October 3, 2016
The people of Colombia surprised the world this weekend by narrowly rejecting— by .04%— a peace deal to end the conflict with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. The reasons for the rejection largely revolved around the issue of transitional justice, as the agreement would have granted many rebel fighters amnesty if they confessed their crimes, leaving some Colombians feeling that FARC leaders were escaping justice. While emergency negotiations have been restarted, both sides have vowed that they will not return to fighting.
The turn of events in Colombia highlights the fragile nature of any peace and reconciliation process, especially one with such deep roots and a dark history of kidnappings, murders, and drug trafficking. But a look at the broader trends in Colombia and the larger region highlights something quite different today— a hemisphere without war, major insurgencies, or military regimes. An end to Colombia’s 52 year conflict, whose resolution the U.S. has been deeply involved in through ‘Plan Colombia,’ would not just be a victory for Colombia, but also for the United States.
Promoting Peace and Stability in Our Own Backyards
The Western Hemisphere has seen a dramatic transformation from the civil wars, insurgencies, and conflicts that raged throughout the region decades ago. Latin America has seen vast improvements in economic growth, democratization, and global health. Poverty has declined sharply in the past 20 years from 49 to 31 percent, and infant mortality is down 70 percent since the 1960s.
The cases of Chile and Panama, in addition to Colombia, serve as remarkable examples of how strategic investments in development and diplomacy can yield tremendous gains in economic growth. Today, 25 percent of U.S. exports are shipped to Latin America, with Mexico, Brazil, Colombia, and Chile as our largest trading partners. U.S. exports to Colombia alone have quadrupled to over $16 billion a year, far more than American assistance.
In Chile, U.S. assistance has fueled economic growth and democratic progress over the past decade. Chile has become a major economic player today— its economy has grown from $32 billion to over $240 billion over the past 15 years— joining the OECD in 2010. Today, Chile is a major trading partner with the U.S., and has also become an international aid donor itself.
Similarly, in Panama — where the U.S. invested $1.2 billion over 50 years — the U.S. Agency for International Development recently ended its assistance program, noting that “due to the Government of Panama’s strong economic growth and commitment to development, USAID assistance is no longer needed.”
With the help of U.S. economic assistance, Panama’s economy grew from $2 billion in 1961 to $50 billion in 2015, and the percent of Panamanians living in extreme poverty has declined from 23 percent to 7 percent since 2002. Today, the U.S. exports nearly $8 billion in goods to Panama each year, producing a net trade surplus of over $7 billion.
Looking Towards the Next Administration
At a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing this year, witnesses called on the U.S. government to “seize the moment to deepen ties with Latin America” to advance “our mutual economic interest and universal values.” The hearing’s conclusions were clear: both Latin America and the U.S. have benefitted greatly from their close relationship and numerous free trade agreements. But growing challenges today demand invigorated efforts by the U.S. to continue championing the rule of law and promoting growth and stability.
Congress recently approved $750 million for Latin America to address these substantial challenges, including reducing violence in “Northern Triangle” countries, bolstering counter-narcotics efforts, rooting out government corruption, and augmenting economic growth. In Venezuela, the government led by President Maduro is struggling to address political instability, severe food shortages, and a potential humanitarian crisis as the economy continues to contract. To ensure that decades’ worth of achievements are not undone in the face of these threats, the next Administration must continue to expand its engagement and development assistance programs with Latin America.
At last month’s U.N. General Assembly meeting, President Obama stated that these investments are “not just the right thing to do, they are the smart thing to do.” Today, global epidemics, political instability, and economic crises do not recognize national borders, and tackling these threats requires wide-ranging engagement with the world.
By investing in development, good governance, and peace in Latin America, the U.S. is helping to build resilience and promote stability in our own backyard.