On 18 May 2017, United States President Donald Trump and his Colombian counterpart, Juan Manuel Santos, held a press conference to discuss the partnership between the two countries. However, an ongoing investigation into the Trump administration’s alleged ties to Russia and Trump’s broader political agenda threatened to overshadow the appearance.
The United States has been a critical supporter of Colombia’s efforts to fight the communist rebel group the United Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), under the auspices of the controversial Plan Colombia, a partnership that was criticized for focusing too heavily on military solutions, leading to human rights violations.
Last year, President Obama and President Santos announced Peace Colombia, a plan to provide U.S. funding for the post-conflict era in Colombia once a widely-anticipated peace deal was signed. Since then, the peace deal has been strongly challenged in Colombia by a conservative opposition party, and was even voted down in a plebiscite. The peace deal has since been ratified, but the future is still uncertain. Many fear an uptick in violence as the FARC leaves their jungle camps to lay down their arms, and other groups jockey for control.
In his remarks on 18 May, President Trump did not mention the peace deal. He took the opportunity to speak out against drug trafficking and plug his promised border wall with Mexico. Trump also spoke about the Salvadoran gang MS-13, which he said was being “decimated” by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and would be “gone very quickly.” Trump referred to eradicating “coco production,” a gaffe that went unmentioned.
Trump’s failure to mention the peace process did not appear to ruffle Santos, who noted that Congress had already approved a budget with the funding for Peace Colombia that had been proposed during the Obama administration. That news may have been a welcome relief for Santos. In January, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson declined to voice his support for the peace process. And in late April, Trump was rumored to have met with Santos’s chief political opponents, who oppose the peace process.
Later, when asked directly about the peace process, Trump said that he thought Santos had “done a fantastic job.”
Santos -- who one day prior urged the U.S. to stop focusing on drugs and instead work on eradicating criminal networks -- was careful to tie the peace process to the drug war. He said his administration was taking a “carrot and stick” approach -- not only eradicating coca plants, but offering farmers the opportunity to plant substitute, legal crops. “This is the first time that this could be done because of the peace,” Santos said, noting that previously the conflict had prevented building roads to the areas where coca is grown. Santos also brought up human trafficking and illegal mining, which he said are practiced by the same networks that traffic drugs.
The two presidents also said they had discussed the ongoing crisis in Venezuela, which shares a border with Colombia.
Trump said, “The president was telling me -- and I knew -- that Venezuela was a very very rich country, one of the richest countries in your neck of the woods,” before discussing how Venezuela’s oil riches have not led to widespread prosperity for Venezuelans, many of whom now lack sufficient food and critical medical supplies.
The presidents also announced that they had agreed to form an “Entrepreneurial Council” to bolster business cooperation between the two countries.
Trump also faced repeated questions from reporters about the recent appointment of a special prosecutor to look into his administration’s alleged ties with Russia and his controversial firing of James Comey, the FBI director who was leading an investigation into those ties. Trump denied having colluded with Russia or telling Comey to end the investigation into his former National Security Advisor, Michael Flynn.
When asked whether he supported Trump’s planned border wall, Santos, who faces very low approval ratings at home, did not answer directly, but focused on the partnership between the two countries. Trump took the opportunity to jump in after what he called Santos’s “very long, very diplomatic answer.”
“Walls work. Just ask Israel,” said the president.