FOCUS: Obama’s Pledge of Additional Aid for Colombia Peace Deal Is in Doubt

WASHINGTON (McClatchy Washington Bureau/TNS) —

Colombians may not be able to count on the Obama administration’s pledge of millions in additional aid to help implement their country’s peace deal.

A lengthy and often dysfunctional U.S. budget process, coupled with a late public vote in Colombia to ratify the agreement, leaves little time for the U.S. Congress to approve the additional funding before President Barack Obama finishes his term.

That means there’s a growing chance that Obama’s Peace Colombia plan, totaling $450 million in assistance, may not be fully addressed until a new administration is in office.

“The calendar is working against it. You’re looking at a very narrow window,” said Eric Farnsworth, a former State Department official who is now vice president of the Washington-based Council of the Americas.

A White House official said the administration was confident that Congress would continue to allocate funding to support peace in the region but noted that the administration was taking steps to repurpose funds should the full $450 million not be approved.

“Departments and agencies are already working with their Colombian counterparts to adapt our assistance so it supports implementation of the peace accords to the extent possible at current funding levels,” said the official, who spoke only anonymously on a sensitive topic in accordance with White House practice.

The Colombian government currently receives $358 million a year under the Plan Colombia aid program and that money is likely to continue if, as expected, Congress passes a resolution in late September to avoid a U.S. government shutdown.

But that would deny, or at least delay, Colombia about $90 million in additional funding that Obama pledged to help carry out the deal to end five decades of bloody combat with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, an insurgency known by its Spanish initials as the FARC.

A ceasefire went into effect Monday in Colombia. But the ceasefire is only the first step in a complicated, years-long peace process that Obama has long supported. The next step is a referendum to approve the agreement, set for Oct. 2.

That schedule dims the chances for the Obama administration to fulfill the pledge of extra dollars that Obama made last February to Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos in the East Room of the White House because it comes after the U.S. Congress is scheduled to have recessed for the final run-up to the November election.

Analysts think the additional funding also won’t be considered by the lame-duck Congress that meets after the election. That session will be consumed with other controversial issues, such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, they say.

Colombia has received $10 billion in aid from the United States since 2000 to combat illegal substances and related violence. Republican and Democratic administrations have supported it.

In February, Obama pledged additional funds to help reintegrate FARC fighters into society and re-establish the rule of law in regions that have been controlled by the rebels. “Just as we did 15 years ago, we intend to bet on Colombia’s success,” Obama said then.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) argues that Congress shouldn’t commit any additional money before the peace deal is approved by the Colombian people. “It is essential that their voices be heard and they now be given the opportunity for a free and fair debate about the merits of this agreement,” Rubio said after the deal was signed last week.

Rubio emphasized the United States should stand by Colombia’s side but that the U.S. shouldn’t lose sight of the FARC’s violent history.

That position also is driving some to oppose Obama’s proposal. U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) for one, has been direct in her opposition to U.S. taxpayers financing a deal with an organization that remains on the State Department’s list of foreign terrorist organizations, regardless of the outcome of the referendum.

“No deal involving a terrorist group such as the FARC and midwifed by the Castro regime should receive any congressional support,” Ros-Lehtinen said. “Any U.S. government ratification of Havana’s newest attempt at deal making which helps the FARC is unacceptable, and American taxpayers should not be on the hook for financing this deal.”

Public approval of the deal in Colombia is far from certain. Polls indicate that a majority support the accord, but there are strong reservations about negotiating with the guerrilla group known for drug trafficking and kidnappings.

Many side with the most outspoken critic, former President Alvaro Uribe, who accuses President Santos of legitimizing the FARC and has argued that allowing former outlaws to legally run for office would permit them to consolidate their power.

Roger Noriega, who served as assistant secretary of State for Western Hemisphere affairs during the George W. Bush administration, said he expected Congress eventually would support giving some new money to Colombia, but not as much as Obama had promised. He said the success of Plan Colombia would likely overcome complaints from detractors that the additional money was funding terrorists.

“This very morning is the first time in 50 years that Colombia has been at peace,” Noriega, who’s now a visiting fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, a research center, said Monday. “It’s going to be really hard to say, ‘That doesn’t matter.’

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