Three Points on Congress’ Hearing on Colombia’s Peace Process

Latin America and the Caribbean

On Wednesday, members from the House Subcommittee on Western Hemisphere Affairs held the first congressional hearing on negotiations between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).

Special Envoy to the Colombian Peace Process, Bernard Aronson, and Deputy Assistant Secretary for South America and Cuba, Alex Lee, served as witnesses at the hearing. Subcommittee Chair Jeff Duncan (R-TN) moderated the hearing.

According to Duncan, the U.S. relationship with Colombia is one of the strongest in the hemisphere. Since 2000 the United States has provided Colombia with over $10 billion in security assistance.

President Obama appointed Aronson as the Special Envoy to the Colombian Peace process on February 20th at the request of President Juan Manuel Santos, to sit in on the negotiations and show his support for creating a sustainable peace.

Overall, the majority of the Members of Congress present were in favor of the peace talks, with the exception of Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) and Congressman Matt Salmon (R-AZ) who were more skeptical about the peace negotiations process.

According to Aronson’s statement, after three years of negotiations, the FARC and the Colombian government have reached partial agreement on three of five negotiation points. These include agrarian reform, political participation and illicit drugs. Issues of justice for victims and disarmament remain to be addressed.

Here are the U.S.' top concerns about the peace negotiations from the hearing:

1. U.S. Actors Worried about the FARC’s Will to Disarm

Though significant progress has been made, Aronson said, “It is no secret that the talks are at a difficult point.” Duncan said that since the FARC broke their own ceasefire in May, there have been 150 attacks, which is the highest incidence of violence since 2011, before the peace talks began. But Aronson clarified that although Santos has stepped up Colombia’s military offensive in response to the break of the ceasefire, the peace talks have continued.

Aronson noted that the FARC must decide if they are ready to relinquish their weapons, get out of the illicit drug trade and rejoin society. “If the FARC won’t lay down arms, no peace agreement will be possible,” he said.

Although the United States has requested the extradition of over 60 FARC members, as Duncan noted, Aronson said that the FARC has not requested for any of these members to be de-extradited. Additionally, Congressman Sires (D-NJ) said that there has been positive collaboration towards peace between the FARC and the Colombian army, for example through their agreement to remove landmines. 

2. Strategies for Coca Eradication Remain Controversial

Aerial spraying of coca fields was a controversial tool that the United States pushed as part of its counternarcotic efforts in Colombia, despite its harmful consequences and limited effect on cocaine production. However, last month Colombia suspended the aerial coca eradication program due to rising health concerns after the World Health Organization and other reports concluded that the chemicals used in the program were carcinogenic. Despite skepticism by some members that the halt of aerial spraying would lead to a resurgence of cocaine trafficking, Deputy Assistant Secretary Lee stated that we must “respect the sovereign decision” of the Colombian people.

Congressman Duncan was concerned that the suspension of aerial spraying would allow the FARC to continue using cocaine as a funding source. The obvious alternative to aerial spraying is manual eradication, but it is not as efficient because the process is labor and time intensive, said Duncan.

Duncan also asked about other alternatives to coca eradication, such as alternative crop production programs used in Peru. Aronson said that negotiators are discussing how such a program could be implemented in Colombia.

3. Members of Congress Are Concerned about the Role of Outside Actors in the Peace Negotiations

Aronson said that long-term peace does not only benefit Colombians, but the entire region. Despite allegations made by Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) that the Cuban and Venezuelan governments have aided the FARC and benefited from the group’s activities, Aronson concluded that there is no evidence that Venezuela has played a role in the breakdown of the ceasefire. Because Venezuela receives refugees from Colombia, he said, peace would also be in their best interest.

Congresswoman Ros-Lehtinen was also concerned about the implications of negotiating with the FARC, which the United States lists as a terrorist organization, especially in Cuba, where there are human rights concerns under the Castro leadership. Aronson clarified that he does not “engage bilaterally with the Cubans,” and that the FARC has not requested to be removed from the U.S. terrorism list.

Congressman Engel (D-NY) asked about the role of international bodies in the peace process. Aronson said that there is a need for multilateral bodies to act as outside monitors, but there is no concrete plan yet. Lee noted that thus far, the UN, the OAS, and UNASUR are expected to remain engaged throughout the process via humanitarian support, medical programs and aid to indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities.

Congressmen Duncan and Salmon were also worried about the FARC’s ties with terrorism in the Middle East, especially with Hezbollah and Iran. Lee said, however, that these were not issues at the negotiating table. Salmon was particularly concerned that the peace talks could lead to a bad agreement, similar to his perception of the Iran deal. Aronson was clear that there are big differences between negotiations in Colombia and Iran - for one, “we have [Santos’] support and he has ours.”

What the Hearing Left Out:

Though U.S. cooperation with Colombia is a bipartisan priority in Congress, the hearing did not address concerns by human rights groups and international bodies about abuses committed by the Colombian military itself. It is probably not a coincidence that Human Rights Watch released a 95-page report on the same day of the hearing about extrajudicial military killings in Colombia.

The U.S. State Department itself also expressed concern about extrajudicial military killings as recent as 2014 in its annual human rights report, released June 25.

How state actors who carried out these crimes and others will be punished is a major sticking point in the negotiations on transitional justice. As the Washington Office on Latin America, “The FARC said they would not rule out some sort of confinement for the most serious crimes, as long as similar sentences went to military officers and civilians who committed, aided, and abetted similarly serious crimes.”