President Donald Trump's plan to cut funding for the State Department and overseas aid may face a test on Thursday when he meets Colombia's president Juan Manuel Santos at the White House to discuss U.S. support for that country's ambitious post-civil war peace process.
Santos is expected to ask Trump to fulfill a $450 million pledge made by former President Barack Obama to support the government's peace deal with Colombia's largest leftwing rebel group, the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia).
Colombia enjoys bipartisan support in Congress and is considered one of the U.S.'s most steadfast allies in the hemisphere. The peace funds were recently included in Congress' 2017 budget, though Trump has yet to say if that will also be the case in his own budget due to be released later this month.
"Circumstances in Washington certainly have changed and Trump is not bound by anything his predecessor has agreed to," said Eric Farnsworth, a Latin America expert at the Council of the Americas.
The money is part of a multi-billion dollar effort to reform and develop rural Colombia, known as "Paz Colombia" ("Peace Colombia") and follows the historic decision to end the 52 year-old conflict that left an estimated 260,000 people dead, and displaced millions more from large swaths of battle-torn countryside.
For the last 15 years Colombia has been the largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid in Latin America, money which is credited with helping the country professionalize its once lackluster armed forces in order to successfully combat drug traffickers and the leftwing guerrilla threat.
It marks a step up from the $360 million Colombia received last year, though way off the $700 million it received annually a decade ago under a previous pacification strategy known as Plan Colombia, in place during the Clinton and Bush administrations.
The increase is due to the challenge the country now faces after signing the peace deal with the FARC in November, and is designed to help jump-start a massive rural development effort to help wean farmers off the coca plant used to produce cociane, the profits of which played a major role in financing the civil war.
"The peace deal generally gets good marks, if it is actually implemented as written," said Adam Isacson, a veteran observer of Colombia with the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA). Given the enormous challenges faced by decades of coca cultivation and armed conflict, Isacson and others are adopting a "trust and verify" approach.
Unlike Plan Colombia, which was heavily devoted to military funding, Isacson says the new peace effort is "the first majority non-military, non-police aid package to Colombia, perhaps ever. That's pretty remarkable."
The ambitious initiative includes spending for roads, irrigation, health and education, as well as satellite mapping of the countryside. For decades, the guerrillas and peasant groups have complained of rural abandonment by the state, which has failed to provide basic services in many areas.
Colombian officials counter that the guerrillas made access to remote rural areas almost impossible, while also acknowledging the challenging topography of Colombia, large parts of which are dominated by sparsely populated mountain ranges, vast grassy plains and inhospitable jungle.
The peace deal is not without its critics, especially among some conservatives led by former Colombian President Alvaro Uribe as well as some members of the U.S. Congress, including Florida Senator Marco Rubio.
Uribe has made several trips to Washington to lobby against Santos’ efforts, including a brief meeting with Trump at his Palm Beach residence, Mar-a-Lago, in April. He also sent a letter to the Trump administration and Congress warning that Colombia was in danger of becoming a leftist authoritarian state similar to Venezuela.
This week Florida Governor Rick Scott wrote a public letter to Trump to express his concerns about the peace process in the name of the 300,000 Colombian residents in his state. Scott asked Trump to raise several issues, including a recent increase in coca production and extradition of "FARC terrorists" to the United States. He also urged Trump to meet Uribe.
Less clear is where Trump stands. He announced early in his presidency that he planned to slash foreign aid as part of a 30 percent cut to the State Department’s budget.
"The peace process is getting more complicated and a lot of discussion lies ahead about whether the U.S. will support sustained funding," said Farnsworth, who points to concerns expressed by some critics about impunity for FARC commanders under the peace deal, as well as the FARC's recognition as a legitimate political party.
"American taxpayer money should never be used to compensate the FARC," Rubio wrote in an opinion column on Wednesday.
After Congress approved the peace funds, Colombian Ambassador to the United States Juan Carlos Pinzón said the money was "critical to support Colombia’s continued transformation and the future of our nation."
The ambassador recalled how a decade ago U.S. funding for Plan Colombia helped turn the war in the government's favor thanks to large funding for military training and equipment, including U.S. attack helicopters.
"Today, Colombia is positioned to take another leap on the path of sustained peace and prosperity," said Pinzón.