When it comes to Colombia, America is in a tough spot

When it comes to Colombia, America is in a tough spot
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The 17-year partnership between Washington and Bogota that saved Colombia from becoming a failed narco-state is a bipartisan success story that has endured political transitions in both countries.

But this high-flying partnership may be about to hit choppy air. At a time when President TrumpDonald John TrumpThe Memo: Biden seeks revival in South Carolina Congress eyes billion to billion to combat coronavirus Sanders makes the case against Biden ahead of SC primary MORE’s foreign policy bombast unsettles old allies, and his rhetoric about immigration complicates relationships with our Spanish-speaking neighbors in the Americas, Colombia is preparing for its first post-peace agreement presidential election this May.

Last week, FARC, the former guerrilla movement turned opposition political party, announced it would boycott the election. And for the first time in a long time, contentious issues between the United States and Colombia are complicating the bilateral relationship

So, it was both smart and timely for U.S. Secretary of State Rex TillersonRex Wayne TillersonTrump lashes out over Kelly criticism: 'He misses the action' Timeline: Trump and Romney's rocky relationship Top Democrat demands Barr recuse himself from case against Turkish bank MORE to stop in Colombia this week and underscore that we see the country as “a partner who shares our democratic values.” Unfortunately, he failed to mention the peace process, or the government’s success in ending the longest running war in South America, an inexplicable omission, given that more than 200,000 Colombians were killed in the conflict and the United States has invested over $10 billion to fight narco-terrorism.

Instead, Tillerson focused on two difficult issues which underscore the new tension in the bilateral relationship: coca production and trade. Not long ago, the United States and Colombia envisioned a day when coca production wouldn’t define the bilateral relationship. As we moved from Plan Colombia to Paz Colombia, a new era seemed to beckon.

But drugs are back center stage. Coca production in Colombia is at its highest level in two decades. According to the latest Colombia Cultivation Survey, coca cultivation increased by 52 percent between 2015 and 2016, with more than 360,750 acres dedicated to growing the plant.

The key to staunching the cocaine trade will be to surge Colombian government resources and presence into former areas controlled by the FARC. Effective implementation of the peace accord will be key and will require greater commitment on the part of the government of President Juan Manuel Santos, as well as continued U.S. assistance.

Colombian Vice President Oscar Naranjo characterized his last trip to Washington as successful simply because he didn’t leave with an explicit request to resume coca eradication by aerial fumigation. President Trump’s threat last week to cut foreign assistance to countries that supply illegal drugs was received in Bogota as an insult to an ally, and a barrier to cooperation, a perception Tillerson worked to assuage with his visit.

If coca represents the past Colombia has worked so hard to escape, then trade and economic opportunity offer the promise of a bright future which the United States always pointed to as the light at the end of Colombia’s tunnel. But the trade agenda has stalled. U.S. Trade Representative Robert LighthizerRobert (Bob) Emmet LighthizerGOP senator warns quick vote on new NAFTA would be 'huge mistake' Pelosi casts doubt on USMCA deal in 2019 Pelosi sounds hopeful on new NAFTA deal despite tensions with White House MORE has documented multiple commercial violations by Colombia over the past year involving sectors ranging from trucking to pharmaceuticals, where the Health Ministry has created confrontation over patents for Hepatitis C medicines, to mobile devices. Colombia’s barriers to trade contributed to a reduction of U.S. exports to Bogota by $3.2 billion, almost 20 percent, from 2015 to 2016.

Colombia is also currently under review for multiple U.S. intellectual property violations in its domestic market, risking placement on the U.S. Trade Representative’s Special 301 Report “priority list,” a designation reserved for countries that systematically commit grievous intellectual property violations.

These issues are a problem not just for the United States, but for Colombia, which faces an upcoming vote of accession into the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Colombia needs to be seen as an investor-friendly destination for capital. Tillerson’s support for Colombia’s accession to the OECD and his commitment to help with the “technical issues” required to get there sent a very positive message, but helping Colombia see the virtue in following through, not backsliding, on its trade commitments will require sustained focus.

Considering the perfect storm of factors alive today in the bilateral relationship — a rise in coca production, Trump’s unfortunate threats about cutting economic assistance, and backsliding by Colombia on free trade — the path ahead is far from clear.

At a time when the United States is losing its most revered Western Hemisphere expert, Under Secretary of State Thomas Shannon, and senators are blocking confirmation of a senior veteran foreign service officer, Joseph Macmanus. as U.S. ambassador to Colombia, we can only hope that deft diplomacy and purposeful planning can help navigate a bumpy period.

In the months ahead as Colombia goes to the polls to choose a president in a boisterous democracy, Secretary Tillerson has his work cut out for him. He needs to herd cats in the Senate for his ambassadorial nominee, and he needs to work with the U.S. Trade Representative to craft a reasonable and fair approach. Most important, he needs somehow to holster an itchy Twitter finger that resides in the White House. We should all hope he succeeds.

David McKean is a former U.S. ambassador and former director of policy planning at the U.S. Department of State.

David Wade served as chief of staff to U.S. Secretary of State John KerryJohn Forbes KerryDemocratic insiders stay on the sidelines in 2020 race 70 former senators propose bipartisan caucus for incumbents John Kerry: Democratic debate 'was something of a food fight' MORE and for the U.S. Department of State.