Colombia’s President Duque should cancel Russian helicopter contract on his way out the door

Colombian President Iván Duque speaks to reporters prior to a meeting with Senate Foreign Relations Committee members at the Capitol on Thursday, March 10, 2022.
Greg Nash
Colombian President Iván Duque speaks to reporters prior to a meeting with Senate Foreign Relations Committee members at the Capitol on Thursday, March 10, 2022.

Although the polls right now do not demonstrate it, history will be very kind to Colombian President Ivan Duque. Similar to other great leaders, he has taken brave, visionary, and difficult steps for the long-term good of Colombia and its people. After the peace agreement with FARC forces that had put Colombia in a civil war for 50 years, President Duque’s administration supported peace-building reintegration processes for over 12,800 former rebels into society. Indeed, Duque led a historic effort welcoming 1.8 million fleeing Venezuelans, giving them the right to work, seek shelter, and pay taxes. President Duque can be very proud that it was his administration that navigated Colombia’s ascension to the OECD, joining the ranks of other upper middle income liberal democracies. Modern Colombia is the success of several presidents, including Duque.

As the Summit of the Americas is set in motion, President Duque should pursue one last statesman-like action: terminate the military services contract for helicopters between Russia and Colombia.

Twenty years ago, Colombia purchased MI-17V-5 Russian military model helicopters. Russian helicopters are the “Chevrolets” of helicopters: relatively inexpensive, fairly reliable and durable. Their ability to fly at much higher altitudes than their competitors and resilience in punishing conditions made them very attractive in anti-drug operations and troop transport and resupply. This was a great asset for the Colombian military when operating in rough conditions. Just like your Chevrolet that relies on “genuine GM parts” Russian helicopters rely on regular maintenance, propriety practices and sensitive service, and therefore require Russian “maintenance crews.” Moreover, the current contract requires periodically sending the helicopters back to Russia for major mandatory overhaul. Military purchases involving contracts with these kinds of maintenance agreements aren’t uncommon. However, given Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the costs of palling around with the Russians has gone up quite a lot and it is time to rethink this partnership.

In the two decades under this contract, Colombia has paid the Russian military over $500 Million for their services. Alexander Denisov, Head of the Marketing Department of Rosoboronexport stated that for over 20 years, this mutually beneficial relationship has resulted in more than 20 Mi-17 helicopters being sold and kept in Colombia. What’s more, Russia has multiple “technical experts” planted in Bogota to keep watch over each helicopter.

Some Colombian government officials who find these helicopters useful may be reluctant to end their use. Ending the relationship with Russia will generate some bureaucratic resistance within the Armed Forces and maybe even a little political resistance, especially from some folks on the far Left.

Colombia is a great country and with great success comes great responsibilities. Colombia should cancel this contract, which contributes to indirectly servicing Russia in the war and provides Russia the opportunity to gather and share intelligence on Colombian soil.

Fortunately, the contract ends this July, giving President Duque an opportunity to take on a hard issue before he leaves office.

President Duque can take a short term hit in exchange for Colombia’s long-term gain. This would be a “gesto de grandeza” to demonstrate solidarity with Ukraine in its hour of need by cancelling the Russian contract as he walks out the door.

U.S. President Truman left office with a low approval rating, but history has been very kind to him, and he is remembered as one of our best presidents. President Duque, like President Truman, will be well remembered as a great statesman in Colombia’s history. Cancelling this Russian contract would be a final demonstration of Colombia’s support for global peace and order.

Daniel F. Runde is a senior vice president and William A. Schreyer chair in Global Analysis at CSIS. He previously worked for the U.S. Agency for International Development, the World Bank Group, and in investment banking, with experience in Africa, Asia, Europe, Latin America and the Middle East.

Tags Colombia Economy of Colombia Foreign relations of Colombia Government of Colombia Iván Duque Politics of Colombia Presidents of Colombia Russia Russian helicopters Russian sanctions United States–Colombia Free Trade Agreement

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