Plan Colombia: A geopolitical and bipartisan triumph

One could be forgiven for opting to turn a blind eye to current events these days. After all, it certainly seems that political partisanship is capable of hijacking any issue of consequence, domestic or foreign. But this week provides an important reminder that things haven’t always been this way. That’s because we have the privilege of celebrating what is both the 21st century’s most inspiring international turnaround story and a triumph of U.S. political bipartisanship. Juan Manuel Santos, president of Colombia, will visit Washington to commemorate the success of Plan Colombia, a testament to Colombian national fortitude and arguably the boldest international reconstruction effort undertaken since the Marshall Plan. 

When devised by the administrations of President Bill Clinton and Colombian President Andrés Pastrana, Plan Colombia was the act of a desperate nation teetering on the brink of becoming a failed state. An infusion of U.S. resources was initially deployed to enhance Colombian counter-narcotics capabilities and provide critical security across swaths of the country paralyzed by conflict. Gradual pacification of regions once marred by violence permitted an increasing proportion of Plan Colombia resources to be dedicated to vital institution building. 

{mosads}Subsequently, the Plan laid the foundation for systematic and inclusive economic growth that has lifted millions of out of poverty and made Colombia one of the most dynamic markets in the Western Hemisphere. Since 2000, Colombia’s nominal GDP has nearly quadrupled and its 4.6 percent rate of economic growth in 2014 was among Latin America’s highest. Important to this turnaround was The Andean Trade Preferences Act which eliminated American import tariffs on Colombian products, thus supporting industries that provided legitimate employment alternatives to the narcotics trade.

From the perspective of the U.S. business community, the most significant economic legacy of Plan Colombia is the implementation in 2012 of the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement. In addition to permanently cementing the bilateral trade relationship, the FTA has seen U.S. exports rise 40 percent since its implementation. At the same time, nearly 2,000 Colombian companies – 75 percent of which are small- and medium-sized businesses – have exported to the U.S. for the first time. As President Santos and his government take courageous steps to negotiate an end to the violence, the U.S. private sector has reaffirmed its commitment to being a pivotal driver of investment and economic development in the post-conflict era.

Make no mistake, Colombia’s miracle turnaround is a wholly Colombian triumph of national consensus, resolve and courage. But when Santos graciously conveys the thanks and appreciation to the U.S. of a grateful nation this week, it should also remind us of an exceedingly rare capacity for bipartisanship in our domestic politics we urgently need to make commonplace. Plan Colombia would be but a footnote in history – and Colombia itself very likely a failed “narco” state – were it not for the staunch and unwavering support the Plan has received from both sides of the U.S. political aisle from the outset. The administrations of presidents Clinton, Bush and Obama each grasped the national security imperatives of the strategy and expended critical political capital to assure its success. An otherwise polarized U.S. Congress has authorized more than $8 billion of funding since the initiative’s inception to ensure the survival of both the Plan and a treasured ally. 

So as an alternative to following the political theater of the Iowa caucuses, I ask you to instead turn your attention this week toward the international comeback story of a generation. As we welcome Santos, let’s celebrate the valor and conviction of a resolute Colombian people. Let’s appreciate the magnitude of accomplishment possible from our own political system when it speaks with one resolved, unified and bipartisan voice. And let’s envision a day in the near future when such is the norm rather than the exception.

Bond is vice president for the Americas at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

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