A fresh start for Colombia … and for US policy?
June 19 was a historic day in Colombia. Latin America’s third-largest country has not elected a presidential candidate from the left, or any candidate promising reforms unpalatable to traditional elites, for at least 80 years. With shocking regularity, such candidates have been marginalized, intimidated, or even assassinated.
A 2016 peace accord with Colombia’s largest guerrilla group, the FARC, created new political space. So did the COVID pandemic, which plunged several million Colombians into economic insecurity, even desperation and hunger, and spurred mass protests in 2021. That enabled Gustavo Petro, a former member of the M-19 guerrilla group who renounced violence in a 1990 peace process, to win alongside Francia Márquez, a rural social movement leader who will become the country’s first Black vice president.
By a 3-point margin, Petro defeated Rodolfo Hernández, a right-wing populist “outsider” whose command of social media got him to second place in the first round of voting on May 29. More comfortable on viral videos than in public plazas, Hernández campaigned erratically during the second round, and fell short.
As the first president in nearly a century who doesn’t count among his base the tiny elite of one of the world’s most unequal countries, Gustavo Petro is promising to take Colombia in a much different direction. However, as he won narrowly and lacks a congressional majority, he is emphasizing dialogue and moderation. His victory speech reached out to Hernández’s supporters and voiced a desire to “develop capitalism in Colombia.”
Secretary of State Antony Blinken and other top diplomats issued a quick recognition of the results on June 19, “looking forward to working with” but not congratulating Petro. This evidences the Washington’s wariness of the President-elect.
The Biden and previous U.S. administrations have enjoyed a cozy relationship with the centrist and right-wing political, business, and military elites whose hold on Colombia has just loosened. By contrast, U.S. diplomats had almost no contacts with the Petro campaign, Petro’s advisors say. Over the years, contact with the social movements that form Petro’s base has largely been left up to USAID programming and the human rights officers in the U.S. embassy’s political section.
Meanwhile, politicians in Florida, the electorally important state with the largest Colombian diaspora population, are pushing the administration to keep its distance. Republicans like Ron DeSantis are using words like “terrorist,” “narco,” and “marxist” to describe Petro, while Florida Democrats offer a “lite” version of that rhetoric.
None of that should prevent the Biden administration from opening up several fronts of cooperation with Colombia’s new government. A big one is implementation of the 2016 peace accord, which both Petro and the Biden administration claim to support, but which the outgoing government of Iván Duque, a pro-U.S. conservative, opposed and implemented only minimally.
The presence of a government in Bogota that truly wants to implement the peace accord offers Washington a historic opportunity. It is deeply in the U.S. interest to help the Petro government support a transitional justice system that can break Colombia’s cycles of violence.
It is also very much in the U.S. interest to accompany, politically and financially, a government that seeks to implement the accord’s groundbreaking commitments to ethnic communities, and to increase the physical presence of a functioning state in the neglected rural territories where armed groups and coca continue to thrive, reinvigorating a plan foreseen in the peace accord’s ambitious rural provisions. Doing so could achieve the critical goal of reducing the number of families — likely well over 230,000 today — that depend on the coca plant to survive.
The Biden and Petro governments also coincide on protecting the environment. Petro spent much of his acceptance speech talking about climate change. He wants to curb deforestation and make Colombia’s economy less dependent on oil and coal production. The Biden administration should explore ways to partner on those priorities.
Petro also rails against corruption, particularly the links that organized crime maintains with government officials and elements of the business sector. He made his name 15 years ago as a senator investigating official cooperation with murderous drug-funded paramilitary groups. Should Petro continue efforts to root out organized crime-tied corruption, Washington should support him.
Harmony between the Petro and Biden administrations, though, is far from guaranteed. There are at least four areas where the two governments may be on a collision course.
The first is drug policy. Gustavo Petro has long been a critic of the punitive U.S. approach to illicit drugs like cocaine, of which Colombia is the world’s largest producer. He has favored regulation or harm reduction and criticizes Washington’s single-minded insistence on forced eradication of the coca crop, which is grown by some of Colombia’s poorest farmers.
He may also slow extraditions of captured armed-group leaders, wanted by the U.S. government to face drug charges, until they first answer to their many victims inside Colombia. Should Petro de-emphasize eradication acreage targets and delay some extraditions, he will encounter resistance from some of the most recalcitrant elements of the U.S. drug war bureaucracy, even if he is increasing state presence in rural areas where coca is grown.
The second area is Venezuela policy. Petro is unlikely to join the brutal Nicolás Maduro regime in some sort of paleo-leftist solidarity, as many on the right fear. But he has indicated that he wants more dialogue and communication. That is in Colombia’s interest, as the two countries share a 1,300-mile border riddled with armed groups and illegal economies. Two countries sharing such a tense territory should be talking, but Colombian defense sources say that they almost never speak to their Venezuelan counterparts.
Meanwhile, Petro absolutely needs contact with the Maduro regime if he expects to negotiate peace with the country’s largest remaining guerrilla group, the ELN (National Liberation Army), which has become a binational group operating in both countries’ territory. Colombia, too, could play a key role in supporting negotiations between Venezuela’s regime and opposition.
This may not go down well with the Biden administration, which supports the idea of a negotiated exit to Venezuela’s crisis but avoids nearly all contact with the Maduro regime and recognizes the opposition alternative government of Juan Guaidó. The outgoing Duque government had joined the United States in its hard line on Venezuela. Colombia’s exit from the shrinking bloc seeking to isolate Maduro will concern many in Washington, although the strategy has clearly not been working.
The third issue is trade and investment. Even as a senator, Gustavo Petro opposed Colombia’s free trade agreement with the United States that was ratified in 2011. He opposes new oil exploration and has talked about “smart tariffs” to protect some of Colombia’s products, particularly food. This could lead to disputes with Washington. Petro is unlikely to have the votes, however, to carry out a renegotiation or renunciation of the free trade agreement.
A fourth area could simply be called the “special relationship.” The United States, at least since Plan Colombia in 2000, has nurtured extraordinarily close ties with Colombia and its security forces. U.S. military and police aid in this century has totaled at least $8.7 billion.
Today, U.S. policymakers — both civilian and military, both Republican and Democratic — worry about rival great powers’ influence in Latin America, especially China and, to a lesser extent, Russia. President Biden has called Colombia the keystone of U.S. policy in Latin America, and Colombia’s presidents have privileged working with the United States while generally avoiding China and Russia.
Gustavo Petro is less likely to share his predecessors’ zeal for the special relationship and may seek to diversify Colombia’s ties beyond the hemisphere. That doesn’t mean he is about to jet off to Beijing, but it does mean that the United States will have to compete and can no longer take the special relationship for granted. That too, may be a source of discord.
A possible fifth issue could be populism or authoritarianism. President-elect Petro has signaled that he intends to govern as a social democrat, with no desire to seek a second term or otherwise emulate the region’s authoritarian left. As long as he honors that intention, Washington should respect Petro’s mandate and work with him on peace and other common goals. In the meantime, U.S. officials — and especially Republican lawmakers, who may gain seats in November and who are tightly aligned with Petro’s hardest-line opponents in Colombia — will be poised to pounce at any sign of a populist turn.
Gustavo Petro’s historic election offers hope to Colombians who have never felt represented by those in power. It offers many opportunities for a renewed U.S. foreign policy that increases the quality of governance and reduces the persistence of conflict. Washington and Bogotá can make progress on peace, the environment, a drug policy that actually works in the long term, and a fairer economic model. To do so, though, they must overcome a lot of old thinking that could get in the way.