Biden moves fast to open dialogue with Colombia’s incoming leftist president Petro

·4 min read
Fernando Vergara/AP

Less than 48 hours after the historic victory of Gustavo Petro, a former M-19 guerrilla member who climbed to the presidency of Colombia as the first leftist winner in decades, the president-elect got a call from Washington.

On the line was President Joe Biden, calling on Tuesday to congratulate him on his victory and “reaffirm” U.S. support for Colombia, the White House said in a readout of the call.

A day earlier, Secretary of State Antony Blinken had already called Petro with a similar message “to reiterate the United States’ steadfast commitment to the bilateral relationship,” according to a summary of the call released by the State Department.

The calls have caught the attention of observers both in the United States and Colombia, especially since President Biden waited five months to speak to the country’s current president, Ivan Duque, after Biden won the 2020 election. The contacts signal the administration’s intent to establish a relationship early on with a controversial politician who has vowed to shake up some of the core areas in the long-standing bilateral cooperation.

“The calls reflect the strategic importance the United States places on our relationship with Colombia,” said Deputy Assistant Secretary Mark Wells in an interview with the Miami Herald. He handles South American affairs at the State Department.

“It is an unprecedented victory by the Colombian left, which has not happened for decades,” he said. “And so we know that there is a lot of both excitement and concern about what those changes entail. We wanted to reach out early to the new administration to congratulate them on their victory and really start a discussion about their priorities and our priorities.”

Upcoming presidential elections are a test for the United States’ partnership with Colombia

The Biden administration’s relationship with outgoing president Duque has been rocky. Last week, Blinken celebrated with Duque in Washington the 200 anniversary of the diplomatic relations between the two nations. And President Biden announced his intention to designate the country as a “major non-NATO ally” during his first face-to-face meeting with Duque in March.

But during the 2020 presidential campaign, the Biden team soured over the involvement of Colombian politicians, including former president Alvaro Uribe, who is close to Duque, in endorsing Republican candidates in the U.S. along with former President Donald Trump. The Trump campaign also featured an ad using Petro’s comments in support of Biden to present him as “the candidate of the radical left.”

The current director for Western Hemisphere Affairs at the National Security Council, Juan Gonzalez, a Colombian American who served as a Biden campaign adviser, pushed back against the ad, tweeting that Biden “doesn’t know and doesn’t care about Gustavo Petro’s opinion.”

Two years later, Biden conveyed a different message. Both he and Blinken talked to the Colombian president-elect about areas on which they believe the two governments can work together, including fighting climate change and the implementation of the 2016 peace accord between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia guerrillas, which the Biden administration delisted as a terrorist group last November.

In his acceptance speech, Petro proposed a dialogue with the U.S. government about accelerating the region’s transition toward green energy. Wells said there were “a lot of opportunities” in expanding existing programs to preserve the Amazon rainforest and cooperation to tackle climate change.

He also said the United States has been assisting in implementing the peace accord and could prioritize areas like “addressing the needs of marginalized people” to meet the incoming administration’s interests.

But there are areas of tension too.

As a candidate, Petro said the U.S. counternarcotics strategy in Colombia was a failure and talked of reforms. Both Blinken and Biden pressed the issue in their conversations with Petro, according to official summaries of the phone calls, with Blinken discussing “how the U.S.-Colombia integrated counternarcotics strategy aligns with President-Elect Petro’s goal to diminish rural violence.”

Without mentioning the discussion about counternarcotics, Petro said he had “a very friendly conversation with U.S. President Biden. In his own words, a ‘more egalitarian’ relationship for the benefit of the two people.”

A day after talking to Biden, Petro said he spoke to Venezuelan leader Nicolas Maduro and announced his intention to fully reopen the Colombian border with Venezuela, which currently has limited traffic. As a candidate, Petro promised to normalize diplomatic relations with Maduro, a move seen as problematic within the U.S. government, already concerned with increased flows of cocaine to the United States and the presence in Venezuela of terrorist organizations.

“Trafficking is already a major concern,” Wells said. “Obviously, a change in the status of relations between the countries could have an impact. Flows are very high right now, already. The border area is of concern. You have foreign terrorist organizations operating in Venezuela, from Venezuela into Colombia.”

“These are all things that would be on the agenda to discuss with the new government,” the State Department official added.

For now, Petro seems to be enjoying the attention, retweeting a Noticias Caracol report boasting that no other president-elect in Colombia has been contacted so fast by a U.S. president since George W. Bush called Uribe in 2006 to congratulate him on his reelection.