Biden’s New Juggling Act in Latin America: How to Handle Colombia’s New President

Privately, the administration sees some opportunities among the challenges. National Security Council and State Department officials, who have been preparing for the possibility of Colombia electing its first leftist leader for months, are considering climate change and the implementation of the peace agreement between the Colombian government and the rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, as two areas where Biden and Petro could find common ground, according to two people in regular contact with the administration.

Ultimately, the direction of the relationship will depend on Petro, said Dan Restrepo, one of the top advisors for Latin America under Barack Obama. “Unlike some, you have neither Biden nor his team to predict or anticipate where it will go. They will engage, “he said.” More effort rather than less makes sense in times of political change.

During his call to Petro, Biden also discussed working together on issues such as climate change, health security and the implementation of the 2016 peace deal, according to the White House lecture. Petro has promised to fully implement the historic peace agreement with the FARC. Biden has long supported the deal, ever since the Obama administration.

Petro described his call with Biden as “very friendly”.

“On the way to a more intense and normal diplomatic relationship, I have now had a very friendly conversation with US President Biden,” Petro wrote on Twitter. “In his words, a ‘fairer’ relationship benefits both nations.”

But a few days after Petro’s victory, the internal political mine was already becoming visible. In Florida, a long-standing fluctuating state and home to some 250,000 Colombian American voters, the reaction to Petro’s election has been mostly negative. There, leaders on both sides of the aisle warned they wanted to see Biden and US officials keep an eye on the new left leader before allowing for a full hug.

“The bilateral relationship has been so strong and I think it is important to continue like this. But to do this we need to make sure that the Petro administration does not obstruct rights, including freedom of the press and all other rights in the Colombian constitution, ”said Annette Taddeo, a Democratic state senator in Florida who is running for Congress.

Taddeo, who is Colombian American, urged Biden officials to proceed with “great caution” and “beware of any movement that worries her.”

Biden and Democrats underperformed among Hispanic voters in Florida in the 2020 election. Former President Donald Trump made significant gains among Hispanics there, not just Republican-leaning American Cubans, but also Colombian Americans and other Latino populations in growth.

The state’s massive Hispanic population and longstanding position as a key swing state have long given it a big voice in Latin American politics, but the shift of the state further to the right has left some National Democrats who saw Florida no longer essential to win the White House. Meanwhile, administration officials have long pointed out that they will not shape their foreign policy on the basis of what is politically best in South Florida.

Quick moves by the Biden administration to engage with Petro have suggested that the US is serious about keeping the South American country close instead of isolating the left-wing leader before he has even started, several former US officials and experts from the region said.

“This is a real effort by the White House to get off to a good start – and we will see if this is a sustainable approach,” said Eric Farnsworth, vice president of the think tank Council of the Americas. “Is he now focusing on Colombia’s deep-seated economic problems or is he trying to make a name for himself as a new spokesperson for the international left? We just have to wait and see “.

However, clear points of tension between the two nations have already emerged.

Petro is a former member of the April 19 movement, or rebel group of the M-19 guerilla, which demobilized decades ago. Since then he has been legislator, senator and mayor of Bogotá. His agenda is defined by a desire to expand social programs and focus on rural development to address the deep social and racial inequality in Colombia, which has only worsened with the pandemic and economic turmoil in the region in recent years.

He was outspoken in calling the US-led war on drugs a complete failure. He also spoke of his desire to cut oil exports and renegotiate the terms of the US-Colombia free trade agreement, which Washington is unlikely to have an appetite for.

Petro has already moved quickly on an election promise to normalize relations between Colombia and Nicolás Maduro’s government in Venezuela, a move that goes against the United States and dozens of other countries that have recognized opposition leader Juan Guaidó as legitimate leader of Venezuela. The day after speaking with Biden, Petro said he had discussed with Maduro the reopening of the border between the two countries.

“There are clearly elements on Petro’s agenda that conflict with US interests in Latin America. This is undeniable. However, I think the areas of agreement are also substantial, “said Benjamin Gedan, former director of the National Security Council for South America under Obama and current deputy director of the Wilson Center Latin America program.” I don’t want to overdo it. the relationship may be friendly, but I think it’s possible. “

Gedan explained that there are several ways to portray Petro given his past, past statements and current reality: one of a former guerrilla who expressed sympathy for the Maduro regime and questioned the status quo relationship with the United States, the other is from a leader who recognizes his coalition does not have a majority in Congress when he takes office on August 7 and is facing a very fragile economic state.

“There are signs that he is not taking office ready to burn all bridges,” Gedan said. He noted Petro’s brief conversations with Biden, as well as Secretary of State Antony Blinken, after his victory. “they have given a very different picture of someone who is at least flirting with a pragmatic approach to foreign policy and to advance his agenda at the national level.”

“There is a lot of raw material for how someone wants to portray it,” Gedan added. “But it’s actually a big mystery how he will behave in office.”