Relations with the United States

Colombia Table of Contents

Although Colombia and the United States had cordial and friendly relations during the nineteenth century, relations were strained during the first two decades of the twentieth century as a result of the involvement of President Theodore Roosevelt's administration in the Panama revolt. Despite the diplomatic strain, economic ties with the United States were of great importance to Colombia even in the early twentieth century. The United States was the major market for Colombia's leading export and source of revenue: coffee.

In the early 1920s, Colombian president Marco Fidel Suárez (in office 1918-21) advocated a doctrine called Res Pice Polum (Follow the North Star), which linked Colombia's destiny to that of the "North Star," the United States, through geography, trade, and democracy. Colombia's powerful coffee exporters were particularly fond of the doctrine. Enrique Olaya Herrera, Colombia's first Liberal president of the century (in office 1930-34), reaffirmed the Northern Star doctrine, but Colombia did not fully embrace it until the nation enthusiastically received United States president Franklin D. Roosevelt's Good Neighbor Policy.

A United States agreement to provide a military training mission and a 1940 bilateral trade agreement strengthened pre-World War II relations between Bogotá and Washington. Colombia's position as a close ally of the United States became evident during World War II. Although Bogotá's commitment to the Allied cause did not entail the sending of troops, Colombia's strategic position near the Caribbean and the Panama Canal and its pro-United States stance within the region were helpful to the Allied nations.

Colombia's relations with the United States were somewhat strained during the late 1940s and throughout most of the 1950s because of the pro-Catholic Conservative government's persecution of the nation's few Protestants, who were also PL members, during the early years of la violencia and the dangers posed by the internal disorders to United States nationals living in Colombia. Nevertheless, Colombia's partnership with the United States prompted it to contribute troops to the UN Peacekeeping Force in the Korean War (1950-53). Colombia also provided the only Latin American troops to the UN Emergency Force in the Suez conflict (1956-58).

Colombia became one of the largest recipients of United States assistance in Latin America during the 1960s and early 1970s. Much of the United States aid was designed to enable Colombia to ease its external balance of payments problems while increasing its internal economic development through industrialization, as well as agrarian and social reforms. Nonetheless, Colombia failed to implement significant reforms. By the late 1960s and early 1970s, many Colombian policy makers had become disenchanted with the Alliance for Progress--a program, conceived during the administration of President John F. Kennedy, that called for extensive United States financial assistance to Latin America as well as Latin American support for social change measures, such as agrarian reform--and with United States economic assistance in general. Many felt that Colombia's economic dependence on the United States had only increased. By 1975, however, the United States was purchasing only 28 percent of Colombia's exports, as compared with 40 to 65 percent during the 1960s. In 1985 the United States accounted for 33 percent of Colombian exports and 35 percent of Colombian imports.

Although Colombia voted fairly consistently with the United States in international security forums, such as the UN General Assembly and Security Council, its willingness to follow the lead of the United States within the inter-American system had become less pronounced by the mid-1970s. In 1975 President López Michelsen resumed diplomatic relations with Cuba. He also refused further American economic assistance to Colombia and terminated funding from the United States Agency for International Development, complaining that his nation's unhealthy economic dependency resulted from foreign aid. Other indicators of López Michelsen's independent stance included his refusal to condemn Cuban intervention in the Angolan civil war, his willingness to recognize the new Marxist government in Angola, and his support for Panama in its desire to negotiate a new canal treaty with the United States.

During the first half of his administration, President Turbay continued Colombia's policy of nonalignment. He demonstrated the nation's foreign policy independence in 1979 when his foreign minister, along with the foreign ministers of other Andean countries, recognized Nicaragua's Sandinista guerrillas as a belligerent force.

The Turbay government retreated from its nonaligned policy course, however, after becoming concerned about the ideological direction of the Sandinista government in Nicaragua, Nicaragua's territorial claims to Caribbean islands long held by Colombia, and Cuba's support of the M-19 in early 1981. Turbay reestablished close relations with the United States. A fervent anticommunist, he became the most outspoken Latin American leader affirming the thesis of United States president Ronald Reagan that Cuba and Nicaragua were the principal sources of subversion and domestic unrest in Latin America. Bogotá suspended diplomatic relations with Havana after the government of Fidel Castro Ruz admitted that it had supported M-19 guerrilla activities. The Turbay government condemned the rebel movement in El Salvador, strongly criticized the joint declaration by France and Mexico in 1981 that called for a negotiated settlement of the Salvadoran insurgency, and strongly supported the provisional government in El Salvador headed by José Napoleón Duarte Fuentes in 1981 and 1982. During the 1982 South Atlantic War between Argentina and Britain in the Falkland/Malvinas Islands, the Turbay government, along with the United States, abstained on the key OAS vote to invoke the Inter-American Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance (Rio Treaty). After the war, Colombia remained one of the few Latin American countries still willing to participate with the United States in joint naval maneuvers in the Caribbean. Colombia also sent troops to the Sinai in 1982 as part of the UN Peacekeeping Force required by the 1979 Treaty of Peace Between Egypt and Israel.

Turbay's good relations with Washington contributed to the resolution of a longstanding territorial problem between the two countries: the status of three small, uninhabited outcroppings of coral banks and cays in the Caribbean. Under the Quita Sueño Treaty, signed on September 8, 1972, the United States renounced all claims to the banks and cays--Banco de Quita Sueño, Cayos de Roncador, Banco de Serrana--without prejudicing the claims of third parties. The United States Senate, however, did not ratify the treaty until 1981. In the meantime, the new Sandinista government-- emboldened by the extended delay--revived Nicaragua's longstanding claim in December 1979 over the reefs, as well as the San Andrés and Providencia archipelago, located about 640 kilometers northwest of Colombia's Caribbean coast. To emphasize its claimed sovereignty over the Isla de San Andrés, Colombia began building up a naval presence on the island, including an arsenal of Exocet missiles.

During his campaign for president in 1982, Betancur gave no indication that he intended to transform Colombia's foreign policy. His only foreign policy statement was a promise, which he made repeatedly, that he would not normalize relations with Cuba. Shortly after assuming the presidency, however, Betancur steered Colombia away from support of the Reagan administration's Latin American policies and toward a nonaligned stance. Betancur reversed Turbay's anti-Argentine position on the South Atlantic War and called for greater solidarity between Latin America and the Third World. In 1983 Colombia, with the sponsorship of Cuba and Panama, joined the Nonaligned Movement, then headed by Castro.

Betancur also urged an end to all foreign intervention in Central America in order to prevent the region from becoming a zone of East-West conflict. At the same time, he was critical of what he viewed as United States attempts to isolate Cuba and Nicaragua from peace efforts in the region, its growing "protectionist" trade policies, its unwillingness to increase its contributions to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), and its failure to do more to reduce the North American demand for drugs. Confronted with Colombia's financial problems, however, by 1985 Betancur had abandoned his nationalistic rhetoric on the debt and drug issues, adopted strict austerity measures to deal with his government's financial crisis, and cooperated more closely with the United States in the antidrug trafficking campaign. As a result, the United States supported Colombia's debt renegotiations with the IMF and the World Bank.

In his first year of office, Barco adopted a more pragmatic approach to foreign relations, returning Colombia to a lower profile in international politics. Colombia was fourth among the Nonaligned Movement's 100 members in voting with United States positions in international forums. Colombian-United States relations in the late 1980s were regarded as generally excellent, with minor differences confined to Colombia's antidrug trafficking efforts, its support of the August 1987 Central American Peace Agreement initiated by Costa Rican president Oscar Arias Sánchez, negotiations of new coffee and textile agreements, and Bogotá's refusal to condemn Cuba for its human rights violations.

In the 1970s and 1980s, Colombia's standing as the major source of illegal cocaine and marijuana smuggled into the United States plagued relations between these two countries. Although the bilateral Extradition Treaty Between Colombia and the United States, signed by both countries in 1979, and US$26 million in United States aid helped to produce what Washington considered to be a model antinarcotics program, Betancur initially refused to extradite Colombians as a matter of principle. By mid-term, however, he changed his position after becoming alarmed over the implications for Colombia's political stability of the increasing narcotics-related corruption and drug abuse among Colombian youth and the Medellín Cartel's assassination of Justice Minister Lara Bonilla. In May 1984, following the murder of the strongly antidrug minister, Betancur launched a "war without quarter" against the cartel and began extraditing drug traffickers to the United States. During the November 1984 to June 1987 period, Colombia extradited thirteen nationals--including cartel kingpin Carlos Lehder Rivas-- and three foreigners to the United States. (A United States jury convicted Lehder in May 1988 of massive drug trafficking.)

In a major setback for the antidrug effort, however, the Colombian Supreme Court in June 1987 declared unconstitutional a law ratifying the United States-Colombian extradition treaty. United States authorities had more than seventy extradition cases still pending, including requests for the three principal members of the Medellín Cartel still at large (Escobar, Ochoa, and Rodríguez). The annulment of the extradition treaty resulted from a ruling of the Supreme Court in December 1986 invalidating the treaty's enabling legislation. New enabling legislation signed by President Barco worked only until February 17, 1987, when the eight-member criminal chamber of the Supreme Court refused to rule on an extradition because the treaty was not in force. After the Council of State argued otherwise, the Supreme Court ruled on the matter, voiding the enabling legislation on June 25, 1987. Consequently, the only course left open to the Barco administration was to resubmit the enabling legislation to Congress, which was not eager to act, being caught in the same world of threats and bribes.

The extradition issue came to a head after Ochoa was released from prison on December 30, 1987, prompting the United States to protest. The United States endorsed the Colombian Supreme Court's suggestion that extradition decisions could be made directly by the Colombian government, thereby bypassing the court, under an 1888 treaty between the two countries. Barco's justice minister argued, however, that the old treaty was revoked by the 1979 treaty. In any event, in early May 1988 the Supreme Court rejected the use of existing laws to send more drug traffickers to the United States for trial. The Council of State thereupon suspended the issuing of warrants for the arrests--for the purpose of extradition--of cartel leaders, beginning with Escobar. Consequently, for future extraditions, the Colombian government will have to seek approval through Congress for a new law to validate the 1979 extradition treaty, or dispense with the treaty altogether in order to use the 1933 multilateral Montevideo Convention as the basis for extradition.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress