Biden firmly backs Colombia peace effort

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Associated Press

Posted on June 18, 2014 at 2:33 PM

Updated Wednesday, Jun 18 at 2:37 PM

BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) — U.S. Vice President Joe Biden on pledged firm support Wednesday for Colombia's newly re-elected leader and the process on which he has bet his presidency.

After a meeting of more than two hours with President Juan Manuel Santos, Biden visited a center dedicated to chronicling Colombia's half-century-old conflict by focusing on its victims, and said true peace can only be secured with a full accounting.

"In war and in peace, Mr. President, we stand with Colombia," Biden told Santos at the presidential palace in brief remarks in front of reporters. His visit's timing conveyed that "unmistakable message," he said.

Santos said he felt "very honored to be a strategic partner of The United States." Washington has no stronger ally in the region, and Santos called the meeting "very fruitful."

The two discussed building on a 2-year-old free trade agreement, including expanding energy cooperation. Biden offered full U.S. support once peace is signed but no specifics on Washington's envisioned post-conflict role.

"I know there's a lot left to do and I have absolute confidence in your determination," he told Santos of the 18-month-old negotiations in Cuba with the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia.

The talks have been slow going, but have covered more than half their agenda, reaching still-secret framework agreements on agrarian reform, ending the illegal drug trade and rebel political participation.

Colombian officials say implementing a peace deal will be far more complicated than reaching one. Peace commissioner Sergio Jaramillo said it will depend heavily on international donors and the outside verification of an eventual accord.

Before Wednesday's meeting, Santos said a peace deal would seal with "a golden brushstroke" the counter-narcotics and anti-insurgency initiative known as Plan Colombia through which Washington has delivered more than $9 billion in mostly military aid since 2000.

Biden, as a senator, was an architect of the program and it helped Colombia badly weaken the rebels.

Publicly acknowledged U.S. police and military assistance to Colombia has dropped considerably since Santos, who was defense minister from 2006-2009, first won election in 2010. At less than $300 million this year, it is the lowest since 1998.

Biden, who arrived from Brazil on Tuesday night and was to depart later Wednesday for the Dominican Republic, was in Colombia for the second time in 13 months after not visiting it for 13 years.

At the National Center for Memory, Peace and Reconciliation — created through a 2011 Santos-backed law on restitution of victims and restoration of land — he wrote a note to add to an iron-limbed "Tree of Peace" where Colombian schoolchildren have attached tens of thousands of mediations on peace.

Biden said he quoted the 20th-century Irish poet William Butler Yeats: "Too long a suffering makes a stone of the heart."

He added, "There has never been a country that has overcome the past without coming to grips with exactly what happened."

Colombia's bitter, mostly rural conflict has claimed an estimated 220,000 lives, four in five of them civilians, and uprooted an estimated 5 million people.

Biden toured the memorial, whose main monument includes more than 2,000 small glass tubes of soil from different conflict zones, with his granddaughter Maisy and nephew Nick, and met briefly with indigenous, LGBT rights and union leaders.

The candidate who Santos defeated on Sunday, Oscar Ivan Zuluaga, was hand-picked by his immediate predecessor in office, Alvaro Uribe, who many considered the true challenger.

Uribe has been a fierce foe of Santos' peace process, claiming his successor is selling out the country to the rebels, offering them too many concessions.

Uribe's foes say he and his hard-line political allies prefer to evade truth and reconciliation as it could incriminate many of them.

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Associated Press writer Cesar Garcia contributed to this report.

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