Colombia’s first leftist leader held talks Thursday with President Biden at the White House, touching on sharp differences over how to fight drug trafficking while seeking common ground on ways to end the humanitarian and political crisis in Venezuela.
For Colombian President Gustavo Petro, it was a chance to smooth relations with Washington, where some officials harbor doubts about the 8-month-old government in Bogota.
Biden was expected to urge more cooperation from Petro on immigration, as the number of Colombian migrants entering the U.S. illegally has soared in recent months. In March, that total was second only to the number of migrants coming from Mexico.
The meeting was emblematic of the ideological balancing act the United States tries to navigate in its dealings with Colombia. Often called Washington’s best friend in Latin America, Colombia is, for the first time, not ruled by a right-wing or centrist pro-U.S. president.
“Colombia is the key to the hemisphere,” Biden said, sitting in the Oval Office alongside Petro. “I think we have an opportunity, if we work hard enough, to have a Western Hemisphere that is united, equal, democratic and economically prosperous.”
Petro said he believed democracy is something that is “not set in stone,” but “flows” and evolves “like a river” that “leads to greater democracy and even greater freedom.”
“We are on the same river” as the U.S., he said.
Petro, once a young guerrilla fighter in Colombia’s half-century-long civil war, is one of numerous leftists who have risen to power across Latin America, mostly through democratic elections.
Ahead of the White House meeting with Biden, Petro, 63, acknowledged to reporters that there were “undoubtedly” important differences between the two governments’ policies.
“We believe the war on drugs has failed,” Petro said. “These last 50 years have shown absolutely disastrous [results], as much here in the United States as in our Latin America.”
Colombia, long the world’s largest producer of coca, the raw plant material used to manufacture cocaine, was the focus for nearly two decades starting in 1999 of Washington’s Plan Colombia, which spent billions of dollars in mostly military aid to combat drug traffickers and leftist insurgencies.
In 2016, the Colombian government and the principal guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as FARC, signed a peace deal that ended much of the fighting and reintegrated many guerrillas into civil society. It earned then-President Juan Manuel Santos the Nobel Peace Prize, but violence is again spreading through Colombia, particularly in rural areas, as coca cultivation rises once again.
Despite their differences, Petro has made gestures to solidify a good relationship with the Biden administration. He has reduced the coca crop eradication operations favored by the U.S. but, contrary to expectations, has continued a program of extraditing suspected drug traffickers to the U.S. He also favors interdiction — going after traffickers — over crop eradication, which affects impoverished farmers.
Petro is fighting strong headwinds in the form of criticism from the right, both in the U.S. and in Colombia, including from several Republican U.S. lawmakers who have sought to associate him with authoritarian leftist leaders from Latin America, such as Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro and Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega.
Petro met Wednesday with conservative Rep. Maria Elvira Salazar (R-Fla.) as part of his rounds on Capitol Hill. The next day, Salazar accused Petro of evading her questions.
“He rambles, he doesn’t answer, he plays for time, the way Fidel and Chavez used to do, the way Maduro and Ortega do,” she said to a Colombian television station, referring to late Cuban President Fidel Castro and late Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez. “It’s what the socialists do, to confuse you.”
Ahead of Petro’s election last year, Salazar branded him a socialist, Marxist and terrorist.
Analysts dispute that characterization, noting that Petro is more intellectual than fighter these days and has a track record in elected politics, having served as Bogota’s elected mayor and in Congress for several terms.
“There are people who would like to see a breakdown in U.S.-Colombia relations, but surprisingly he has been committed to building relations,” said Steve Hege, a Colombia-based program director for the U.S. Institute of Peace.
“His aspirations are exactly what Colombia needs,” Hege added, citing Petro’s plan to end violence through negotiations with armed groups, and to reform health and pension systems. But the government still lacks the technical and institutional abilities to make those changes happen, Hege said.
Talking with armed groups — who come from both the right and left — is a controversial endeavor in a country where more than a quarter-million people were killed by the army, guerrillas or right-wing paramilitary squads during the Western Hemisphere’s longest armed conflict.
Biden and Petro may find the most mutually beneficial issue between them to be a more productive approach to the crisis in Venezuela.
During the Trump administration, years of severe economic sanctions, diplomatic ostracism and even the threat of military intervention failed to dislodge Maduro, a socialist autocrat no longer ruling with a democratic mandate. Some of those punitive measures against Colombia have continued into the Biden administration, also without result.
Maduro succeeded the far more popular Chávez upon his death in 2013, and has overseen the ruin of his once-wealthy country’s economy, along with the repression and forced exodus of hundreds of thousands of citizens.
In his public appearance with Petro on Thursday, Biden praised and thanked Colombia for receiving Venezuelan immigrants, often giving them jobs and legal residency.
Next week, Petro will convene an international conference in Bogota aimed at bringing the Venezuelan government and its opposition into meaningful negotiations. The U.S. will send a delegation, along with nearly 20 other countries, Petro said.
Relying on his leftist credentials, Petro reopened diplomatic ties with Caracas that had been severed by his predecessor and appears to have gained some trust with the Maduro government.
“Everybody’s out of ideas here in Washington about how to help guide Venezuela back to democracy in the near term,” said Adam Isacson, a security expert at the Washington Office on Latin America. “There’s space for a creative third party to help.”
Still at issue is whether the U.S. and Europe will ease some sanctions to encourage Venezuela to curtail repression there, or if movement toward democracy has to come before the West removes punishment.
If Petro can fill the role of a balanced mediator, he stands to gain regionally by reviving commercial relations between Colombia and Venezuela, and internationally by ameliorating one of the hemisphere’s most nagging crises.
“From the U.S. perspective, it positions Colombia as an important interlocutor to move Maduro toward advancing democracy,” said Jason Marczak, senior director of the Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center at the Atlantic Council, a Washington think tank. “Colombia is a linchpin for our policy in Latin America.”
One area in which Petro and Biden found solid convergence was on climate change. Both enthusiastically endorsed a move away from fossil fuels and toward a more “decarbonized” world.
“We need to move from fossil fuels, from the greed of fossil fuels, which has evolved like a hurricane that is threatening our existence,” Petro said.
“We’re making real progress toward a carbon-free environment,” Biden said.