By Jesús Mesa, CambioColombia, July 22, 2022

(Translated by Eunice Gibson, CSN Volunteer Translator)

The first meeting between the President-Elect and a delegation from the Joe Biden administration made clear that the issues that will occupy the bilateral agenda will be climate change, economic development, the implementation of the Peace Agreement, and the war on drugs.

Climate change, economic development, implementation of the Peace Agreement, and the war on drugs were the main subjects of the conversation between President-Elect Gustavo Petro and the high-level delegation from the United States government. A meeting described by both parties as “cordial”, which confirmed the impression left after the congratulatory call by President Joe Biden to Petro last June 21.

“It’s a positive meeting, because it demonstrates the interest that now exists in the United States government about Latin America and about Colombia. Above all, an interest built around common efforts between equals. Trying to construct the reasons that will allow us to resolve most effectively the problems that weigh upon our two countries,” stated the President-Elect before turning the microphone over to Jonathon Finer, Deputy National Security Adviser for the United States, who led the United States delegation.

“President Biden sent our team here to recognize the fact that the United States and Colombia are two sovereign nations and equal partners that have a very strong relationship that has been built and developed over decades. We in the Biden administration, are committed to expand it and strengthen it over time,” affirmed the leader of the delegation.

Finer, who formerly worked in the State Department during the administration of Barack Obama, was accompanied by Phil Gordon, National Security Adviser to Vice President Kamala Harris; Brian Nichols, Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs; and Juan González, Director of Western Hemisphere Affairs for the National Security Council, and who is of Colombian origin.

For the Colombian side, Petro was accompanied by Álvaro Leyva, Minister of Foreign Affairs-designate and Luis Gilberto Murillo, the incoming Colombian Ambassador to Washington. Along with the President-Elect were Laura Sarabia, Private Secretary; Arlene Tickner and Fernando García of the Foreign Affairs Ministry transition team, and Marcela Ceballos, of Colombia’s Immigration transition team and of the Administrative Department in the President’s Office.

In a session with national and international media, Finer furnished some of the details of the conversation with the President-Elect. Although he described the conversations with Petro as positive, in a press conference after the meeting, he said that there will always be areas in which we will be in disagreement, “as with any relationship with the United States.”

“Colombia is a sovereign nation and it will make its own decisions. Those decisions will have implications for bilateral relationships, but this is a relationship which is greater and broader than just our cooperation and collaboration in the matter of the drug traffic,” explained Finer, referring to a question about policy on the war on drugs, of which President-Elect Petro has been a strong critic.

Not long ago, in the presentation of the Final Report of the Truth Commission, Fr. Francisco de Roux called attention to the role that different international governments have had—and still have—in the development of the armed conflict in Colombia. The focus on the war on drugs, according to De Roux, has been the cause of much damage to the country, and the United States has perhaps been its principal funding source.

Dealing with this subject in a press conference, Jonathon Finer insisted that cooperation in the area of security would continue “to be a priority, as it has been for decades.” Even so, he said that Washington is disposed to accept any change made within the Armed Forces, such as the Police reform that Petro promised in his campaign.

“We understand perfectly that there will be changes, and we are ready to work with those in our security association that works for both countries, and on an agenda that is in our common interest,” he said.

The United States delegation also insisted that Washington supports Petro’s proposal to implement in its totality the Peace Agreement signed in 2016 with the FARC. The Agreement was strongly supported during the administration of Barack Obama, when current President Biden was the Vice President. In fact, Finer anticipated that the person who will lead the United States government delegation that will attend Petro’s inauguration on August 7 will be Samantha Power, the current Director of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).

“We believe that she will also take part in some of the conversations that we had today. So we are committed to working with the new administration on a matter as important as the implementation of the Agreement,” he said.

One of the issues distinguished by its absence was that of the re-negotiation of the Free Trade Agreements, which has been an important flagship for the Colombian left ever since the Agreements were signed during the administration of Juan Manuel Santos. The last time the issue was raised was in a conversation between Petro’s team and staff of the United States Embassy in Colombia last July 13.

Another area that will be central in the relationship between the two countries will be the role that Colombia plays in the political crisis in Venezuela, which has forced millions of Venezuelans to emigrate from their country. Although it’s not known whether the issue was on today’s agenda, we know that in Washington there is concern about approaches by Petro with Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, with whom he said he plans to re-establish relations. This automatically implicates removing the recognition of Juan Guaidó as the acting President of Venezuela.

On that subject, the United States delegation was clear, and said that the United States maintains its position of recognizing Guaidó as acting President of Venezuela, but, contrary to the position of the Donald Trump administration, it argues for a negotiated solution. This is a position that they say is shared by the entering administration of Gustavo Petro.

“We think that this also could be an area of common ground with the entering administration, since, although they take a different focus than their predecessors, as they have said they intend to discuss recognition and normalization with Maduro,” he said.

Friendliness as a favorable signal

“The friendliness of the conversations between the administrations of Petro and Biden offer clear signals that at least at the beginning, both countries are planning to have a good relationship,” as Mauricio Jaramillo Jassir, Professor of International Relations at Rosario University, explains to CAMBIO.

“The priority now should be to broaden the bilateral agenda, denarcotize it, include human rights, and strengthen implementation of the Peace Agreement, so that Colombia comes back to being a success story at the regional level,” he insisted.

Joe Biden is perhaps one of the United States politicians most familiar with Colombia. At the beginning of the millennium, during the administration of Andrés Pastrana of Colombia, and as Vice President with Barack Obama, he vigorously supported the peace process between the administration of Juan Manuel Santos and the FARC guerrillas.

Now as President, Biden has argued for the implementation of the Peace Agreement and has supported initiatives such as the exclusion of the FARC as a group from the much-feared list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTO), and a new anti-narcotic agreement that would include protecting the community leaders that are promoting the application of the laws.

In a year in which the United State and Colombia celebrate 200 years of bilateral relations, the good communication between the Biden and Petro administrations will be key to both their interests. Trade, implementation of the Peace Agreement, energy transition, and the migration crisis are some of the several points in common that they have to put in order after four years of improvisation, in which there were more blunders than certainties.

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