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Obama To Host Colombian President Ahead Of Historic Peace Deal


President Obama is planning to boost aid to Colombia, a country that is emerging now from a decades-old civil war. Colombia's president visits the White House tomorrow, and it's a crucial time as he attempts to solidify a peace deal with rebels. NPR's Michele Kelemen saw him speak today and has this report.

KELEMEN: Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos says his country was on the verge of becoming a failed state just 15 years ago. Now he's about to sign an historic peace deal and says the more than $10 billion in U.S. military aid in what's called Plan Columbia went a long way to end the war.


JUAN MANUEL SANTOS: The quality of the Plan Colombia has been extremely, extremely useful - training our troops, intelligence...

KELEMEN: Speaking to several Washington think tanks, President Santos said Columbia now has the second-largest fleet of Black Hawk helicopters in the world and elite forces that match up against the U.S. in training exercises.


SANTOS: I'm sorry to say that we beat the United States in the last competition of special forces. That demonstrated that the United States are very good teachers. They students have become better than the teachers.

KELEMEN: Santos, a former defense minister, says this made all the difference in peace talks. He says past efforts failed because the leftist guerrillas, known as the FARC, thought they could win. President Santos is now hoping to sign a peace deal in late March, and he's counting on continued U.S. support.


SANTOS: The U.S. was a great partner in bringing the end of the conflict. They can be a great partner in the construction of peace.

KELEMEN: Implementing that peace deal with FARC rebels is the hard part, says Virginia Bouvier of the U.S. Institute of Peace. She says the Colombian president's trip to Washington is well-timed.

VIRGINIA BOUVIER: It's important because Santos is going into the stage where he will have to take an agreement and sell it to the Columbia public, and it's a very skeptical Colombian public that doesn't want to see the FARC in office, that doesn't want to see the FARC not go to jail, that wants to see punishment. Having come to the United States invited by Obama to celebrate the advances that they've made at the peace table will help make his job a little bit easier.

KELEMEN: U.S. officials say President Obama will be offering new aid to Colombia but wouldn't preview how much. Bouvier says the U.S. is going to have to adapt its approach, thinking more about supporting victims of abuses carried out by rebels and pro-government forces in this long, devastating war.

BOUVIER: The U.S. has put a lot of investment in the war in Colombia, and I think it will take some long conversations for both governments to figure out what it means to support a country at peace.

KELEMEN: President Santos gave some suggestions for the kind of aid he'd like to see. That includes more cooperation to counter the Zika virus in Columbia and to combat organized crime. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, the State Department. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.