Jun 21, 2022 - World

What Colombia’s swing left means for the U.S.

Gustavo Petro and Francia Márquez celebrate their victory in Colombia's presidential election on June 19. Photo: Andrés Cardona/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Gustavo Petro and Francia Márquez celebrate their victory in Colombia's presidential election on June 19. Photo: Andrés Cardona/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Sunday's election of leftist Gustavo Petro as Colombia's next president could change the course of the country's relationship with the United States.

Why it matters: Colombia has long been one of Washington's closest allies in Latin America.

  • The two countries have especially strong ties on trade issues and security measures, including close cooperation on the Venezuelan migrant crisis and the fight against the illegal drug trade.

Catch up quick: Petro, who will become Colombia’s first leftist leader, campaigned on several promises that run counter to years of U.S.-Colombia relations.

  • “The two nations will struggle on security cooperation, trade, and potentially energy,” says Shannon K. O’Neil, senior fellow for Latin America Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. Petro wants to do away with oil exploration at the same time President Biden is asking nations to produce more given prices at the pump.

On the illegal drug trade, Petro has said the U.S. policy in Latin America, which has focused on the eradication of crops and the extradition of cartel leaders, has "categorically failed."

  • He instead wants to legalize medicinal marijuana and create more economic incentives so impoverished farmworkers don’t see the coca plant as their only choice for livelihood.
  • Petro, a former guerrilla fighter with the now defunct M-19 movement, has also proposed reopening peace talks with the ELN rebel group as another step in “peacefully dismantling drug-trafficking.” The U.S. has listed the ELN as a terrorist organization.

On migration, the future of a deal that allows the Biden administration to send some Venezuelan migrants to Colombia is unclear.

  • Petro has not commented specifically on the agreement, but during the campaign he focused more on reestablishing Bogotá’s direct relationship with Caracas.

What they're saying: Those policy differences will “likely end a two-decade-long bipartisan consensus behind support for Colombia in the U.S. Congress," O'Neil tells Axios Latino.

  • Yes, but: “The Biden administration will find common ground on environmental and human rights issues in particular," O’Neil says. Mitigating the effects of climate change is a cornerstone of Petro's promised policies.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement Sunday that the Biden administration looks forward to working with Petro "to further strengthen the U.S.-Colombia relationship and move our nations toward a better future.”

The big picture: One of the greatest challenges for Petro when he takes power on Aug. 7 will be living up to the expectations of voters who shunned the traditional parties over worsening inequality and persistent violence.

  • Petro and Francia Márquez, who will become the country's first Black vice president, have vowed to name a gender-equal cabinet and focus on helping "the nobodies" — the impoverished, the rural and the Black Colombians who they say have been ignored for too long.
  • But legislative support will be key for the Petro administration, which O'Neil says will struggle “without a majority in Congress and facing mounting global tailwinds of inflation and rising interest rates."
  • Petro's Pacto Histórico progressive coalition currently only has 40 of the nearly 300 votes in Congress.

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