Bloomberg — Cocaine, migration and peace talks will be high on the agenda when US President Joe Biden hosts Colombian leader Gustavo Petro at the White House on Thursday.
Petro, Colombia’s first leftist president, is taking his country in radical new directions in the war on drugs, foreign policy, and its economic model.
Amid all of this, Biden wants to ensure that the Andean nation remains a close ally of Washington, to prevent any further erosion of US influence in Latin America to China.
Here are the main issues to watch:
Petro leads the world’s biggest cocaine producer and Biden leads the biggest consumer of the drug.
Petro has repeatedly slammed Washington’s War on Drugs as a failure that has brought violence to Latin America without curbing addiction and overdoses in the US.
He’s seeking Biden’s backing for a new approach. But, after eight months in office, there is consternation among senior Democrats over Petro’s failure to make clear how he plans to tackle soaring drug production, according to Adam Isacson of the Washington Office on Latin America, who studies US policy toward the region.
Petro wants to target big traffickers and money launderers, while helping poor farmers who grow illegal crops to switch to something else. But there’s still no detailed plan with a budget and clear goals that the Biden administration could back, Isacson said.
In the first two months of the year, Colombian eradication of coca, the raw material for making cocaine, fell by 93% from a year earlier, a possible source of friction between him and the US, which has given Colombia billions in military aid to fight drugs.
Washington’s policy toward Venezuela has been no more successful than its attempts to curb the flow of drugs. Here too, Petro is calling for a new approach.
Economic sanctions imposed by the US since 2017 aggravated Venezuela’s humanitarian crisis, putting a strain on Colombia, which has received about 2 million migrants from its neighbor. But sanctions have failed to achieve their goal of dislodging the government of President Nicolas Maduro.
Petro has backed Maduro’s call for an end to sanctions and, as an unofficial conduit between the US and Maduro, is seeking US backing for his efforts to restart talks between Venezuela’s government and the opposition in the hope of having fair elections in 2024.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and fast US inflation mean that Biden would welcome an improvement of relations with Maduro that could potentially cut fuel prices and open the door to investment from US oil companies, said Gabriel Silva, a former Colombian ambassador to Washington.
China’s Growing Power
Washington officials were “troubled and alarmed” by Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva’s trip to Beijing this month, and are keen to deny an opening to China in Colombia, Isacson said.
Colombia has traditionally been the strongest ally of the US in the region, and Biden will try to bolster these ties, even as Petro forges closer relations with the governments of Venezuela and Cuba.
“We hear a lot of worry that Petro, even by trying to be more non-aligned, could create an opportunity for competitor powers,” Isacson said.
Petro will seek Biden’s backing for his plan for “Total Peace.” He hopes that through talks with several guerrilla groups and drug cartels whose armies dominate swathes of territory, he can end six decades of internal conflict.
Biden’s backing would help Petro sell this controversial policy back home in Colombia, according to Silva.
“If Biden supports Petro on Total Peace, it would be very difficult for people who don’t share his policies to claim that he’s strengthening organized crime, or favoring the expansion of illicit economies,” Silva said.
Hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans living in Colombia are waiting for permits that would allow them to work legally and access public services. Facing financial hardship and hostility, thousands of them every month now walk to Panama through the jungle, before continuing on toward the US southern border.
The US, Colombia and Panama reached a deal this month to try to stem these flows. Biden is keen to find ways to cut the number of migrants reaching the US southern border ahead of next year’s presidential election.
--With assistance from Oscar Medina, Andrea Jaramillo, Andreina Itriago Acosta, Patricia Laya and Jordan Fabian
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