With peace on the horizon, Colombia’s president asks Obama for aid

As the more than 50-year conflict between the Colombian government and FARC guerrillas nears a possible resolution, President Juan Manuel Santos visited the White House Thursday to ask President Barack Obama for new foreign aid funds to expand health and education services into formerly rebel-controlled areas. Judy Woodruff sits down with Santos to discuss this turning point.

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    Late this afternoon, the White House announced a proposed $450 million aid package for the nation of Colombia. The two countries also agreed to cooperate to combat the Zika virus, now present throughout most of South America.

    The bulk of the proposed funding would go to reinforce a long-running aid public called Plan Colombia with what President Obama dubbed Peace Colombia to cement a peace deal spearheaded by the Colombian president.

    Juan Manuel Santos came to the White House this afternoon at a critical moment in his nation's history: the potential end to Latin America's longest-running war. There have been more than 50 years of fighting between the Colombian government and the revolutionary armed forces of Colombia, the leftist group known by its Spanish acronym, FARC.

    It's led to the deaths of more than 220,000 people, millions more displaced. But after three failed attempts at peace accords, and four years of talks, a deal may be within sight. So far, negotiations hosted in Cuba have yielded agreements on land reform, illegal drug trafficking, prisoner releases, and efforts to find missing persons.

    Ivan Marquez is lead negotiator for the FARC.

  • IVAN MARQUEZ, Lead Negotiator, FARC (through interpreter):

    This peace process has progressed like no other in Colombia. It shouldn't have the armed confrontation as a backdrop, nor the sad death of young uniformed soldiers, policemen and guerrillas. Only in an atmosphere of trust and harmony can we agree on what is needed to reach the final agreement.


    If that happens, the government will need to expand health and education services into rebel-controlled areas. It's a job made more challenging by the emergence of the Zika virus and its link to birth defects. More than 20,000 cases have been confirmed in Colombia, among them some 2,100 pregnant women.

    As a result, Colombian President Santos sought major new assistance from President Obama today.


    Just as the United States has been Colombia's partner in a time of war, I indicated to President Santos, we will be your partner in waging peace.


    Indeed, over the past 15 years, the U.S. has provided almost $10 billion in anti-narcotics and counterinsurgency aid through a program called Plan Colombia. And at the Cuban talks yesterday, a FARC leader urged that the United States contribute to a lasting peace.

  • PASTOR ALAPE, Negotiator, FARC (through interpreter):

    A country that was engaged in the conflict in Colombia should also be engaged in building a new era, with resources for peace, for reconciliation and for the prosperity of all those who suffered, with an emphasis on the victims.


    Now, for both sides in Colombia, the pieces seem to be falling into place. The U.N. Security Council has approved a mission to monitor an eventual agreement, a move that Santos hailed last week.

  • PRESIDENT JUAN MANUEL SANTOS, Colombia (through interpreter):

    The decision taken by the Security Council means that we are no longer alone. We have the hand of the United Nations, of the whole world in ending this war. It's the best guarantee this will happen.


    An overall peace accord could be finalized as early as next month.

    Earlier today, I sat down with President Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia.

    Welcome, President Santos, to the United States.

    You come at what many see as a time of a turning point for your country. Is that how you see it?


    Yes. We have been at war for 50 years, the only and longest armed conflict in the whole of the Western Hemisphere.

    And we're about to sign a peace agreement that will end this conflict, so it is a turning point for Colombia.


    How — Americans have thought of Colombia for decades as a place that is run by drug cartels, racked with internal conflict. It's hard for them to understand how now there may finally be peace with these leftist rebels. How do you explain that?


    Well, there's been a substantial change in Colombia, thanks in many ways to the help we have received from the United States.

    The Plan Colombia, which was launched in the year 2000, was launched was Colombia was on the verge of being declared a failed state. And, as you say, we were a country that was always related to drug trafficking, violence, homicides, kidnappings.

    But, today, the country is fundamentally different. Today, we are leaders in economic growth, leaders in the reduction of poverty, leaders in the region in the creation of employment. Our democracy is working. Our security has improved tremendously.

    And we are about to sign a peace agreement that will open up opportunities that Colombia had never imagined, because most of Colombians have lived during all their lives in a country at war.


    But the deal is not done yet. There are still obstacles that have to be overcome. And how do you reintegrate these fighters who have spent years and years thinking of themselves as opposing the government? How do you reintegrate them into normal society?


    We have experience, because we have reintegrated more than 50,000 combatants, the former paramilitaries and members of the guerrillas. We have demobilized them and reintegrated into society.

    There is a process, even a psychological process. Many times, they have to go back to school, kids that only know how to shoot. They were born in the guerrilla camps. And these have to be retrained and reeducated. And there's a process. It's cumbersome. It's difficult, but it's necessary.


    You're also asking that this group, FARC, this — these rebel fighters, be removed from the U.S. list of terror groups.

    How do you justify giving a pass to people who are responsible for countless deaths, what is it, several hundred thousands deaths in your country, not to mention their role in drug trafficking, cocaine production? How do they deserve forgiveness?


    First of all, we're not going to forgive them. The most responsible will be subject to transitional justice. They will be investigated. They will be judged. They will be condemned, and they will be sanctioned.

    This process is a process with no impunity. And we have been taking a lot of care that this is the case. Now, we're trying to end a war, a war that has cost more than 250,000 people dead, more than seven million people displaced. And we have to make the transition to peace.

    So you have to strike a balance. And that's what I think we have found, a correct balance. A peace agreement is never perfect. Always, you have people from one side or the other criticizing it.


    But I know you know, Mr. President, that you have people in Colombia, people here in Washington who are saying they are troubled by the idea that not only will they not face serious retribution, but they — this actually will strengthen them, and that they could come back to commit terror again in the future.


    No, because, if they do that, they will be — they will lose all the benefits. They will go to prison through ordinary justice, 50, 60 years in prison. They know that.

    And that's why I am sure they will take very good care of not continuing their criminal activities. But what we want is to finish the war. We are sitting down with them from a position of strength. Ten or 15 years ago, this would have been impossible. But I think my country deserves to have peace after 50 years of war.


    The United States has already given Colombia, what, $10 billion over a number of years, so-called Plan Colombia, you mentioned. You're asking for more money from the U.S.

    This is at a time when, yes, there may be the peace deal, but there's still a serious problem in your country with cocaine production, drug trafficking, other issues. What is the rationale that the U.S. should continue to give money to Colombia?


    Well, Plan Colombia is probably the most successful bipartisan foreign policy initiative that the U.S. has launched in the recent past, in the past decades. It's very successful.

    We were a country that was destroyed, the worst recession ever, on the verge of being declared a failed state. Today, we are a flourishing democracy. We have a strong economy. We have progressed tremendously. So, those are the results of Plan Colombia.

    Now, Plan Colombia allowed us to and is allowing us to finish the conflict. And I think this is the cherry on the cake of this policy. Now we have to — together — and Colombia is the most important, and I call it strategic partner, that the U.S. has south of Rio Grande.

    So, now the U.S. wants to help us in the construction of peace. You end the conflict, and you start constructing peace. And that's why the cooperation of both countries, because don't forget 95 percent of Plan Colombia was financed by our own resources.


    Is there anything hopeful, quickly, to be said, Mr. President, about drug, cocaine production, exportation, the drug, frankly, crisis that still exists in Colombia, and as it affects the Americas?


    Oh. Well, we have diminished the number of families that are dedicated to the cultivation of the coca crops by two-thirds. And we have caught — we have interdicted more cocaine, for example, last year than ever before.

    We have learned how to dismantle the big drug cartels. But if you continue to demand the cocaine here in the United States or in Europe, you will always have somebody to supply that.


    Fair point about the demand.

    Just finally, Mr. President, you have a new worry with the Zika virus. There's something like 20,000 cases, as we reported, in your country, 2,100 women who are pregnant with this virus.

    How are you managing this? How concerned are you?


    I am very concerned, because this is, for us, something new. It's new for the world. We know very little about the Zika consequences.

    We now have some evidence that a pregnant woman might give birth to babies with a very serious — a very serious illness, which is the microcephaly. We have some evidence that this might produce an illness called Guillain-Barre in normal persons.

    To what extent, how many people that are infected by the illness will have these consequences, we still don't know. There was a meeting, an emergency meeting of all the health ministers in Uruguay two days ago. We are monitoring the situation very closely.

    And this is one of the subjects that we are also cooperating with the U.S. to see if we can do more research on this type of illness to be better prepared for the future.


    We certainly wish you well with that, and as we do every other place that's dealing with it.

    President Juan Manuel Santos, we thank you very much.


    Thank you for this opportunity.

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