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Will Washington blow its chance for a fresh start in Colombia?

Gustavo Petro could help the US put an end to an unsuccessful war on drugs — and possibly even solve the crisis in Venezuela.

Reporting | Washington Politics

Gustavo Petro is off to a fast start. In his first two weeks in office, the new Colombian president has already reestablished relations with Venezuela, replaced several top security officials, and moved to restart negotiations with one of the country’s most notorious rebel groups. And, with ambitious tax reforms and climate policies on the docket, he shows no signs of slowing down.

For many in Colombia, Petro’s reform agenda is a chance to steer their country away from poverty, corruption, and a decades-long war on drugs that has led to nearly half a million deaths without putting a dent in coca production. But experts say the impact of these policy shifts could go well beyond Colombia’s borders, offering new approaches for major issues from the international drug trade to the crisis in Venezuela.

In other words, Petro’s administration represents a unique chance for a fresh start in Washington’s relationship with Bogota, with potential ripple effects across Latin America. 

“There's an opportunity to maybe change the things that don't work well,” said Gimena Sánchez-Garzoli, the director for the Andes at the Washington Office on Latin America. “The U.S. shouldn't see this as a negative, but as a positive — as a constructive way to adjust policies that really have not worked to meet the U.S.'s goals.”

But will the United States seize this opportunity? The short answer is: It’s complicated. President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken were both quick to congratulate Petro on his election in June, but neither has had much to say about him since. And, as Sánchez-Garzoli noted, the Pentagon could be apprehensive about the new president’s efforts to reform Colombia’s security services given the long-standing relationship between the two militaries. (In a statement to Responsible Statecraft, a Pentagon spokesperson said DoD “looks forward to continuing its close cooperation with Colombia under the new Petro administration.”)

Then, of course, there’s Congress. Democratic lawmakers have had a positive reaction to the new leadership in Colombia. Progressive upstarts like Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) offered strong support for Petro’s victory, and standard bearers such as Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) said the new administration provides a “chance to avoid repeating past mistakes” in U.S. policy.

On the other side of the aisle, Republicans have pulled no punches in their attacks on Petro, with Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) lambasting him as a Marxist ideologue and saying that his election could cause Bogota to “join the ranks of anti-American forces in Latin America.” And Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) has already teamed up with Cruz to introduce a bill aimed at throwing a wrench into Petro’s new anti-narcotics policy. With the GOP favored to win November’s midterm elections, there’s a real chance that these more hawkish voices could soon take a central role in U.S. policy toward Colombia. 

While the challenges to cooperation are significant, the potential upside for Washington may be worth the political fight. As Omar Ocampo of the Institute for Policy Studies said, “it would be wise for the U.S. to have a supportive role in what happens in Colombia.”

In June, Colombia and the United States celebrated 200 years of diplomatic relations. Despite a few bumps along the way, the two countries have almost always had a strong relationship, buttressed by wide bipartisan support in Congress.

Bogota and Washington have had a particularly close partnership when it comes to two related issues: security and drugs. Through a program known as Plan Colombia that began in 2000, the United States gave the country more than $10 billion in aid, most of which went to arming and training Colombia’s security services. That initiative ended in 2016 following a peace deal between Bogota and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), a leftist guerrilla group that had been fighting the Colombian government for decades.

Bilateral ties reached their peak toward the end of the 2010s, when President Donald Trump found something of a kindred spirit in Colombia’s hard-right president, Ivan Duque. Under Duque, Colombia joined the United States in shunning Venezuela after a contested election — no easy task for a country that shares a porous, 1,400 mile border with Caracas. (There were limits to the Trump-Duque love fest: In off-the-cuff remarks in 2019, Trump said Duque “has done nothing for us,” blaming his Colombian counterpart for increased drug exports.)

Relations ebbed slightly when Biden took office, which may have had something to do with the fact that some in Duque’s party openly backed Trump in the 2020 election. But even that didn’t stop Biden from naming Colombia a major non-NATO ally — a designation shared by only 18 other countries.

Enter Petro, the first leftist president in Colombian history. He got into politics in 1990, when a guerrilla group that he was a member of made peace with the government. Petro spent the following 20 years as a lawmaker before making his first run for the presidency in 2010, when he finished fourth. He returned to prominence with a rocky term as the mayor of Bogota, leading to another unsuccessful run for the presidency in 2018.

In the lead-up to this year’s election, Petro’s fortune suddenly turned. His militant ideology had long since given way to a social democratic sensibility, but he never lost his populist, outsider appeal. When the country was rocked by protests last year, many Colombians lashed out against Duque’s government for its corruption and ineffectiveness. Duque responded with force, killing at least 42 protestors in the process. The brutal response left people looking for someone who could break with a political machine they saw as corrupt and broken — someone like Gustavo Petro.

In many ways, Petro’s rise to power was driven by the very policies that Washington has either supported or chosen to ignore. As part of the 2016 peace agreement, the government appointed a truth commission to investigate the conflict. The commission’s final report blames the United States for much of the destruction, noting that the “consequences of this concerted and largely U.S.-driven approach” resulted in a “hardening of the conflict.” And the security forces that Washington spent decades training and arming through Plan Colombia and other initiatives were involved in the attacks on protestors last year. (Instead of using its leverage to seek justice for victims, the Biden administration opted to “urge the utmost restraint by Colombian police.”)

Despite the United States’ sketchy past in Colombia, Petro is trying hard to avoid drawing the ire of U.S. officials and politicians. Having seen how Washington has dealt with leftist upstarts like Bolivia’s Evo Morales, the Colombian president has made efforts to assuage concerns about his politics by avoiding anti-U.S. rhetoric and appointing a raft of centrist officials, according to Sánchez-Garzoli. One of those appointments — Finance Minister Jose Antonio Ocampo, a center-left economist and former professor at Columbia University in New York — signals that Petro may even pull back from prior vows to renegotiate Colombia’s free trade agreement with the United States.

Petro’s biggest move is a new approach to drug policy, known as the “total peace” plan. These efforts will go well beyond Colombia’s borders, with Petro saying he wants to create a “global discussion” that will also discuss drug consumption in developed countries. But the center of the initiative is a shift away from war — including aerial crop fumigation and battles with guerrilla groups — and toward negotiations.

“Success in national security was measured by how many guerrillas the army has killed, or how many arrests they can make, or how many people they can extradite,” Ocampo said, adding that the new president’s approach is aimed at having “the least amount of dead people possible.”

In order to make that happen, Petro has already taken steps to restart negotiations with the National Liberation Army (ELN), a major leftist guerrilla group. New talks will be challenging, in part because the U.S. considers the ELN a terrorist organization, as U.S. Agency for International Development head Samantha Power noted shortly after Petro’s inauguration.

“Some of the groups that continue to commit violent acts here, one of them in particular, of course, is a foreign terrorist organization,” Power said in a press conference, adding that this will “inform the United States’ approach.”

In practice, that may be more of a challenge than a dealbreaker, especially given that Washington considered the FARC a terror group until last year, well after the organization signed a peace deal that the United States supported. The bigger problem will likely be that the ELN operates on both sides of the Colombia-Venezuela border, meaning that any deal would need help from President Nicolas Maduro, America’s current bête noire in the region.

And Maduro will be a key figure in other areas, including finding a way to deal with the approximately 2.5 million Venezuelans who have fled to Colombia in recent years. He’ll also be crucial to efforts to reinvigorate trade between the two countries, which has faltered amid the crisis in Venezuela.

While the opening to Venezuela will no doubt be a source of tension in U.S.-Colombia relations, it also represents the biggest opportunity for large-scale change. Petro has already opened informal talks with Juan Guaido, who the United States still recognizes as Venezuela’s president. With proper support, those talks could develop into a solution to the political crisis in Caracas.

“In an ideal world, Petro could serve as an important mediator, or someone who inspires some type of positive negotiation between the Socialist Party in Venezuela and the Venezuelan opposition that results in some type of democratic transition or power-sharing agreement,” Ocampo said.

But it’s also important to remember that Petro has limited room to maneuver. “If he pushes too hard on that, that could easily jeopardize Venezuela's willingness to facilitate or support talks between Colombia and the ELN,” Ocampo added. “So yeah, it can get very delicate.”

Of course, the United States may be the only state that’s in a position to help Petro nail this tightrope act. Given that Washington is Guaido’s primary backer and maintains a raft of sanctions on Maduro’s regime, U.S. officials have more than enough leverage to help Petro keep all of his diplomatic efforts on track. For now, it’s up to the Biden administration to decide whether it will make that happen.

Gustavo Petro gestures during his swearing-in ceremony at Plaza Bolivar, in Bogota, Colombia August 7, 2022. REUTERS/Luisa Gonzalez
Reporting | Washington Politics
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