Latin America Advisor

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Will Colombia-U.S. Relations Change Under Petro?

Photo of Gustavo Petro, who takes office Sunday as Colombia’s president, could make changes to Colombian policy in areas including trade and anti-drug efforts. // File Photo: @petrogustavo via Twitter. Gustavo Petro, who takes office Sunday as Colombia’s president, could make changes to Colombian policy in areas including trade and anti-drug efforts. // File Photo: @petrogustavo via Twitter.

The election of Gustavo Petro, who took office on Sunday as Colombia’s first leftist president, could lead to a reshaping of the South American country’s relationship with the United States. During his campaign, Petro, a former member of the now-defunct M-19 guerrilla group, said he wants to re-examine the ways in which Colombia deals with drug trafficking. Petro has also raised the prospect of renegotiating free trade accords, including Colombia’s 2012 trade deal with the United States. What are the main ways that the relationship between Bogotá and Washington is likely to change during Petro’s administration? What kinds of changes should be made in the areas of narcotics cooperation and trade between Colombia and the United States? How well are the two countries collaborating now, and is their relationship likely to become more distant under Petro?

Michael Shifter, senior fellow and former president of the Inter-American Dialogue: “Building on a solid foundation, U.S.-Colombia relations under the incoming Petro administration are off to an auspicious start. An early call shortly after Petro’s victory from President Biden—followed by a visit of a high-level administration delegation and a wide-ranging exchange with the new president’s foreign policy team—produced some potential areas for deeper bilateral cooperation as well as possible strains. Though Petro may be inclined to temper some of the language about a ‘special, strategic partnership’ and downplay Colombia’s major non-NATO ally status, he clearly wants and needs friendly relations with the United States to pursue his agenda in Colombia and beyond. At the same time, the United States is keen to fashion a productive relationship with Colombia’s first leftist government, knowing that Petro has been a fierce critic of U.S. anti-narcotics policy and the U.S.-Colombia trade deal. Opportunities for greater collaboration include enhanced climate action and expanded funding for rural development, to advance implementation of the 2016 peace accord. The United States has indicated it is open to revisiting the trade agreement, though the terms of any modification could be contentious. Washington does not, however, appear open to revising the U.S.-Colombia extradition treaty, one of Petro’s signature policy positions, which could prove to be a sticking point. On Venezuela, Petro is actively pursuing a gradual approach to re-engage with the Maduro regime—a sharp departure from the Duque government, but in line with the rest of the region, and also where the Biden administration seems to be heading.”

Gimena Sánchez-Garzoli, director for the Andes at the Washington Office on Latin America: “The United States and Colombia just celebrated 200 years of relations. Under a Petro government, it is unlikely that this strong relationship, which has bipartisan support in the United States, will change. So far, the Biden administration has reached out to Colombia, and delegations have visited Bogotá to discuss the transition and future actions. Such outreach and interactions have helped calm fears that having a leftist president will lead to a rupture in relations with the United States. Petro’s planned anti-narcotics policy is not very different from Biden’s recent holistic approach to drugs. The two countries have an opportunity to determine what has not worked in the past and how to jointly address it in the future. The area where we are likely to see tension will be on economic policies, in particular efforts to change the terms of the U.S.-Colombia free trade agreement. Petro wants to transform the Colombian economy so that it depends less on extractive industries and is more environmentally sustainable in order to combat climate change. Here some tough conversations will take place, but as long as the lines of communication are open and there is a willingness to figure things out, it should not rupture relations.”

Sergio Guzmán, director at Colombia Risk Analysis: “President-elect Gustavo Petro outlined his foreign policy on the eve of his victory. He stated that the environment, fighting global warming, deepening capitalism, and broad and inclusive dialogue between equals would be the basis of Colombia’s diplomatic relations. Petro did not wait long to speak to the U.S. government. Petro said he and Biden had a ‘very friendly’ conversation on June 21; a month later, the United States sent a high-profile delegation to speak with Petro, his foreign minister, Álvaro Leyva, and the appointed ambassador to the United States, Luis Gilberto Murillo. This suggests that the U.S. government, while in the hands of the Democratic Party, is willing to work with the Petro administration. This does not mean that it will all be smooth sailing; in fact, some of the issues Petro has raised, such as the revision of the U.S.-Colombia free trade agreement, a new approach to drugs and extending closer ties with Venezuela are all going to be controversial with domestic opposition in both countries. However, issues such as the full implementation of the peace agreement, the negotiation with the ELN and other criminal groups, and a new approach to the environment will all be areas where the United States and Colombia will be able to closely collaborate and coordinate. We’re currently in the honeymoon stage; Petro seems popular at home and abroad, and the United States is willing to give him an opportunity to show his brass. However, in the event that U.S. voters favor the Republican Party in the November midterm elections, Petro’s relationship with the U.S. Congress, where budgets are approved, is likely to quickly turn cold, sour and hostile.” 

Maria Velez de Berliner, managing director of RTG-Red Team Group, Inc.: “Petro’s appointment of an ambassador to the United States (Luis Gilberto Murillo), as well as the ministers he has named for finance (José Antonio Ocampo), foreign relations (Álvaro Leyva) and defense (Iván Velásquez), ensures that the relationship between the United States and Colombia remains steady, provided that no one resigns after seeing the extent of the harsh realities of Colombia’s precarious economic conditions, informality, insecurity and criminality. Colombia also faces a deficient education system, corruption and collusion, as well as a lack of broad employment. Petro’s promises of a general amnesty for criminal gangs runs counter to the military and economic assistance the United States gives Colombia and will be rebuked by the United States. Trade reform will require congressional approval and will be difficult to pass. Ocampo’s proposed tax reform in its present form is likely to be opposed by Colombians in general. The United States and Colombia continue so far to collaborate in trade, anti-narcotics and military exchanges. However, were any of the three ministers or the ambassador to resign, Colombia is likely to repeat the 2021 national uprising and stoppage that, together with Covid-19, wrecked its economy and placed it in the hands of an unpredictable, socialist, charismatic former guerrilla who could derail policymaking. How the United States and Colombia deal with the country’s new socialist reality remains to be seen. But neither Colombia nor the United States can afford to lose the other if the United States wishes to have some relevance in Latin America and Colombia wishes to remain a democracy, Latin American style.”

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