Privately, the administration sees some opportunities amidst the challenges. Officials with the National Security Council and the State Department have been preparing for the possibility of Colombia electing its first leftist leader, considering climate change and the implementation of a peace agreement between the Colombian government and the rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces. According to two people who have regular contact with the administration, Colombia, or FARC, Biden and Petro are two areas where they can find some common ground.
Ultimately, the direction of the relationship depends on Petro, said Dan Restrepo, Latin America’s top adviser under Barack Obama. “Like some people, you don’t have Biden or his team predicting where this is going. They are going to get involved, “he said.” More than less engagement during political change makes sense. “
According to White House readings, during his call to Petro, Biden discussed working together on issues such as climate change, health security and the implementation of the 2016 peace agreement. Petro promises to fully implement the historic peace agreement with FARC. Biden has long supported the Obama administration’s previous agreement.
Petro described the call with Biden as “very friendly.”
“I have now had a very friendly conversation with US President Biden on the path to a more intense and normal diplomatic relationship,” Petro wrote on Twitter. “In their words, a ‘more equal’ relationship for the benefit of both countries.”
But shortly after Petro’s victory, the domestic political landmass was already visible. In Florida, home to a long-standing swing state and an estimated 250,000 Colombian American voters, Petro’s election response was largely negative. There, leaders on both sides of the aisle have warned that Biden and US officials want to narrowly focus on the new left-wing leader before fully embracing it.
“The bilateral relationship is very strong and I think it’s important to keep going. But to do that, we need to make sure that the Petro administration does not interfere with the rights, including freedom of the press and all other rights in the Colombian Constitution,” said Senator Annette Taddeo, Democratic State of Florida.
Todddeo, a Colombian American, urged Biden officials to be “very careful” and “watch out for any movement that may be related.”
Biden and Democrats outperform Florida’s Hispanic electorate in the 2020 election. Former President Donald Trump made significant gains in Hispanics there – not only Republican-leaning Cuban Americans, but also Colombian Americans and other growing Latino populations.
The state’s large Hispanic population and long standing as a major swing state have long been a major voice in Latin American policy, but a further shift in the state has seen some national Democrats no longer need Florida to win the White House. Meanwhile, administration officials have long emphasized that they do not formulate their foreign policy on the grounds of doing well politically in South Florida.
The Biden administration’s swift moves to engage with Petro have indicated that the US is serious about keeping the South American country closer to separation before launching a leftist leader, several US former officials and area experts have said.
“This is a real effort by the White House to get on the right foot – and we will see if this is a sustainable approach,” said Eric Farnsworth, vice president of the think tank council for America. “Now, is he focusing on Colombia’s deepest economic problems, or is he trying to make a name for himself as the new spokesman for the international left? We have to wait.
Yet, clear points of tension between the two countries have already emerged.
Petro is a former member of the 19th April Movement, or group of M-19 guerrilla rebels, mobilized decades ago. Since then, he has served as Bogota’s lawmaker, senator and mayor. Her agenda is defined by her desire to expand social programs and focus on rural development to address deep social and ethnic inequality in Colombia, which has only worsened in recent years with the epidemic and economic turmoil in the region.
He voiced that the US-led war against drugs was a complete failure. He has also spoken of his desire to cut oil exports and renegotiate the terms of the US-Columbia Free Trade Agreement, which is unlikely to starve Washington.
Petro has already moved quickly on a campaign promise to normalize relations between Venezuela’s Colombia and Nicolas Maduro’s government – which moves against the US and dozens of other countries that have identified opposition leader Juan Guido as Venezuela’s legal leader. A day after speaking with Biden, Petro said he had discussed with Maduro about reopening the border between the two countries.
“There are clearly elements of Petro’s agenda that are in conflict with US interests in Latin America. That cannot be denied. Still, I think the treaty areas are also substantial,” said Benjamin Gedon, former South American director at the National Security Council under Obama and the current deputy director of the Wilson Center’s Latin American program. “I don’t want to exaggerate how beautiful the relationship is. But I think it’s possible.”
Gedon explained that there are several ways to portray Petro’s background, past statements and current reality – one former guerrilla sympathizes with the Maduro regime and questions the status quo with the US. When he entered office on August 7, Congress did not have a majority and faced a very weak financial position.
“There are signs that they’re not coming to the office ready to burn every bridge,” Geddon said. He noted Petro’s brief conversations following the victory of Biden and Foreign Secretary Anthony Blinken. “Flirting with a pragmatic approach to foreign policy and domestically has given a very different picture of someone pursuing their agenda.”
“There’s not a lot of raw material in any way that anyone would want to paint him,” Gedan added. “But how they behave in the office is really a big mystery.”