The election of leftists to test Colombia’s alliance with the United States

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BOGOTA, Colombia – This is one of the few lasting alliances of the United States in an often turbulent Latin America, built around a long-standing partnership in the fight against national drug cartels.

But the election of Gustavo Petro as Colombia’s first left-wing president is likely to test the US’s special relationship with a major non-NATO ally like never before.

During the tough race, Peter, former partisanseeks the forced destruction and extradition of coca – at the heart of the US-backed drug war – as well as a free trade agreement with the United States that blames the impoverishment of Colombian farmers

It remains to be seen whether it will succeed implements its progressive program against the background of a broken congress and opposition from powerful elites.

But only his promise of large-scale change in a country that has long been a mainstay of regional stability has driven many in Washington to the brink – even as it traces the left’s resurgence across Latin America and is embraced by millions of Colombians fed up with huge inequalities and social injustice.

“Our joint efforts to fight transnational crime are over,” said Kevin Whitaker, a retired US diplomat who served as ambassador to Bogota from 2014 to 2019. “There is no doubt that he will address this in a very different way.”

But while Whitaker is skeptical about Petro’s motives and effectiveness as leader, he said he could not agree more with the campaign’s overarching focus: boosting the state’s presence, not just the security forces, in the long-neglected province. .

“If he is able to explain his plan to the United States and overcome the deep divide between urban and rural, which has long been the biggest challenge for Colombia, then this should not be a conflict,” Whitaker said.

The United States helped Colombia pull back from the brink in 1999 with the launch of the Colombia Plan to Combat Drug Trafficking and Guerrillas, which funded their riots by transporting cocaine. Since then, successful republican and democratic administrations have provided more than $ 13 billion in military and economic aid to Colombia – far more than any other country in Latin America.

During the campaign, 62-year-old Petro criticized the pillars of this two-party strategy.

As for extradition, he said his government would give priority to telling the truth and compensating victims of powerful criminal groups, instead of sending a riot to the United States to face justice. Each year, under a special presidential order, Colombia extradites dozens of drug traffickers accused in the United States.

He also attacks forced destruction of coca – the main ingredient in cocaine – to criminalize otherwise law-abiding villagers and prove ineffective in managing record harvests. Instead, he would support the expansion of crop replacement programs that provide credit, training and land rights to rural farmers.

All of Peter’s goals, as admirable as they are, face huge obstacles.

In the United States, a large bureaucracy consisting of hundreds of federal law enforcement agents has been built around close cooperation that would be difficult to break, Whitaker said.

Petro is also likely to face strong resistance from within the Colombian armed forces, whose influence has expanded significantly thanks to US assistance and training.

Then there are the criminals themselves, who are unlikely to remain indifferent if their profits are threatened. Although enshrined in a 2016 peace agreement with the country’s largest rebel groups, voluntary crop substitution accounts for less than 1% of the 130,147 hectares of coca fields destroyed in 2020, a sign of how weak it remains the presence of the state outside urban centers.

“A significant repeal of the security component would strengthen the hands of criminal actors and would be a point of friction with the United States,” said Cynthia Arnson, a Fellow at the Wilson Center in Washington and a longtime Colombian observer.

In other areas, such as trade and Venezuela, Peter could also face his American campaign platform Calls for the establishment of ‘smart tariffs’ to protect the province of Colombia from agricultural imports, allowed by the decade-old FTA with the US

He would be in Venezuela restoring relations with the socialist government of Nicolas Maduro – a move that is likely to anger many Republicans in Congress and worry nearly 2 million Venezuelan migrants seeking asylum in Colombia.

Until now, Peter had avoided inciting strife. IN 40-minute victory speechhe did not once mention the war on drugs, and his only reference to the United States was a call for dialogue to work together to tackle climate change, a priority for the Biden administration.

“It’s time to sit down with the United States and talk about what it means that they, like no other country in America, are a source of greenhouse gases that we ingest in our Amazon jungle,” he said.

The United States was similarly restrained, pointing to the fact that Petro’s victory came on the 200th anniversary of the day Colombia became the first former Spanish colony to be recognized as an independent state by the United States.

On Tuesday, President Biden spoke with Petro, congratulating him and Vice President France Marquez. famous conservationist – when choosing them. During the conversation, Biden stressed his interest in strengthening bilateral co-operation on climate change, health security and the implementation of the peace agreement, according to the White House.

“President Biden also welcomes the opportunity to discuss bilateral security and drug cooperation,” the White House said in a statement.

But while Peter, a former senator and mayor of the capital Bogota, has been a regular participant in politics for decades, the United States has had limited contact with him over the years.

This partly reflects what until recently were the limited prospects for the left in the socially conservative country. But the 2016 peace deal removed many activists’ fears and breathed new life into the younger demands of younger Colombians, less burdened by the bloody conflict. Petro, after losing the presidential race in 2018, then skillfully rode the wave of discontent, taking advantage of protests during the pandemic that paralyzed the outgoing conservative government of Ivan Duque and revealed the consequences of inequality worse than every other country in Latin America except Brazil.

During Petro’s slow rise, US officials consistently described him as a radical “populist” modeled on the late Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez, according to a secret US embassy telegram issued by the Wikileaks transparency group in 2006, or “pragmatic” according to another report sent two years later.

Whatever leadership style he adopts as president remains to be seen. But Peter has already made it clear that, unlike his predecessors, he is likely to look less at Washington and seek closer ties with fellow leftists in places such as Mexico, Chile and Argentina.

The ability of the United States to influence the direction of his government has also been limited by Ambassador Philip Goldberg’s departure earlier this month to take on his new mission in South Korea. The Biden administration has not yet nominated a deputy.

“It is extremely disappointing that Biden’s team has not appointed an ambassador to lead US policy during this critical transition period,” said John Feeley, a former US ambassador to Panama who also served as a diplomat in Colombia during the hunt. for the head of the Medellin cartel, Pablo Escobar, in the 1990s. “They can’t blame Republican obstructionism in the Senate for that, and it would be good to announce a nomination as soon as possible.

Goodman reported from Cleveland, Ohio

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