Aug 5, 2022 - World

Colombia's transition to leftist Gustavo Petro tests U.S. influence

Colombian President-elect Gustavo Petro (right) greets U.S. deputy national security adviser Jon Finer in Bogotá on July 22. Photo: Raúl Arboleda/AFP via Getty Images

The inauguration on Sunday of Gustavo Petro as Colombia's president represents a major test for U.S. influence in Latin America as a leftist tide sweeps through the region.

Why it matters: Petro, an ex-guerrilla fighter and former mayor of Bogotá, will be the first left-wing president of a country that had moved in lockstep with the U.S. in recent years on Venezuela, the drug trade, and other regional challenges.

  • Colombia has the fourth-biggest economy in Latin America, and has arguably been the closest U.S. security partner in the region.

Petro outright rejects the status quo of a relationship that had been largely defined by the war on drugs.

  • He promises to roll back policies such as crop eradication and express extraditions, and to reduce dependence on security forces that receive U.S. training and have bloody human rights records.
  • And while his unabashedly pro-U.S. predecessor, Iván Duque, played a central role in the hawkish U.S. approach to Venezuela, Petro has already made moves to reset ties with Caracas.

The other side: A senior Biden administration official acknowledged to Axios that both could become areas of friction.

  • But the official said it would be "premature" to conclude the U.S. and Colombia can't cooperate on counter-narcotics efforts, in part because the Biden administration has recognized that U.S. drug policy needs to "evolve."
  • As for Venezuela, the official said it was "unclear" how Petro would approach the Nicolás Maduro's government, but that they could work together on the migration crisis.

Behind the scenes: The U.S. is wary of China's growing influence in Latin America, and the senior official acknowledged that the U.S. had already raised China with Petro's team.

  • "We've underscored that we are not asking them to choose between the United States and their economic relationship with other countries," the official said.
  • But when it comes to Colombia's relationships with "external actors" that are working against U.S. interests, "we would see certain actions by them as a choice on their part," the official said, without specifying which sort of actions.
  • The official added that there are clear opportunities for the relationship given the overlaps between Biden and Petro's climate and economic policies.

The big picture: Few leaders left in Latin America instinctively align themselves with Washington — as was already on display at the Summit of the Americas in June.

  • The U.S. official said that was due to a global anti-incumbent trend, and argued that the ideology doesn't necessarily matter. "Ultimately, they will have to deliver, and if we can find areas of overlap in our national interest, they'll find it's in their interest to work with us."

The bottom line: "We walked away from the engagements with the incoming Petro government with an understanding that they saw value in cooperation with the United States," the official said. "But they are elected on a platform of change."

  • The test, the official continued, will be "to navigate that change while continuing to be diplomatically competitive."
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