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Obama Ramps Up Aid to Colombia as Peace Deal With Rebels Nears

President Barack Obama shakes hands with Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos during their meeting in the Oval Office of the White House, in Washington, Feb. 4, 2016.
President Barack Obama shakes hands with Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos during their meeting in the Oval Office of the White House, in Washington, Feb. 4, 2016.

President Barack Obama promised Thursday to provide more financial aid and other support for Colombia as its government prepares to finalize a peace deal with left-wing guerrillas it has battled for more than 50 years.

After meeting with Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos at the White House, Obama announced additional funding and other measures he said would help Colombia rebuild after reaching a peace accord with the Marxist rebel group Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.

Negotiations have entered the final stages, and if an agreement is reached, it will end Latin America’s longest-running insurgency. White House officials predict a deal will be finalized in this first part of the year.

After meeting in the Oval Office, the two leaders spoke at a reception to mark the 15-year anniversary of Plan Colombia, a joint initiative started to help end the armed conflict and drug trade in Colombia.

The effort, which spanned presidencies and party lines, has reached “a tipping point,” Obama said. “A country that was on the brink of collapse is now on the brink of peace.”

He announced a framework, called Peace Colombia, marking a “new era of partnership.”

The U.S. leader proposed that more than $450 million be devoted to reinforcing security gains in Colombia, reintegrating former combatants into society and extending the rule of law and opportunities into areas where they had not existed. He also vowed to continue supporting efforts to fight drug trafficking and its effects in both countries.

Removal of mines

As part of global de-mining efforts, the U.S. will also support Colombia as it works to remove every land mine in the country within five years, Obama said.

Santos told the audience, including members of the Colombian delegation and U.S. lawmakers from both parties, “Today, we see the future with hope.”

Santos recalled how 15 years ago, Colombia was in the throes of the worst economic recession in decades and had lost nearly two-thirds of its territory to paramilitary and guerrilla fighters, both supported by drug trafficking.

“We were very close to being declared a failed state,” the Colombian leader said. “We had a very dark and uncertain future.”

He thanked the U.S. for its partnership and noted that Colombia is enjoying economic growth, job creation, reduced poverty, a rising middle class and falling crime rates.

White House officials have said the U.S. still has concerns about human rights, justice for victims and the drug trade in Colombia.

The Obama administration has said it will ask Congress for additional funding in its 2017 budget to help Colombia recover after a peace accord is reached.

“This request will demonstrate our intention to help Colombia successfully implement its peace agreement,” said Mark Feierstein, the National Security Council senior director for Western Hemisphere affairs.

In Colombia, both government and rebel negotiators have been meeting in Havana for months to close in on a peace deal during talks sponsored by Norway and Cuba. Santos has set a March deadline for reaching a treaty.

The White House said the relationship developed under Plan Colombia had allowed the two nations to expand collaboration in “new areas of mutual interest,” including the fight against the spread of the Zika virus.

The two nations agreed to intensify collaboration, speed up probes into the effects of the Zika virus, and conduct joint research to help diagnose, treat and control the virus.