Colombia may soon be joining a list of nations who partake in the Visa Waiver Program in the United States, meaning its citizens would be able to forego the visa requirement if they are to visit the United States. Many are asking though, what took the U.S. so long to make this move?
The country’s recently re-elected President Juan Manuel Santos met with U.S. Vice President Joe Biden this past Wednesday, June 18. The two discussed the future of Washington-Bogota relations and the ongoing peace negotiations between the Colombian government and the FARC narco-insurgents. However, perhaps the most interesting development from this meeting that will impact Colombian citizens in general is that the two governments will begin negotiations for the Visa Waiver Program.
The Colombian Visa Waiver Program
On Wednesday, President Santoss official Twitter account posted: Excellent News: We have officially started the process so that the U.S. will no longer require visas for Colombians. We are going in the right direction.
The Visa Waiver Program (VWP) was originally established by the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act and was signed into law on October 30, 2000, under the title: Visa Waiver Permanent Program Act. According to the State Departments Bureau of Consular Affairs, the VWP allows citizens of participating countries to travel to the United States without a visa for stays of 90 days or less.
There are 38 member countries of the Visa Waiver Program, mostly U.S. allies in Europe and the Asia Pacific; these include Australia, France, Japan South Korea and the United Kingdom. Chile made history when it joined the VWP in early 2014, becoming the first and only Latin American nation to participate in the program.
A February 28, 2014, press release by the Department of Homeland Security reports that in the 2013 Fiscal Year, the VWP accounted for about 19.6 million visits to the United States.
What took so long?
Washingtons decision to grant Colombia the possibility for membership in the VWP is an important development that has been a long time coming.
Since the early 1980s, Colombia has been Washingtons major ally in Latin America, best exemplified by Washingtons massive economic and military aid to combat drug trafficking. The role of U.S. security agencies in the 1993 elimination of the notorious drug lord Pablo Escobar, the controversial Plan Colombia, and the possibility that the U.S. could have opened military bases in Colombia, illustrate that Washington-Bogota defense policies are joined at the hip.
Moreover, Colombian governments have successively supported Washingtons foreign policy interests. For example, in 2012, Colombia was one of the 41 nations that abstained from voting when Palestine requested observer status in the United Nations. Pundits believed that Colombias abstention was influenced by its close relations with both Washington and Israel.
Hence, an alternative question beckons: What took Washington so long to reward its South American ally?
To be fair, the U.S. government has been critiqued of being slow to extend the VWP to numerous allies, not just Colombia. Writing for the conservative Heritage Foundation, Dr. James Carafano argues, expanding participation in the program is just one of several long-overdue actions that enjoy bipartisan support but haven’t moved forward.
The scholar goes on to declare, in part, these reforms have gotten a case of the slows because of the Gang of Eight’s immigration bill. To build pressure on those who oppose that measure’s grant of amnesty to people in this country illegally, bill sponsors have adopted a deliberate strategy of holding hostage as many less-controversial reform initiatives as possible.
Additionally, immigration reform remains a sensitive topic now more than ever (particularly due to revelations about the terrible living conditions in U.S. detention centers for undocumented migrants). Hence, the idea of eliminating visas for a Latin American nation may be disliked by members of congress who come from states where immigration reform is unpopular.
In other words, part of the reason why Colombia has been slow to join the VWP has a lot to do with domestic U.S. politics.
As a personal opinion, I would argue that there might be some stigma associated with Colombia that may have influenced the U.S. governments decision to delay offering Bogota the VWP. Colombia–and various other South American nations–continue to be viewed through the prism of drug trafficking and narco-insurgency. The 2004 film Maria Full of Grace, may be the type of worst-case scenarios some U.S. citizens conceive will occur if Washington decides not to require visas for Colombians.
Therefore, offering the VWP option would have resulted in bad publicity for both the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations years ago; even if the mandatory requirement for a foreign citizen entering the U.S. to pass through (numerous) customs and security checks was not eliminated when visas were.
Ultimately, President Santos was correct when he stated that the VWP negotiations would be a long process. Nevertheless, there is an international momentum to get Colombians, who are enjoying years of economic growth, to spend their money abroad. In May, the European Union ratified an agreement to eliminate visas for Colombian and Peruvian nationals.
As for President Santos, the VWP announcement is an early victory in his second presidential term, which will be well received by Colombians who wish to travel to the U.S. This decision also serves to highlight the current strength of the Bogota-Washington alliance.