Washington’s Missing China Strategy
To Counter Beijing, the Biden Administration Needs to Decide What It Wants
Juan Carlos Pinzón Bueno, Colombia’s minister of defense, is constantly on the move, traveling all over the country to meet with members of the armed forces and citizens as part of his duties. At any given moment, he may be on a military base awarding medals to the wounded in action, in a helicopter surveying a ministry-funded resettlement village for a displaced indigenous tribe, or in a remote rural village once ravaged by rebel violence, inaugurating five miles of road rebuilt by the Army Corps of Engineers.
But I met Pinzón Bueno—or Pinzón, following Colombia’s customary surname shorthand—in Bogotá. His office at the ministry was simply furnished and decorated with a set of flags—the national flag and the flags of the country’s armed forces and police. His office overlooks the ministry’s courtyard, over which hundreds of military and civilian employees traverse on a daily basis.
Born into a middle-class family whose legacy of military service spans 120 years, Pinzón said that his parents assumed that he would continue in the family tradition. But he said that as long as he could remember, he had always wanted to be minister of defense. He said with a smile that when his parents learned of his goal, “They didn’t believe me.”
In September of 2011, Pinzón, at age 40, after working in various capacities in the public and private sectors, was appointed by President Juan Manuel Santos, becoming the country’s youngest minister of defense. He has remained in office longer than any other minister of defense in Colombia’s history. That is due in part to President Santos’ confidence in him, which has trumped the anti-Pinzón stance of FARC and the far left.
“We continue the war effort and by doing so, our people are the country’s architects for peace.”All previous presidential administrations have failed to conclusively negotiate a peace agreement with FARC, but it appears now that some progress is being made in the talks, which are held in Havana. Since the peace talks began in 2012, Pinzón has stressed that the Colombian Armed Forces, which he oversees, were responsible for greatly debilitating FARC and thus for bringing the group to the negotiating table. For example, government forces have taken back most of country’s territories once under FARC control and forced the rebel group to retreat into the treacherous terrain of the Colombian mountains and jungles. The military has also neutralized most of FARC’s key commanders. Pinzón asserts that the FARC currently operates at 30 percent of its original capacity in terms of membership, supplies, and territorial control. According to Ministry of Defense statistics, between March 2014 and March 2015, the FARC’s kinetic operations fell 62 percent, the national rates of homicide decreased by 60 percent, and individual kidnappings went down by 71 percent.
Yet Pinzón looks forward to the day when his role will be less about waging war and more about protecting the peace. “I would like to explain what we do here”—at the Ministry of National Defense—“the way I explain it to my kids: we are all about our troops and police, protecting our nation, and bringing Colombia to the point where it is a mid-level power—a peaceful one, a prosperous one, one which is democratic and free-market oriented,” he said. “We continue the war effort and by doing so, our people are the country’s architects for peace.”
FARC is not the only guerrilla group that Pinzón must deal with. Just recently, in the northern border region of Norte de Santander, the National Liberation Army (ELN)—a guerilla group with which the Santos administration may soon negotiate a peace deal—had planted a land mine in an elementary school playground that a soldier attempted to deactivate. The mine exploded and the soldier lost both his legs. The ELN perpetrators then allegedly left a leg on the school fence for all to see. Pinzón said to the press, “These human rats … they’ve got but two places to look forward to: a jail cell or a tomb.”
Pinzón has also secured millions of dollars in public funding to fortify rehabilitation centers for the wounded and to increase salaries for members of the Armed Forces and the National Police.Soon after, the ELN Commander, Nicolás Rodríguez, recorded a message on the ELN radio website, RANPAL, claiming that the land mine had been planted in a path frequently used by soldiers and not in a school yard. He also said that there were no ELN members present the day of the explosion and that it was the soldiers who “left the legs on the ground” when they carried their wounded comrade away. Pinzón did not bother to respond. It was just another day on the job.
Officially, Pinzón cannot offer opinions on issues such as the government’s FARC negotiations. “Of course, it is challenging to be a minister of defense during peace talks,” he said. “While I am responsible for national security, I must also support the strategy of President Santos and facilitate the steps to be taken toward peace.” He smiled. “I guess I am in a tough spot right now.”
As minster of defense, Pinzón cannot comment on nor participate in the peace negotiations. Members of the Armed Forces and National Police are also prohibited from publically opining on political matters, including the peace talks. As such, it is difficult to maintain morale among troops that continue to make sacrifices on the frontlines of the conflict. But Pinzón does the best he can. “I continue to tell [the troops] that it is their efforts that have weakened FARC to the point that they have been forced to the negotiation table,” he said. Pinzón has also secured millions of dollars in public funding to fortify rehabilitation centers for the wounded and to increase salaries for members of the Armed Forces and the National Police.
Despite the ongoing challenges of maintaining national security and the uncertainty surrounding the eventual outcome of the peace talks, Pinzón is optimistic about his country’s outlook. He is certain that Colombia will play an increasingly important role in the region in the coming years. From the military point of view—thanks in part to Plan Colombia, the $9 billion military and humanitarian aid program first approved during the Clinton administration—the Colombian military has already been sharing its experience and expertise with other nations. To date, it has trained over 24,000 members of the armed forces of 60 countries around the world in counterinsurgency, counter-drug trafficking, and humanitarian assistance, for example.
But beyond military cooperation and the war against drugs, Pinzón hopes that relations between Bogotá and Washington will strengthen. “First and foremost, we have the shared values of democracy, free markets, and personal liberties,” he says.
Pinzón also thinks that if diplomatic relations were fully normalized between Cuba and the United States, Cuba would finally tone down its anti-U.S. propaganda. So far, the Fidel and Raúl Castro administrations have successfully united insurgent factions and countries within Latin America—at least ideologically—by promoting a shared culture, such as “revolutionary” values, in a way that Washington has not. As a result, Colombia is literally surrounded by countries that not only remain critical of Colombia’s friendship with the United States but are sympathetic to the insurgent groups that once threatened to bring Colombia to its knees. Within that context, Colombia’s efforts to maintain strong relations with Washington and heal itself after decades of bloodshed, while in effect standing alone, are quite heroic.
Pinzón argues that, given the region’s abundant natural resources and its geographical proximity to the United States, with its fast-growing Hispanic population, lawmakers in Washington should not underestimate the importance of building a more united Americas with Colombia’s help. “A united Americas could truly prove to be a formidable force for good in the world,” he said. It seemed fitting, then, that after our interview, the Colombian press announced that Pinzón will soon be the new ambassador to the United States.