international analysis and commentary

The Colombian elections, the US and the global setting with China on the hunt

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After winning elections on June 19th, Gustavo Petro will serve as Colombia’s next president until 2026. The 62-year-old former guerilla is the first leftist leader to take office in the country, which alone demonstrates the victory’s importance. How will this election impact global geopolitics, particularly for the Latin American continent?

Gustavo Petro and his running mate Francia Marquez celebrating their victory in Bogota, Colombia

 

Petro won thanks to the leftist Pacto Histórico bloc, which includes about 30 parties. Through this coalition the former mayor of Bogotá promised a new, more inclusive, and pro-environmental production model, a halt to oil drilling, a tax reform making the wealthy pay more taxes, and more social investment. Petro also announced the normalization of ties with Venezuela and committed to improve the 2016 Peace Accord with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), including a new peace deal with the National Liberation Army (ELN) militants.

Petro’s agenda will also affect Colombia’s historically tense ties with Venezuela and the United States. According to foreign affairs analyst Alfredo Coronil Hartmann, “Colombia has been a vital ally” for the US on a continent where Washington appears to have fewer and fewer unwavering allies.

However, two factors currently modify this triangulation. The first is the warming of US-Venezuela ties, which began on March 5th and changed the situation before Gustavo Petro’s victory in Colombia. Normalizing relations with Venezuela would benefit Joe Biden’s administration by expanding access to its oil, given that the Ukraine crisis has removed the possibility of sanctioned imports of Russian crude for some of Washington’s European allies.

Beyond the prevalent political correctness of “woke” pronouncements, the adage “We don’t have friends and enemies, we have interests” has long been used to describe Washington’s actions and Biden hasn’t made any changes to this. The Venezuelan dictatorship appears to be a minor concern for Washington’s goals compared to getting access to such a crucial resource as oil. Following Petro’s election triumph, Colombia is unlikely to ignore Venezuela given that its principal ally, the United States, does not.

The second factor that can impact Colombia’s foreign policy is Petro’s victory. According to political scientist and regional development expert Daniel Arias, Petro’s victory undoubtedly opens a radical change in Colombia’s foreign policy. Arias assures that in the Venezuelan case, the connection can lead to alliances promoted by the left to take actions such as putting aside the union with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) with the idea of seeking to break those policies of relationship with the US. “Perhaps there will be a incorporation into the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (Alba)”, affirms Arias, adding that this would mean a blow to the Organization of American States (OAS) “and finally a way to seek the scheme of the left waiting for Lula’s victory in Brazil, in conjunction with Mexico to try to eliminate the OAS”.

 

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The bilateral relationship between Washington and Bogotá has solid underpinnings, according to Michael Weiner, a senior associate at the American consulting company Albright Stonebridge Group. “Colombia will remain a crucial strategic ally of the United States in the region,” he said. However, Petro has criticized both nations’ security methods and the battle against organized crime. “For the US to succeed, it must approach these initiatives differently,” Weiner continued. “Policies like extradition and the eradication of coca in rural regions are likely to be reviewed by the Petro administration.”

According to Vice Admiral Mario Iván Carratú Molina, a former head of the Venezuelan Military House, “The first actions under Petro will be the removal of American military bases from Colombia, the departure of military advisors from the US Armed Forces, and the dismantling of the Drug Enforcement Administration’s intelligence operations in Bogotá”. It’s hard to say if he’s correct, but the geopolitics of Latin America will undoubtedly change due to Petro’s victory. For sure, the new President’s plans run opposed to both the trade and anti-drug interests of the United States. Petro wants to renegotiate the Free Trade Agreement with Washington signed in 2013 by Álvaro Uribe and terminate the drug war that Bogotá has been waging until now in perfect coordination with the United States, which has long been Colombia’s principal ally in the fight against narcotics.

Until Petro will assume office as President on August 7th, it is hard to predict if he will be able to keep his promises. Petro has a monumental challenge ahead of him because people distrust governmental institutions, and poverty and hunger are at their greatest levels in 20 years in Colombia.

To fulfill his promises, Petro would have to effectively implement parts of the peace agreements that have been blatantly neglected since the 2016 peace deal  signed in Havana between the Colombian government of President Juan Manuel Santos and the FARC, to end more than 50 years of bloody civil war, including rural economic growth and integration after a long and bloody civil war. The incoming president has called yesterday for a rapid negotiation with the ELN, and has suggested applying the 2016 peace deal with the demobilized FARC also to those combatants who reject the agreement and formed dissident groups.

 

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The best-case scenario would be to develop an economic plan capable of increasing tax revenues, expanding social welfare, and managing Colombia’s abundant natural resources to capitalize on the high commodity prices.

However, Petro has said that he would halt mining and oil activities, making it more difficult for Colombia to earn funds and collect royalties. The proposed social programs would also likely exceed the budget, resulting in a growing deficit.

In addition, substantial external factors, such as sluggish growth and high inflation might impact Petro’s administration. Even if he is thriving as a leader, these global challenges will make life difficult for his administration. Those who voted for him may quickly turn against him if he does not fulfill any of his countless promises.

From Washington’s standpoint, the anti-Americanism that defines a large portion of the left in Latin America may benefit China, further undermining US geopolitical influence in the region. Due to the severe economic constraints, Petro and other Latin American progressive leaders are very receptive to China’s policy of giving loans and making multimillion-dollar expenditures on infrastructure.

In order to prevent China from getting the upper hand in Latin America, the Biden administration must strengthen its ties with Venezuela and Colombia on critical challenges such as climate change and the fight against corruption. The consequences of some of the policy decisions made today may be long lasting and even global in nature.