Colombia’s new leader has a tough road ahead, and Obama holdovers aren't helping

Colombia’s new leader has a tough road ahead, and Obama holdovers aren't helping
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On Sunday, Colombians lined up to vote for the next president.  The candidates — Gustavo Petro and Ivan Duque — presented two diverging paths for Colombia. One, a retreat to darker days, and the other, a path forward for Colombia. Thankfully, Colombians voted against socialism and opted for change in President-elect Duque. Now it’s vital that the United States set aside old policies of appeasement and injustice and stand with the Colombian people.

President Duque ran on enhanced security and a business-friendly platform. Most importantly for voters, Duque swore to adjust the 2016 peace accord between the Colombian government led by President Santos and the FARC, a terrorist organization that wreaked havoc on the country and its people for decades.  The deal has been panned by many experts, which effectively allows the FARC a seat at the table without having to face criminal prosecution, and normalizes their criminal cartels as legitimate businesses. As one voter said, “I am voting for Ivan Duque. I want peace but we can’t have it without justice.”

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Similar in world view and substance to former President Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaEx-White House stenographer: Trump is ‘lying to the American people’ Trump has the right foreign policy strategy — he just needs to stop talking The Hill's 12:30 Report — Trump faces bipartisan criticism over Putin presser, blames media for coverage MORE, President Santos focused his work on creating a legacy at any cost rather than securing justice and creating new opportunities for the Colombian people. Despite a vocal outcry against negotiating with the FARC, President Santos pushed forward to win the Nobel Peace prize just like his mentor, Obama, did. Deal-making with terrorists, let alone the FARC, almost left Colombia with a former FARC member as president. This is concerning for Colombia’s allies – like the United States – that are closely monitoring the crises in Venezuela and Mexico, hoping they won’t replicate in Colombia.

 

Colombia is a top ally for the United States, a bulwark against Latin America’s Marxists. However, in the past decade, we have seen U.S.-Colombia relations digress as drug trafficking, corruption, abuse of power and a disintegration of the rule of law have become commonplace. For example, cocaine cultivation is at an all-time high since the days of Pablo Escobar. This is a direct result of not only negotiating with terrorists, but allowing them to legitimize their business activities. 

What’s more, the eight-year reign of Santos has seen an increase in backdoor deal-making at the expense of the rule of law.  Santos has admitted to receiving secret payments in the Odebrecht bribery scandal, in which the scandal-plagued Brazilian construction company is accused of paying bribes to just about every Latin American country.

The scandal has engulfed Santos’s inner-circle, including his former chief of staff, and doubts have swirled around Attorney General Néstor Humberto Martínez since the moment Santos nominated him. Indeed, rather than fighting corruption within, Martinez has chosen to detain and charge an American citizen named Luis Fernando Andrade – widely seen as innocent in Colombia – as a distraction and a scapegoat while leading figures, including Santos himself, go free.

Duque clearly has his work cut out for him. As a result, re-engaging with Washington, and President TrumpDonald John TrumpIran claims it rejected Trump meeting requests 8 times ESPY host jokes Putin was as happy after Trump summit as Ovechkin winning Stanley Cup Russian ambassador: Trump made ‘verbal agreements’ with Putin MORE, will be one of Duque’s biggest challenges as president.

For President Donald Trump, this won’t be easy, either. This re-engagement with a right-of-center government risks failing as the champions of Santos amongst Obama holdovers still have a grip on the U.S. Embassy in Bogota, including Kevin Whitaker, the U.S. ambassador.

Amb. Whitaker seemingly has looked the other way as Santos and his cronies enriched themselves, made backdoor deals with Odebrecht, and targeted an American citizen.  It is time President Trump fight to bring home our fellow American citizen in Colombia, as he successfully did in Venezuela and North Korea.

The Obama-Santos era was a dark time for U.S.-Colombian relations.

The election of President-elect Duque presents a test for the future of the region. Will our biggest ally in Latin America break with the injustices of the Santos-era legacy of dealing with narcos and refrain from rule of law? But the U.S. government has to do its part, clear away our own holdovers, and fully embrace the change that the Colombian people have cried out for and which is strongly in our national-security interest.

As President-elect Duque put it, “This is the opportunity that we have been waiting for … To turn the page on the politics of polarization, insults and venom.” The Duque administration has the opportunity to work together with President Trump and restore relations to new heights.

Charlie Kirk is founder and president of Turning Point USA, a nonprofit that promotes free-market values and limited government.