By George Barber
On June 19, 2022, former M-19 guerilla fighter Gustavo Petro was elected the President of Colombia after defeating businessman Rodolfo Hernandez. Many celebrated Petro as the first left-wing president of the South American nation. After the election of several leftist leaders in the region, Colombia is the latest to shift to the left, with Brazil seeming likely to follow suit in its October elections.
Colombia has long been considered a U.S. ally in Latin America; in fact, it was the first Latin American nation to which the United States conferred diplomatic recognition in 1822. More recently, it has been an important country for U.S. interests due to its position as a major transshipment point of narcotics originating in Perú and Bolivia. These narcotics were perceived to threaten national security, beginning an era of cooperation between the United States and Colombian police and military forces to combat the influence and operations of the drug cartels that formed to take advantage of the drug market flowing north to the United States.
After 200 years of formal diplomatic relations, Colombia is poised for change. The question is: How will Petro’s presidency affect US-Colombia relations, and how might he alter Colombia’s foreign policy?
On June 21, President Joe Biden spoke with Petro to congratulate him on his victory while reaffirming U.S. support for Colombia. Biden also highlighted his desire to continue collaborating on climate change, security, and counternarcotics operations. In March, President Biden met with then-President Ivan Duque to commemorate 200 years of diplomatic relations. In a speech, President Biden cited the importance of Colombia to the United States, calling it “the linchpin…to the whole hemisphere,” and announced that Colombia would be designated a Major Non-NATO Ally.
As the United States pushes to isolate dictatorships in the region, specifically Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela, the election of Petro seems to be unwelcome news. Following Petro’s decision to resume diplomatic relations with Venezuela after Colombia severed ties in 2019, Venezuela has a new opportunity for cooperation.
According to Diosdado Cabello, the First Vice President of Venezuela’s ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), “It (Petro’s election) radically changes the relationship with Venezuela.” Diplomatic relations were initially severed after former Colombian President Duque’s administration refused to recognize Nicolás Maduro as President of Venezuela in 2019.
Petro’s recognition of Maduro, in conflict with the policy of the United States, could complicate relations with the United States. After the leaders of México, Guatemala, and Honduras did not attend this year’s Summit of the Americas to express discontent with the United States for not inviting Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela, it would seem that Petro would join a growing bloc that is becoming less cooperative with the United States.
The election of Petro could also be problematic for Venezuelan opposition figures in Colombia. While millions of Venezuelans have left the country due to the economic crisis, around 2 million find themselves in Colombia due to geography and Duque’s support of Juan Guaidó, whom the United States and Duque recognize as Venezuela’s rightful leader. After Petro’s election, political activists opposing Maduro feared potential extradition to Venezuela but may have been calmed by Petro’s statement that Colombia would guarantee the right to asylum and refuge.
Recently, Petro addressed the United Nations General Assembly. He spoke at length about the importance of fighting climate change and the failed war on drugs, citing that the problem behind the pressing issues facing the world is “the addiction to irrational power, profit, and money. Here is the huge deadly machinery that can extinguish humanity.”
In the same speech, Petro emphasized the climate crisis as crucial to the large numbers of emigration in the region, saying,
If you observe that the peoples are filling up with hunger and thirst and migrating by the millions towards the north, towards where the water is; then you enclose them, build walls, deploy machine guns, shoot at them. You expel them as if they were not human beings, you reproduce five times the mentality of those who politically created the gas chambers and the concentration camps, you reproduce on a planetary scale 1933…Do you not see that the solution to the great exodus unleashed on your countries is to return to water filling the rivers and the fields full of nutrients?… you do business with medicines and turn vaccines into commodities.
While he did not mention the United States in his lengthy speech, it would appear Petro directed the criticism at the global power. Given Petro’s outspoken discontent against the status of the United States as a world superpower and its promotion of free-market principles seem to be sources of agitation for Petro’s administration.
Given Petro’s hostility to neoliberal economic policy, many are asking: will capital flee Colombia? Petro indicated he would seek to change Colombia’s economic outlook and named José Antonio Ocampo Minister of Finance, who many see as experienced and respectful of institutions. Ocampo also plans to combat social inequality and has stated a progressive tax reform is necessary.
A key policy position of Petro is his stated intention to phase out fossil fuels, not without difficulty as, Colombia relies on oil and gas for around 40 percent of its exports. With the current oil market very tight due to the sanctions placed on Russia after its invasion of Ukraine, more oil coming off of the market could be problematic for consumers in the United States as it wars against inflation. It could also make U.S. relations with Venezuela more of a headache, giving Venezuela a slightly more favorable position in the world market.
In the meantime, the Petro administration seeks to raise export taxes on oil and gas while also removing corporate tax exemptions. One economist noted that some companies will prefer to invest in nearby Guyana due to no taxes on oil exports there, but that Colombia should still be able to maintain a favorable economic outcome, at least in the short term, due to oil demand being high because of the growing energy crisis from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
If Petro continues warming relations with Venezuela, it could hurt the United States as it attempts to isolate dictatorships in the region, namely Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela, which likely seek better relationships with states in the region to better balance against the United States. This relationship is further complicated by the crisis in Ukraine and recent damage to the Nordstream 2 pipeline, which could incentivize the United States and European Union to look to Venezuela for energy as winter approaches, further empowering the Maduro regime. Overall, Petro’s election could add a friendlier nation to the region’s growing bloc of left-wing dictators, inducing headaches for the U.S. Latin American policy.
George Barber is a student at the University of Georgia studying International Affairs and History, and is also a Research Analyst at London Politica.