MIAMI - The top Latin America official at the National Security Council met with Colombian Americans in Miami on Monday to stem criticism over leaked news that the U.S. would remove a former Marxist rebel group from the list of foreign terrorist organizations.
The U.S. will officially remove the designation Tuesday to coincide with the fifth anniversary of the historic peace accord between the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, and former President Juan Manuel Santos, an issue Colombians are split over.
At the same time, the Biden administration will place two breakaway groups formed by former FARC rebels on the terrorism list Tuesday. One is La Segunda Marquetalia, led by a former FARC commander, and the other is the FARC-EP. The groups are partly why conflict persists in many parts of Colombia.
"The information that leaked was only about the delisting of the FARC, and so the reaction was, as expected, a very negative one," Juan S. Gonzalez, the senior director for Western Hemisphere affairs at the National Security Council, said in an interview.
While the move has been characterized as lifting the pressure on the FARC, Gonzalez said, it is a shift toward the organizations that are the FARC's dissident groups.
"This does not forgive anything that the FARC has done over the last 52 years. It is shifting the tools of the U.S. government to focus on those organizations that are still involved in terrorist activity," said Gonzalez, who was born in Colombia.
The 2016 peace accord, negotiated in Cuba with support from the U.S. under former President Barack Obama, resulted in Santos' winning the Nobel Peace Prize. After the deal was signed, FARC members began to demobilize, and 13,000 laid down their weapons.
"If a guerrilla group through an accord disarms and demobilizes and gets involved politically, that's ultimately what you want to happen and what you want to encourage, and it sends a signal that these processes can produce an outcome that can lead toward peace," Gonzalez said. "Unfortunately, it's been misrepresented, and it's become part of a political debate, which we should have - based on facts."
'This is extremely personal'
The peace accord has been divisive in Colombia and in Florida, where there is a heavy Colombian American population. Those who oppose the deal criticize removing the FARC from the terrorism list.
Immediately following news of the delisting last week, state Sen. Annette Taddeo, a Colombian American whose father was kidnapped by the FARC, said the news was "outrageous."
Taddeo did not attend the meeting with Gonzalez, saying there was short notice and that she was in Tallahassee, even though she was invited.
"No matter how you put it, this is extremely personal for me. And it's not just for me - it's for our entire community," Taddeo said.
Colombian Americans make up about 250,000 eligible voters in Florida, a state that swung significantly toward former President Donald Trump last year. Trump made inroads with Colombian Americans after his campaign spent significant time courting them, often talking about Colombian politics more than domestic policy and criticizing the Obama administration's support for the peace accord.
Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava urged the administration in a tweet to "reject this move." Others, like Democratic gubernatorial candidate Charlie Crist, criticized the delisting. Republicans in Florida, like Sen. Marco Rubio, also objected.
But for some Colombians, removing the terrorist designation is the best way to move ahead.
"There is no perfect way, but this is the best available way to move forward. The wounds are still open. They will take time to heal, but this is the right way forward," said Marco Frieri, a Democratic political analyst who attended the meeting with Gonzalez.
"It's an emotional topic, but the reactions we have been seeing are not based on complete facts. They are based on emotions," Frieri said.
Colombia had the longest-running war in the Americas, which has defined generations of Colombians. The war between among the government, right-wing paramilitary groups and the FARC lasted 52 years, killed about 220,000 people and displaced over 5 million more. The international community hailed the peace deal.
But former Colombian President Alvaro Uribe led a campaign against the peace deal, saying it amounted to unjust amnesty for the rebels, which many Uribistas, as his supporters are called, echo.
All terrorist designations by the U.S. are subject to review every five years. The FARC's review began during the Trump administration and concluded during Joe Biden's.
Gonzalez said removing the FARC from the list would allow the U.S. Agency for International Development to work in areas where demobilized FARC soldiers are. It would also allow former rebels to travel to the U.S, but he did issue a warning.
"If they're going to visit here, they better be sure that they don't have an indictment. Because if they do, then the indictments, the charges [regarding] involvement in drug trafficking, those investigations continue in force," he said.
"The stain of history on the FARC," Gonzalez said, "is something that will never wash off."