WaPo Editorial: Obama's Cuba Deal Set Bad Precedent for Venezuelan and FARC

Sunday, July 26, 2015
From The Washington Post's Editorial Board:

Tricky negotiations in the wake of the Cuba thaw

AS THE Obama administration has pursued normalization with Cuba, it has been drawn into lower-profile but thorny dialogues with two of Havana’s long-standing clients: the Venezuelan government of Nicolás Maduro and Colombia’s Revolutionary Armed Forces (FARC). The diplomacy has reinforced President Obama’s doctrine of engagement with U.S. adversaries; the Maduro government has repeatedly claimed that the United States is plotting its overthrow, while the FARC has been designated a terrorist organization by the State Department. As in the case of Cuba, however, the results of the dialogues so far have been meager.

In both instances, U.S. officials say, the initiative did not originate in Washington. Mr. Maduro, facing an economic catastrophe, reached out to what he usually calls “the imperium,” while Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, a close U.S. ally, asked that an American envoy join his government’s ongoing peace talks with the FARC. The administration responded by naming a veteran former diplomat, Bernard Aronson, to attend the Colombian negotiations, which are held being in Havana. Mr. Aronson and a senior State Department counselor, Thomas Shannon, separately visited Caracas to meet Mr. Maduro. Last month, Mr. Shannon went a step further, sitting down with Venezuela’s national assembly president, Diosdado Cabello, even though he is the target of a U.S. criminal investigation into drug trafficking by senior Venezuelan officials.

Such contacts can be useful, if they do not lead to one-sided and unwarranted U.S. concessions — the result, in our view, of the administration’s diplomacy with Cuba. The administration’s aims with respect to the FARC and the Maduro regime are the right ones: to push the militants in Colombia to accept the steps needed to complete a peace deal that has been under negotiation for two-and-a-half years, and to induce Caracas to release political prisoners and hold fair elections to its national assembly later this year.

After Mr. Shannon’s meeting with Mr. Cabello, the Maduro government announced a date for elections and released a couple of prisoners — enough for jailed opposition leader Leopoldo López to end a hunger strike that had endangered his life. But the regime still holds Mr. López and scores of other prisoners and has not accepted the international monitoring needed to ensure a fair vote. It appears to hope its half-measures will induce Mr. Obama to name a new ambassador to Venezuela and lift sanctions recently imposed on senior officials.

Mr. Santos’s negotiations with the FARC, meanwhile, have gone backward. The insurgents broke a unilateral cease-fire in April and have since carried out a host of attacks that have infuriated Colombians; 9 out of 10 say in polls that FARC leaders should be tried for their crimes. This month it announced a new cease-fire, Yet, rather than agree on a plan for transitional justice, the main sticking point in the talks, the FARC is demanding that the United States release a top leader serving a sentence in a U.S. prison. Mr. Obama’s agreement to free Cuban spies held in the United States probably encouraged that bid.

Therein lies the problem: With one eye on Havana, the FARC and the Maduro regime appear to regard the Obama administration as a potential source of easy favors. Unless they are disabused, U.S. diplomacy is unlikely to do much good.