Leftist’s election to test Colombia’s alliance with US
It’s one of the United States’ few enduring alliances in an often-turbulent Latin America, one built around a decades-long partnership combating the nation’s drug cartels.
But Gustavo Petro’s election as Colombia’s first leftist president is likely to test the US’s special relationship with a major non-NATO ally like never before.
During the hard-fought contest, Petro, a former guerrilla, took aim at forced coca eradication and extradition – centrepieces of the US-backed drug war – as well as a free trade agreement with the US he blames for impoverishing Colombian farmers.
It remains to be seen whether he can implement his progressive agenda amid a fractured congress and opposition from powerful elites.
But just his promise of sweeping change in a country that has long been a bulwark of regional stability has many in Washington on edge – even if tracks the left’s resurgence throughout Latin America and was embraced by millions of Colombians fed up with enormous inequality and social injustice.
“Our combined efforts to combat transnational crime are over,” said Kevin Whitaker, a retired US diplomat who served as ambassador in Bogota from 2014 to 2019. “There’s no doubt that he’s going about this in a very different manner.”
But while Whitaker is sceptical of Petro’s motives and effectiveness as a leader, he said he couldn’t be in more agreement with his campaign’s overarching focus: boosting the presence of the state, not just security forces, in the long-neglected countryside.
“If he is able to explain his plan to the US, and bridge the deep urban-rural divide that has long been Colombia’s biggest challenge, then it doesn’t have to be a conflictive relationship,” said Whitaker.
The US helped Colombia pull back from the brink in 1999 with the launch of Plan Colombia to counter drug trafficking and the guerrillas who funded their insurgency through the transport of cocaine. Since then, successive Republican and Democratic administrations have provided more than $13 billion in military and economic assistance to Colombia – vastly more than any other country in Latin America.
Petro, 62, during the campaign criticised the linchpins of that bipartisan strategy.
On extradition, he said his government would prioritise truth-telling and compensation for the victims of powerful criminal groups rather than sending capos to the US to face justice. Every year, under special presidential order, Colombia extradites dozens of drug traffickers charged in the US.
He also attacked the forced eradication of coca – the base ingredient of cocaine – for criminalising otherwise law-abiding peasants and proving ineffective in reining in a record harvest. Instead, he would favour expanding crop substitution programmes that provide credit, training and land rights to rural farmers.
All of Petro’s goals, however admirable, face huge obstacles.
In the US, a large bureaucracy consisting of hundreds of federal law enforcement agents has built up around close cooperation that will be difficult to unwind, says Whitaker.
Petro is also likely to face stiff resistance from inside the Colombian armed forces, whose influence has expanded greatly on the back of US assistance and training.
Then there are the criminals themselves, who are unlikely to stand by idly if their profits are threatened. Despite being enshrined in a 2016 peace accord with the country’s largest rebel groups, voluntary crop substitution accounted for less than one per cent of the 130,147 hectares of coca fields eradicated in 2020 – a sign of just how tenuous the state’s presence remains outside urban centres.