Petro playing both sides in Colombia-US relations

The president is reaching out to Washington on issues like energy and drug policy, yet maintaining an anti-American rhetoric to appease his voter base back home

Colombian President Gustavo Petro receiving William Burns, director of the CIA, in Bogotá on October 21.
Colombian President Gustavo Petro receiving William Burns, director of the CIA, in Bogotá on October 21.HANDOUT (AFP)

The relationship between the United States and Colombia is at a good moment. There is clear consensus between the Petro and Biden administrations on issues such as the energy transition and the need to change anti-drug policies. The two governments are reaching out to one another to rebuild relations that have always been close, but languished during the administration of Iván Duque. Washington does not want to lose a strategic partner in the region, and Colombian President Gustavo Petro needs US support on many fronts, from peace with the guerrilla group ELN to the new relationship with Venezuela. In foreign policy they are on the same page, yet at the domestic level the Colombian president’s tone is not quite the same. Part of his voter base rejects the “gringos” and, in a situation of economic crisis like the current one, a scapegoat is needed. So Petro is carefully balancing his message depending on his audience.

In his first speech before the United Nations, he dropped veiled criticisms against Washington, yet just a few days earlier he had proposed to US President Joe Biden the creation of a joint military force to protect the Amazon. On Wednesday of last week, he accused the United States of “ruining all the economies of the world,” but on Friday he was shaking hands with CIA Director William Burns at a private meeting in Bogotá. Even Petro laughs at himself sometimes, as though aware of what one day was and is no longer. “A few decades ago we might have been enemies, today I am gifting him a hammock and a bag of panela,” he said in a tweet about the meeting. The political scientist Sandra Borda believes that this double game could have consequences: “The US has a margin of tolerance, they understand that speeches like the one at the UN or the one on Wednesday are not important, but that margin is not infinite.”

Both countries are interested in mutual understanding. The United States has lost power in the region in recent years, a decline that began under former president Donald Trump. In Latin America, numerous countries have veered to the left in recent years and are now turning their sights on China and Russia, which have been able to take advantage of America’s weakening presence in the region. Colombia has always been a key partner for the US, and Biden has viewed the new Petro presidency as an opportunity to relaunch that alliance and reposition himself in South America. The US president called Petro 48 hours after his victory, and Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited Colombia a few weeks ago.

The Colombian leader, who is much more focused on foreign policy than his predecessor Duque, also needs the American giant to help carry out his own reforms and plans. A delegation of US congressmembers was in Bogotá in recent days and expressed misgivings about the influence that China is trying to exert over Colombia. Petro picked up on that concern and proposed that Washington, in order to prevail over Beijing, might finance the purchase of land that the Colombian government wants to make as part of its agrarian reform plan. Also on the table is the exemption of the US visa for Colombians that Bogotá has requested, as securing the document is a long and cumbersome process that makes travel enormously difficult. The negotiation is not expected to be easy or short, but it would be a great success if Petro could deliver on it.

Domestic rhetoric

The real term in office of the Colombian president has just begun. The first two months following his inauguration were a time of elation: the country’s first clearly left-wing government had come to power with a battery of announcements and reforms that contrasted with the paralysis of the previous executive. Support for the president was 56% in August, opposition 20%. Two months later, opponents have doubled and his approval has dropped 10 points. Emotions have quieted down, and the global scenario is not helping: inflation, a rising dollar and the threat of a recession have lowered the expectations of economic growth that the government needs to carry out its plans. Criticism is becoming more acute, and the time is ripe to find external culprits.

Media headlines like the one claiming that “with Petro, the dollar will reach 5,000 pesos” are behind Petro’s recent public criticism of Washington. Last Friday, for example, the president showed a list of the devaluations of world currencies against the dollar, in which the Colombian peso ranked 24th. “Have they told you that the Colombian peso is the most devalued currency in the world? You have been lied to,” he wrote on Twitter two days after accusing the US of ruining the world’s economies. International Relations professor Mauricio Jaramillo downplays these messages. “The audience there are Colombians. He is not speaking to the US, because he knows that what Colombia, or any other country, says does not matter at all to US monetary policy. The US says: ‘I don’t care about effects on third parties, what I want is to stop inflation.’ And Petro is just trying to say ‘don’t blame me, the dollar will reach 5,000 because of a US strategy that affects us’.”

The president cannot afford to lose his political capital so quickly after taking office. Despite having won over voters who swore they would never vote for the former guerrilla fighter, his great support base lies in the more traditional left, which is fond of an anti-imperialist rhetoric and could feel cheated if the president gets too close to America. Petro is speaking to them when he brandishes his anti-American views. Borda sees a possible conflict there: “If the crisis intensifies, that rhetoric will also intensify, then there will be issues, such as visas, that will become difficult.”

Until now, Colombia and the United States have opted for an attitude of mutual tolerance. Petro needs to show success in foreign policy, and Biden needs to regain regional power. But things could change if Petro keeps up the bravado. Biden, for now, is choosing to cover his ears.

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