A Strong U.S.-Colombia Partnership Must Benefit Both

Let us not make the same mistakes in Colombia previous administrations have committed.

In recent years, Latin America has been undervalued by American politicians and painted as dangerous, unstable, and resistant to foreign support. While there is some truth to these sentiments, countries like Colombia are essential American allies that must not be forgotten by the Biden administration. President Biden claims to have supported Colombia as a Senator and Vice President through his “Plan Colombia,” but some experts argue the Plan took advantage of Colombia’s War on Drugs and resulted in human rights abuses, press suppression, civilian displacement, and increased insurgency warfare. Thus, it would be wise for the United States to scrap Biden’s failed plan for Colombia. Instead of “Plan Colombia,” the next administration should promote an effective, long-term, and mutually beneficial foreign policy that furthers our relationship with a longtime ally. To that end, there are two factors any foreign policy should consider. First, a policy needs to support American businesses seeking to establish themselves in the country. Second, the focus must be on fundamental social infrastructures rather than supporting a Colombian military that risks re-igniting small insurgency factions.

One priority of the revised Colombia policy should be supporting American businesses abroad. Foreign direct investment has lacked for decades because it simply wasn’t safe to invest. The ubiquity of paramilitary groups created a dangerous business environment for any foreign business seeking to establish themselves in the country. Despite this, the United States has played a key role in promoting the Colombian economy through policies like the 2012 U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement. Such policies combined with decent economic policies has allowed Colombia’s economy to grow at a steady rate, never dipping below 2% per year since 2001. But it shouldn’t stop there.

Though there are over two dozen countries in Latin America, Colombia is unique in having five major commercial hubs: Bogotá, Cartagena, Medellín, Barranquilla, and Cali. This diversity offers American exporters a variety of trade and thus, a variety of market opportunities in a range of industries. Companies like 3M, Microsoft, Marriott, and General Motors have established Latin American hubs with the help of grants from the United States Trade and Development Agency (USTDA). These grants provide customs security at ports, making investments into areas like petrochemicals desirable. USTDA also provides strong legal stability for countries seeking to follow a similar route to the above-noted companies. Additionally, airports in the country, specifically Bogotá’s El Dorado International, are undergoing heavy modernization projects which are likely to continue receiving significant monetary investments. The combination of multiple commercial hubs, legal stability, a range of export sectors, and increased modernization makes Colombia an increasingly attractive client to foreign investment by the U.S. Any policy set by President Biden should continue supporting USTDA’s efforts in Colombia. But while foreign direct investment mostly businesses, there are avenues to helping the average Colombian through physical and social infrastructure.

Besides foreign investment, the United States had funded $850 million to Colombia’s National Police Corps (CNPC) by 2000, turning this initially nonpartisan body into a force better equipped than the military itself. As counter-narcotics became the U.S.’s main goal, the CNPC began to assist the military in rural areas, where the illegal narcotics trade mostly occurred. The growing competition between the military and the police allowed paramilitary groups to thrive while civilian displacement and land inequality increased. To best support a U.S.-Colombia partnership, the current administration must recognize this utter failure and instead provide fundamental infrastructure in areas like health, construction, and transportation.

Colombia’s healthcare is one of the best in the world (having been ranked 22nd of 191 countries by the WHO) and must be made accessible for poorer workers seeking to work in American businesses. Providing health insurance would be a long-term solution as American companies would gain legitimacy among Colombians. This benefit is especially attractive to promote the pharmaceutical industry: Colombia’s quality hospitals can partner with pharmaceuticals, making drugs cheaper as well as more accessible. But while healthcare in Colombia receives such high praises, the same cannot be said for its construction and transportation infrastructure. According to the World Economic Forum, Colombia’s road infrastructure ranks 104th out of 141 countries analyzed. This can be attributed to the country’s mountainous geography and rivers, making transportation from rural to urban areas an enduring struggle. The Magdalena River, Colombia’s principal river, used to be a convenient way for steamboats to travel through the country. But today, renovating it poses a daunting challenge as it is silted up, proving it difficult for anything but the smallest boats to pass. If foreign investment in infrastructure like the Magdalena River pans out, it is estimated to triple the flow of cargo. Such improvement would have tremendous effects on the entirety of the country from Bogotá to Barranquilla. An effective foreign policy towards Colombia would account for the potential of Colombia’s construction and transportation infrastructure for American companies.

Colombia, the fastest growing economy in Latin America, must be made a priority for the current White House administration’s foreign policy. A previous foreign policy like Biden’s “Plan Colombia” has only worsened the country’s infrastructure. But ultimately, developing Colombia cannot occur without strong alliances between the government and the private sector. Colombia’s recent history and growth are nothing but a story of ambition, persistence, and purpose. There is no doubt about it: it is time for a new and improved Plan Colombia.

Sam Abodo is the President of The Triple Helix. Outside of The Triple Helix, Sam enjoys reading about foreign policy, playing soccer, and biking in Pittsburgh.

The Triple Helix at Carnegie Mellon University promotes the interdisciplinary nature of public policy, science, technology, and society.