagon counter-narcotic programs.
Ahead of the visit, Santos didn't disclose the exact sum he was seeking from the U.S., but he appeared satisfied with Obama's offer, which represents an increase over recent years.
Under Plan Colombia, the U.S. provided bombs, intelligence, radio intercepts and military training along with intensive counter-narcotics help. The security gains have been indisputable.
Colombia's government controlled just one-third of the Andean country when the program began in 2000, Santos said. Now the government controls 92 percent, homicide and kidnapping rates have dropped dramatically.
"We were very close to being declared a failed state," Santos said.
Yet blemishes under the U.S. initiative include the continuing assassination of hundreds of union organizers and human rights defenders. Illegal armed groups also grabbed much of Colombia's best land, displacing about 5 million people.
A key question ahead of the visit was whether Santos would be joined by former Presidents Alvaro Uribe and Andres Pastrana, who laid the groundwork for ending the conflict but accuse Santos of going too easy on the FARC. Pastrana attended the White House event but Uribe — who opposes the peace deal — did not.
Though the ink is not yet dry on a peace agreement, the reception had the festive feel of a celebration, with prominent Colombian actors and athletes joining the two presidents in the East Room. Santos, trying his hand at humor, noted that Obama is "the most popular person" in public opinion polls in Colombia.
"That's not true here in the United States," Obama quipped.