In one of his latest displays of undiplomatic impulsiveness, President Donald Trump unexpectedly slammed the closest ally the United States has in Latin America, Colombian President Ivan Duque.
The comments startled Duque and much of Colombia, highlighting the risks to politicians everywhere who align their fates too closely with a president like Trump, who is not only unpopular in their own countries, but who also has a penchant for mistreating Washington’s friends.
The incident occurred on March 29 when Trump was on a visit to Lake Okeechobee in Florida with a group of Republican officials. Trump alluded to Duque, who is in his first year as president and facing a mountain of complicated problems. “Really good guy,” Trump said. “I’ve met him. We had him at the White House.”
But the warm words suddenly vanished when Trump noted that more drugs are coming to the US from Colombia now than before Duque became president; Colombian cocaine production is at record levels. “He said how he’s going to stop drugs,” Trump said, but “he has done nothing for us.”
The words were a jolt to Duque and his administration. Multiple sources said Duque was very upset. The atmosphere in the Casa de Narino, the presidential palace in Bogota, was said to be one of surprise and profound unease.
Colombian Foreign Minister Carlos Holmes Trujillo shot back immediately, underscoring what he called the “principle of shared responsibility,” pointing out that Duque inherited the drug problem and detailing the many steps his administration has taken to tackle it. They include destroying drug labs, introducing crop replacement options for coca farmers, confiscating thousands of tons of cocaine and marijuana, and extraditing scores of drug traffickers to the United States.
As Trump was uttering his piercing words in Florida, Duque was at the Colombia-Venezuela border with the Democratic and Republican leaders of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Duque has become the regional point man for the Trump administration’s efforts to help the Venezuelan opposition topple President Nicolas Maduro’s regime.
Colombia has absorbed, at great cost, about 1.5 million Venezuelans fleeing the country. On the drug front, Duque has made unpopular proposals, including controversial aerial fumigation of coca fields, that hew closely to US views on how to combat trafficking, leaving him under pressure on multiple fronts.
Colombia’s defense secretary, Guillermo Botero, noted that Trump had said precisely the opposite about Duque’s track record during his recent visit to the White House in February, when Trump praised Colombia’s antidrug efforts.
Anger at Trump’s words and concern over the diplomatic fallout were immediately evident to American officials of both parties familiar with the US-Colombia relationship and its importance.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called Duque, offering him reassurance and, reportedly, an unstated apology. Donna Shalala, a newly elected Democratic congresswoman from Florida, said she received 5,000 angry emails on the subject. Florida is home to tens of thousands of Colombians. Florida Republican Marco Rubio, who chairs the Senate subcommittee on Latin American affairs, said he disagreed with Trump. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, a Democratic congresswoman who represents the southern tip of Florida, said Trump should apologize to Duque and that the US should be doing more to support Colombia in its fight against drugs. Rick Scott, Florida’s other Republican senator, called Duque too and then tweeted his support, blaming the record cocaine production on Duque’s predecessor, Juan Manuel Santos, and declaring what every Colombian knows: Duque has been “a strong ally of the U.S.”
But the bipartisan response was not enough to undo the damage—both to Duque and to the US. At a time when other powers, notably Russia and China, are actively courting Latin American nations to draw them away from Washington’s orbit, Trump’s words, perhaps spoken out of carelessness, have helped burnish a message that the US cannot be trusted, and that working closely with Trump’s administration could prove even more costly than anticipated.
Colombia’s former defense minister, Gabriel Silva, was blunt. “The Colombian government should be worried,” he said. “Its regional policy is based on a complete alignment with Trump. That leaves us naked.”
The influential Colombian weekly Semana recalled that when Duque was in Washington and was asked to rate his relationship with the US on a scale of one to 10, he didn’t hesitate to say, “I think it’s a 10.” Editors at Semana called Trump’s words one of the harshest blows of Duque’s presidency.
The way the incident was portrayed around Colombia suggests it undermined Duque’s image as a strong leader.
“Trump Humiliates Duque,” declared a popular YouTube newscast viewed more than 200,000 times, which added that Trump “slapped” the president. But the quirky newscast, called La Pulla, also criticized the state of the US relationship. Trump, the young presenter explained, is “treating Colombia as a servant, while he does nothing to stop drug use in his home.”
Columnists hotly debated the issue, with one saying that Colombia has “sacrificed its antidrug policies to US interests” and that it is time to focus on Colombia’s own needs—not so much reducing the flow of drugs to the north but attacking the conditions that make the country a base for cocaine production and trafficking.
Trump’s claim that Duque “has done nothing for us” reveals a persistent attitude about Colombia’s drug trafficking problem: the notion that it victimizes the US most of all and is the responsibility of Colombians to fix. In Colombia, the view is quite different. No country has suffered more from cocaine and other drug trafficking than Colombia, where the rise of violent criminal bosses and cartels nearly destroyed the state, and where many people see drug consumption, primarily in the US, as what perpetuates the problem.
As it has before, drug trafficking threatens to become the issue that consumes the US-Colombia relationship, even as Washington and Bogota share other crucial interests. Trump made a big mistake insulting a close friend, but Duque—like other world leaders who have become overtly allied with Trump—took a political risk in courting this US president in the first place. Trump is profoundly unpopular in Latin America, even if his push for change in Venezuela is welcomed by most Colombians.
The dustup couldn’t have come at a worse time for Duque. He took office last year with approval ratings above 80%. They have now plummeted to just 30%.
Duque must now navigate new minefields in Colombia’s relationship with Washington, needlessly laid by Trump.
He will have to show he is capable of restoring his dignity after what Colombians perceive as an insult from America’s president, if only to defend his country’s national honor. It is a lesson for other Latin American leaders, and Moscow and Beijing are watching with interest.
Frida Ghitis is a world affairs columnist. A former CNN producer and correspondent, she is a regular contributor to CNN and The Washington Post. Her WPR column appears every Thursday. Follow her on Twitter at @fridaghitis.