Upcoming presidential elections are a test for the United States’ partnership with Colombia

·7 min read
Raul Arboleda/Getty Images

Standing next to Colombia’s President Ivan Duque during a White House meeting in March, President Joe Biden praised the relationship with the South American nation, which he had just designated as a major non-NATO ally, as “the foundation of regional security and prosperity.”

The designation, granted only to Brazil and Argentina in the region, recognized the long-term security and military partnership between the two nations over the years, with a focus on fighting drug trafficking, and delivered a significant win for the conservative Duque during his last days in office.

But uncertainty looms over the future of the 200-year relationship between the two countries ahead of one of the most consequential elections in recent years for Colombians: A far-left candidate who is ahead in the polls has promised to take a fresh look at the narcotrafficking cooperation and trade with the United States.

The concern about the upcoming elections on Sunday came up during a U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Thursday when its ranking Republican member, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, asked a panel “what could happen, to our interests, not to mention the stability of the region, if Colombia would be lost to a direction that looks more like the instability we have seen in places like Venezuela.”

In a region where democratic backsliding is growing alarmingly, “one of our great successes is our engagement with Colombia,” he said. “I am always concerned about if ever there was change in Colombia.”

The face of that change is Gustavo Petro, 62, who is no newcomer in Colombian politics but has never been so close to becoming the next president. This is the third presidential bid for the former senator, Bogota mayor and M-19 guerrilla militant. He lost to Duque in 2018, but this time he is beating the center-right candidate, former Medellin mayor Federico Gutiérrez, in voter polls 37% vs. 25%, according to a poll tracker by the Americas Society/Council of the Americas.

A longtime admirer of Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez, Petro has campaigned on progressive policies like banning new oil explorations and transitioning away from fossil fuel, fighting poverty, implementing agricultural reform and raising taxes on the rich. His promises have found warm support among many in a country that has suffered badly due to the pandemic. They have equally scared investors.

On the foreign policy front, he has questioned several of the key tenets of the country’s relationship with the United States foreign policy.

He has criticized the U.S. “war on drugs” as a “failure” and said he wants to renegotiate the free trade agreement with the United States that has been in place since 2012. Petro also promised to restore relations with Venezuela’s strongman Nicolás Maduro and reopen the borders with that nation.

Just last week, Colombia’s Defense Minister Diego Molano said during an event at the Wilson Center in Washington that securing the border with Venezuela, where terrorist organizations such as the ELN launch operations against Colombia, is one of the biggest security challenges his country faces.

A Petro victory “would change the U.S.-Colombia relationship completely,” said Francisco Santos, a former Colombian ambassador to the U.S. He believes issues like climate change and environmental protection could be areas of cooperation that would survive political strains. “But the relationship in all other areas would get very cold.”

He also worries about China filling the void left by the United States if the relationship were to be scaled back.

Responding to Rubio’s question during the Senate hearing, Council of the Americas/Americas Society’s vice president Eric Farnsworth says if Colombia were to follow the same path as Venezuela, the consequences would extend far beyond the relationship with the United States, as “it is foundational to our ability to advance democratic and security interests throughout the hemisphere, not just Colombia.”

In a region where there’s a growing sense that this and previous U.S. administrations were not paying enough attention, Colombia is an outlier. The United States has sent $12 billion in aid to Colombia since 2000 to support the fight against narcotrafficking. Both the Trump and the Biden administrations have also provided millions in aid to help Colombia with the burden of absorbing 40 percent of the six million displaced Venezuelans who have left their country fleeing Maduro’s rule.

On the military side, Colombia is considered the closest U.S. partner in the region. Its army and security forces have received extensive U.S. training and weapons, and received 12 Black Hawk helicopters this month for use by the Colombian police, according to the U.S. Embassy in Bogotá.

The new “major non-NATO ally” designation allows Colombia to purchase depleted uranium ammunition and store U.S. reserve stockpiles, according to the State Department. The designation, which came into effect this week, also played into the U.S.’s broader strategy to contain Russia’s inroads in Latin America, a security goal which has now become a priority amid Vladimir Putin’s war on Ukraine.

The State Department said it expects cooperation with Colombia to continue, regardless of the elections’ results.

“The United States supports Colombia’s strong democratic institutions and looks forward to Colombia’s upcoming free and fair presidential elections,” a spokesperson said. “We stand ready to work with the next Colombian administration, whoever it is that the Colombian people choose to be their president.

“We look forward to celebrating 200 years of bilateral relations and to working with the new administration in Colombia, regardless of the outcome,” the spokesperson added. “We have every confidence the incoming administration will see the United States as a strong, reliable partner across a range of issues important to our societies.”

Congress is also working to make sure that whoever wins finds written into law a U.S. policy platform that includes issues of mutual interest that can be attractive for the new Colombian government.

The chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey, introduced Thursday the United States-Colombia Bicentennial Alliance Act of 2022, which codifies into law the major non-NATO ally designation and expands support for economic growth, security, the implementation of the 2016 Peace Accords and opportunities for women entrepreneurs, Afro-Colombians and indigenous communities.

“Today, Democrats and Republicans come together to initiate a new era in United States-Colombia relations that better reflects the complexities, challenges and opportunities of the modern world,” Menendez said, adding that the growing bipartisan support demonstrates “our recognition of Colombia’s prominence as a key player on the world stage and our most critical ally in Latin America.”

But tensions with the Petro campaign flared up following remarks by the U.S. ambassador to Colombia, Philip Goldberg, who mentioned the need to be on alert “and take care of the electoral process because there are countries like Russia that have meddled in elections.”

Petro’s running mate, Francia Marquez, a Black feminist lawyer and activist, responded from D.C., where she was attending an event, accusing the United States of intervening in the Colombian elections. She also said that the far right in the U.S. has spread disinformation about Pacto Historico, Petro and Marquez’ political party, through “the narrative of Castrochavism and making the United States believe that our presidency is a threat to the United States and Colombia.”

One of Petro’s campaign managers, Roy Barreras, quickly intervened to lower the tone, writing on Twitter that the U.S.-Colombia relationship “is a strength that must be handled with the utmost tact, experience and professionalism.”

Similarly, some analysts believe that if Petro wins, he would have to moderate his views in many other areas and face a divided Colombian Congress.

Ultimately, there’s nothing certain about the elections. Petro has lost three percentage points in the most recent polls, and a lesser-known candidate, the engineer Rodolfo Hernandez, is gaining momentum. If no candidate reaches more than 50 percent of the vote, the top two will face each other in a runoff scheduled for June 19.

On the U.S. side, there’s also confidence that Colombia’s democratic institutions would stand.

Speaking of the strategic military partnership this month, former U.S. Southern Command chief Adm. Craig Faller said that because of the shared belief in democratic values and the professionalization of Colombian forces, the relationship would stand the ups and downs of politics.

“I am a believer,” he said.

Rubio made a similar point during the Thursday hearing.

“As long as there is a democracy, Colombia would be OK,” he said. “They may elect someone we may not agree with, but ultimately they would have to govern themselves within the constraints of an electorate.”

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting