WASHINGTON (AP) – On the verge of an historic truce, the leader of Colombia will ask President Barack Obama for more money and tweaks to U.S. policy to help Colombia rebuild after half a century of guerrilla fighting.
Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos arrives at the White House on Thursday amid peace talks between his government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. With a final deal expected as early as next month, the government is looking ahead to a decade-plus effort to recover parts of the country it had lost to the guerrillas during Latin America's longest-running armed conflict.
Ahead of the meeting, White House officials said Obama planned to ask Congress for increased aid for Colombia in his budget proposal next week. The Obama administration hasn't put a number on the request, but Colombia's government has said spending will have to surge after a deal so that roads, schools and health care facilities can be rebuilt in blighted areas that had been ceded to the FARC.
"We recognize in the event of a peace agreement, one of the biggest challenges will be to demobilize the FARC and ensure their reintegration into society as constructive members," said Mark Feierstein, the Western Hemisphere director at the White House's National Security Council. "We intend to put a lot of support into that effort."
Santos brings another request with him to the Oval Office: the removal of the FARC from the U.S. list of terrorist groups, if and when a deal is struck. Just before departing Colombia, Santos told the Associated Press he also wants the Obama administration to suspend drug warrants against guerrilla commanders, many of whom are at the negotiating table in Cuba.
"Any effort by the United States to allow us to apply transitional justice, for example by suspending the arrest warrants, would help us tremendously," Santos said.
Bernard Aronson, the U.S. special envoy to the Colombia peace process, said the U.S. would review the FARC's terrorist designation for possible removal once the group has renounced violence, given up its weapons and ceased hostile actions toward American citizens and interests — but not before.
"How it will end or what the timetable would be would be based on the conditions inside of Colombia," Aronson said.
As part of the peace 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.
The occasion for Santos' visit is the 15th anniversary of Plan Colombia, the $10 billion U.S. effort to fight insurgency and the narcotics trade in Colombia, the staunchest U.S. ally in the region. Although the initiative is credited with helping fight the cocaine trafficking that fueled political unrest in Colombia, it's been criticized for also giving way to human rights abuses. Obama administration officials said the U.S. remained concerned about attacks against human rights advocates in Colombia.
Following an afternoon meeting in the Oval Office, the two leaders planned to attend a reception marking the Plan Colombia anniversary. A key question as Santos headed to Washington was whether he'd be joined there by former Presidents Alvaro Uribe and Andrés Pastrana, who laid the groundwork for ending the conflict but have accused Santos of going too easy on the FARC. The White House said Pastrana planned to attend but that Uribe did not.