Colombia, Norway and the Atlantic Council: Selling “Peace” to the U.S.
The Atlantic Council’s narrative on Colombia, and the access they provided to the Santos Administration seems more in keeping with the work of a lobbying firm than a think tank.
By Lia Fowler
October 15 / 2016
When Colombian voters rejected a peace agreement between the government of Juan Manuel Santos and the narco-terrorist group FARC in a plebiscite on October 2, U.S. observers seemed shocked. Most of the press and public opinion in the U.S. suggested that Colombians would welcome the deal. But when Colombians finally had a chance to weigh in, only 17 percent of the electorate voted for the deal. How did U.S. opinion get it so wrong? The answer, in part, is U.S. think tanks, and their troubling practice of selling influence to foreign nations.
Consider the Atlantic Council, a D.C.-based think tank focusing on international affairs. In its web-site, the Council claims to shape policy through the think tank’s papers, ideas and communities. It enjoys a good reputation: in 2015 it was ranked 16th in the Unites States by the University of Pennsylvania’s Global Go To Think Tank Index Report. Yet since at least 2014, much of the “expertise” offered by the Council on the topic of Colombia came from “political consultant” Miguel Silva; and in 2015, he became an Atlantic Council Non-Resident Senior Fellow. What is troubling is that, during that time, Miguel Silva was also a top image consultant and communications advisor to President Juan Manuel Santos, a role never disclosed in any of the Atlantic Council’s material. (1)
Silva’s contributions – in speaking engagements, reports and columns – consistently achieved two objectives: to promote Santos’ deal with the FARC, and to discredit and attack any opposition to the President, all under the false legitimacy bestowed by his Atlantic Council Fellowship.
In June 2014, for example, Silva was the featured expert in an event co-hosted by the Atlantic Council and the Inter-American Dialogue – another D.C. think tank — called “The Colombian Conundrum: Predictions for the Presidential Runoff.” According to an article published by the Council, Silva stressed that “former President Uribe’s constant attacks [had] been detrimental to Santos’ ability to govern the country by distracting the president.” But if the U.S. audience was expecting an unbiased expert in the region, they were misled. It was not disclosed in the event’s literature that Silva was, in fact, a key member of Santos’ re-election team, in charge of crafting the campaign’s message since its inception. (2)
In a March 2013 article in Colombia’s web-based news portal La Silla Vacia titled, “With a Message of Unity, Santos Aligns his Re-Election Cabinet Silva was described as the President’s new Ad-Honorum adviser on Strategic Communications. The article reported on a one-day retreat in which President Santos set the re-election team’s new message: “unity within the government… and unity as setting us apart from the opposition, which agitates and divides.” According to the article, Silva spent the morning coaching the cabinet members on their public speaking skills. (3)
The message of “unity” that Silva devised for Santos’ campaign, and the portrayal of the opposition as “divisive” was the same message he pushed in his appearances and reports for the Atlantic Council.
When Santos’ chief of spin authored the Atlantic Council’s 2015 Colombia Report, titled “Path to Peace and Prosperity – The Colombian Miracle,” he remained on message. As the title suggests, he described Santos’ accomplishments and his peace negotiations as having brought about a “miracle.” In keeping with the party line he credited the “miracle” to “what is possible when consensus is made a national priority.” Silva stated – erroneously — that “a majority of Colombians supports the peace process,” but added that “the opposition has built widespread distrust of the negotiations.” To drive the point home, he concluded that the perpetuation of political division was “a threat.” (4)
The report also discredited the Colombian people. In its recommendations, Silva offered this to U.S. policy-makers: “The United States and its Western allies should not back out now, or leave this in the hands of the Colombians.”
In a December 2015 column in U.S. News and World Report titled “Sustain Colombia’s Miracle,” Silva, writing once again as an Atlantic Council Fellow, promoted Santos’ deal with the FARC and stuck to the formula: portray the Santos government as a consensus-builder and disparage the opposition as divisive. “The consensus that brought about Colombia’s miracle could unravel today because of an increasingly polarized and poisonous atmosphere around the debate on peace,” he wrote. (5)
Allowing a foreign government’s chief communications strategist to promote an agenda while posing as an expert and Fellow of a think tank is unethical, at best. But it gets worse. Not only did Silva get to help shape U.S. opinion on the Santos-FARC deal through his appearances and reports, but he and a number of other Colombian officials and peace deal promoters were provided with access to influential U.S. policy makers and government officials by the Atlantic Council.
In 2015, for example, Santos was awarded the Global Citizen Award by the Atlantic Council. According to the Council’s web site, the awards dinner “convened an influential gathering of nearly five hundred top government, business, military, media, and civil society leaders from around the world.” Indeed, the award was presented to him by U.S. Vice President Joe Biden.
Prior to that, Santos and other promoters of his peace deal had been guests and speakers at numerous Council events that promoted the peace deal and provided access to key US figures. In December 2013, for example, Santos attended an off-the-record dinner hosted by the Atlantic Council along with top policy makers including General Colin Powell; U.S. Secretay of Commerce Penny Pritzker; U.S. Congressman Eliot Engel, the ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee; and U.S. Congressman Gregory Meeks, a member of the House Western Hemisphere Subcommittee. The topic was the “great successes of Colombia and its future trajectory,” according to the Council’s website.
The Atlantic Council’s narrative on Colombia, and the access they provided to the Santos Administration seems more in keeping with the work of a lobbying firm than a think tank. That is a line that the Atlantic Council has blurred before, and was the subject of a New York Times investigation in 2014, titled “Foreign Powers Buy Influence at Think Tanks.” (6)
As part of its investigation, the New York Times published documents, brochures, and letters sent by the Atlantic Council to the government of Norway and state-controlled oil company Statoil soliciting funds and explaining what they could expect from donations. The Council explicitly conveyed that higher levels of sponsorship led to higher levels of access and influence, including speaking roles and opportunities to meet with government officials.
The Times also included this quote from an internal report commissioned by the Norwegian Foreign Affairs Ministry in 2012: “In Washington, it is difficult for a small country to gain access to powerful politicians, bureaucrats and experts. Funding powerful think tanks is one way to gain such access, and some think tanks in Washington are openly conveying that they can service only those foreign governments that provide funding.” Among the think tanks listed as having received sponsorship from Norway at the time was the Atlantic Council; the reason for the support was listed as “Peace and reconciliation.” (7)
What does that have to do with Colombia’s relationship with the Atlantic Council? The Council’s documents reveal that speaking roles and access are the rewards of sponsorship. And while Colombia did not make donations to the think tank, Norway, its partner in the peace negotiations, did. Norway is one of two guarantors of the Peace negotiations between Colombia and the FARC in Havana and a new player in Colombia’s oil market through deep-sea oil exploration licenses granted by Colombia to Statoil in 2014. According to the Atlantic Council’s list of donors, in 2015 Norway donated between $100,000 and $249,000 and Statoil donated between $25,000 and $49,999 to the Council. (8)
A close look at Colombian polls throughout the year would have made it clear that most Colombians objected to the main points of the deal: no jail for terrorists, and political eligibility by those responsible for decades of atrocities. A comparison of Santos’ image abroad as a “man of peace” versus his dismal favorability ratings at home – consistently among the lowest in the region — also suggested a clear disconnect between the propaganda surrounding the peace deal in the U.S. and perception back home. But nobody was paying attention, and the institutions that media and policy-makers turn to for objective expertise and scholarly research on Colombia were precisely the ones promoting the Santos agenda.
The relationship between Colombia, Norway and U.S. think tanks, and its legality will be further explored in part two of this series.
*Lia Fowler is an American journalist and former FBI Special Agent