It is one of the United States’ few enduring alliances in an often turbulent Latin America, built around a decades-long partnership in the fight against the country’s drug cartels.
But the election of Gustavo Petro as Colombia’s first leftist president is likely to test the special relationship of the United States with a non-NATO ally like never before.
In the fierce competition, Petro, a former guerrilla, has aimed for the forced eradication and extradition of coca – centerpieces of the US-backed war on drugs – as well as a free- exchange with the United States, which he accuses of having impoverished Colombian farmers
It remains to be seen whether he will be able to implement his progressive agenda amid a fractured Congress and opposition from powerful elites.
But just his promise of sweeping change in a country that has long been a bulwark of regional stability angers many in Washington — even as he tracks the resurgence of the left across Latin America and has been embraced by millions of Colombians who are fed up with the enormous inequalities and social injustices.
“Our combined efforts to fight transnational crime are complete,” said Kevin Whitaker, a retired US diplomat who served as ambassador to Bogota from 2014 to 2019. ‘a very different way.”
But while Whitaker is skeptical of Petro’s motives and effectiveness as a leader, he said he couldn’t agree more with his campaign’s main goal: to bolster the presence of the state, not just security forces, in the long-neglected countryside.
“If he’s able to explain his plan to the United States and bridge the deep urban-rural divide that has long been Colombia’s biggest challenge, then it doesn’t have to be an adversarial relationship,” Whitaker said. .
The United States helped Colombia pull itself out of the abyss in 1999 with the launch of Plan Colombia to fight drug trafficking and the guerrillas who financed their insurgency through the transport of cocaine. Since then, successive Republican and Democratic administrations have provided more than $13 billion in military and economic aid to Colombia – far more than any other country in Latin America.
Petro, 62, criticized the pillars of this bipartisan strategy during the campaign.
On extradition, he said his government would prioritize truth and compensation for victims of powerful criminal groups over sending capos to the United States to face justice. Every year, by special presidential order, Colombia extradites dozens of indicted drug traffickers to the United States.
He also attacked the forced eradication of coca – the basic ingredient of cocaine – for criminalizing otherwise law-abiding peasants and proving ineffective in curbing a record harvest. Instead, he would support the expansion of crop substitution programs that provide credit, training and land rights to rural farmers.
All of Petro’s goals, however admirable, come up against huge obstacles.
In the United States, a large bureaucracy of hundreds of federal law enforcement officers has built up around close cooperation that will be difficult to unravel, Whitaker says.
Petro is also likely to face strong resistance from within the Colombian armed forces, whose influence has expanded significantly with US aid and training.
Then there are the criminals themselves, who are unlikely to sit idly by if their profits are threatened. Despite being enshrined in a 2016 peace deal with the country’s largest rebel groups, voluntary crop substitution accounted for less than 1% of the 130,147 hectares of coca fields eradicated in 2020 – a sign of the fragility of the the presence of the state outside urban centres.
“A significant recall of the security component would strengthen the hands of criminal actors and be a sticking point with the United States,” said Cynthia Arnson, a fellow at the Wilson Center in Washington and a longtime Colombia watcher.
In other areas, such as trade and Venezuela, Petro could also come into conflict with the United States. His campaign platform calls for the creation of “smart tariffs” to protect Colombia’s countryside from agricultural imports allowed under a decade-old free trade agreement with the United States.
On Venezuela, he would restore relations with the socialist government of Nicolas Maduro – a move likely to anger many Republicans in Congress and destabilize the nearly 2 million Venezuelan migrants who have sought refuge in Colombia.
So far, Petro has avoided fueling any discord. In a 40-minute victory speech, he did not once mention the war on drugs and his only reference to the United States was a call for dialogue to jointly fight climate change – a priority for the administration. Biden.
“It’s time to sit down with the United States and talk about what it means that it, like no other country in the Americas, is the source of the greenhouse gases we absorb in our Amazon jungle.” , did he declare.
The United States showed similar restraint, touting that Petro’s victory came on the 200th anniversary of the day Colombia became the first former Spanish colony to be recognized as an independent state by the United States.
“We look forward to continuing our strong partnership with President-elect (Petro) and building a more democratic and equitable hemisphere,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a social media post on election night. The next day he called Petro the next day to offer his congratulations.
But while Petro, a former senator and mayor of the capital, Bogota, has been part of politics for decades, the United States has had only limited contact with him over the years.
This partly reflects what until recently had been the limited prospects of the left in this socially conservative country. But the 2016 peace accord lifted the fears of many activists and sparked new demands from young Colombians less burdened by the bloody conflict. Petro, after losing the 2018 presidential contest, then deftly rode the wave of discontent, riding on protests during the pandemic that crippled the outgoing conservative government of Iván Duque and laid bare the consequences of inequality worse than anything other Latin American countries except Brazil.
During Petro’s slow rise, US officials have repeatedly described him as a radical ‘populist’ in the mold of late Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez, according to a secret 2006 US Embassy cable released by the group. pro-transparency Wikileaks, or “pragmatic”, according to another report sent two years later.
What style of leadership he adopts as president remains to be seen. But Petro has already made clear that, unlike his predecessors, he is likely to look less to Washington and seek closer ties with other leftists in places like Mexico, Chile and Argentina.
The ability of the United States to influence the direction of its government has also been limited by the departure earlier this month of Ambassador Philip Goldberg to take up his new posting in South Korea. The Biden administration has yet to name a replacement.
“It is beyond disappointing that the Biden team has not appointed an ambassador to guide American policy during this critical transition period,” said John Feeley, former US ambassador to Panama who also served as a diplomat in Colombia during of the hunt for the leader of the Medellin Cartel, Pablo. Escobar in the 1990s. “They can’t blame Republican filibuster in the Senate for this one and they better announce a nominee ASAP.”
Goodman reported from Cleveland, Ohio