LatinNews Daily - 21 April 2023

COLOMBIA: Petro meets Biden in Washington

On 20 April, Colombia’s President Gustavo Petro met his US counterpart Joe Biden in the White House.


Publicly, the US did not raise any objections to the Petro administration’s change of direction on counter-narcotics or its engagement with President Nicolás Maduro’s authoritarian government in Venezuela. Behind closed doors, however, these issues are likely to have caused some tension. The slashing of coca eradication targets under Petro will have sparked concerns in the Biden administration that the world’s largest cocaine producer is letting go of the reins. Nevertheless, there is room for close bilateral cooperation on a number of issues – particularly the battle against climate change, which Petro placed at the forefront of his election campaign last year. Both leaders emphasised their commitment to environmental action, pledging to work together in the transition to clean energy.

  • According to a joint statement released after their meeting, Biden and Petro pledged to continue cooperating on the climate crisis and to accelerate the clean energy transition; to strengthen economic cooperation through the Americas Partnership for Economic Prosperity; and agreed that the US and Colombia should “adapt their engagement strategies to reflect this new moment in our shared history,” among other things.
  • The statement expressed the leaders’ commitment to a “holistic counter-narcotics strategy” which would include increased intelligence sharing. Biden expressed support for the Colombian government’s coca substitution programmes, while Petro reaffirmed that there is no possibility of coca fumigation being resumed under his government, and asked for the US to provide more drones and boats to be used in counter-narcotics.
  • Petro’s drug policy remains a likely source of tension given his longstanding criticism of the US-led war on drugs. In January, Colombia’s national police slashed its coca eradication target by 60%, reducing it from 50,000 hectares (ha) to 20,000ha.
  • The question of how to engage with the Maduro administration in Venezuela is another point of contention. Petro said that he pushed Biden to lift US sanctions if Maduro announces a timeline for holding free and fair elections. White House spokesman John Kirby said yesterday that the lifting of sanctions would require “concrete steps taken by the Maduro regime to make good on its commitments to negotiate in good faith and to help transition to a democracy”.
  • Publicly, Petro and Biden glossed over these sticking points. Petro said that “we are going down the same river, a river that leads us to ever greater democracy and ever greater freedom… we have a common agenda and a lot of work to do”. Biden described Colombia as “the key to the hemisphere” in the quest to make the Americas more “united, equal, democratic and economically prosperous”.
  • Petro said that Biden had supported the idea of reducing nations’ debt in return for climate action, and urged the US leader to make the case for such a scheme to the International Monetary Fund (IMF). He also said that Biden had agreed to assist with the Colombian government’s agrarian reform, which Petro has argued will bring economic, environmental and peace benefits.

Looking Ahead: Petro will be disappointed that he did not receive a vocal endorsement of his ‘total peace’ initiative from Biden. Whilst the US government has previously expressed support for Petro’s plans to negotiate the disarmament of all Colombia’s insurgent and criminal groups, a ringing endorsement from Biden might have helped quell domestic criticism of Petro’s plan to negotiate with drug trafficking organisations.

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