By Natalia Tamayo Gaviria, EL TIEMPO, April 17, 2023

(Translated by Eunice Gibson, CSN Volunteer Translator)

The President has arrived in New York. What will he do and who will be in his meetings in his weeklong trip?

Next Thursday, President Gustavo Petro will be received at the Oval Office in the White House by his United States counterpart, Joe Biden. This is the first time that the two Presidents will meet and talk about an agenda covering bilateral interests that also have to be acted on by Congress.

For that reason, Colombia’s President has organized meetings with Senators and Representatives from both the Republican and Democratic parties. They are the ones who ultimately approve the funds this country needs in order to continue with its peace, environment, and drug policies, the main subjects of the President’s trip to the U.S.

“The relationship between Colombia and the U.S. is between governments, not just a relationship between Presidents, in this case Biden and Petro, but including business owners, Members of Congress, and also other actors,” pointed out Mauricio Jaramillo Jassir, the political analyst.

The former United States diplomat and international consultant, Lawrence Gumbiner, explains that “Congress has a great deal of power in the bilateral relationship between Colombia and the United States, with political, but also financial, support. It has to approve the budget for assistance to Colombia, and that will consist of areas supporting the peace process, climate change, military coordination, and the war on drugs.”

Other issues that the President will bring up with Biden and the Members of Congress are energy transition, migration, and new opportunities for business and investment. In his quest for funding, Petro will also approach the private sector, which could be of assistance, for example, with Colombia’s goals for the reparation of the victims of the conflict.

This week, at the National Council for Peace, Reconciliation, and Co-existence, the President warned that the country does not have sufficient funds to indemnify the victims, and needs alternatives to help the people who have suffered first hand from the war.

Closely related agendas

According to Gumbiner’s explanation, peace and climate change are subjects on the agenda that won’t create big differences between the parties, as will be seen, for example, in the war on drugs and the new vision that Petro brought with him to the Presidency. “It’s strategic to focus the conversations on those areas,” added the former diplomat.

With regard to peace, Jaramillo Jassir believes that the administration is hoping for a “gesture by the United States for the negotiations with the ELN, which they have delegitimized.” He recalled that during the dialogs with the FARC, the U.S. delegated Bernard Aronson as a Special Envoy to accompany the process. And the administration, which is starting a third cycle of conversations with those guerrillas in Cuba at the end of April, would like to see something like that.

Besides that, the meetings with Biden and the Members of Congress will be key for President Petro to explain his “total peace” policy. “Although Petro will receive strong support from the Biden administration with relation to peace, he will have to convince the skeptics (Republicans and those Democrats who are more conservative) that his plan for “total peace” does not represent a pardon for the criminals and terrorists in the country,” maintains Gumbiner.

The protection of the ecosystems and biodiversity and taking more decided actions against global warming are subjects that unite both Presidents. “The United States can be a partner and an important ally in dealing with those problems, and Petro has manifested his interest internationally in conserving the Amazon and undertaking the energy transition toward clean sources in the country,” stated Jaramillo Jassir.

The war on the drug traffic

On this subject, President Petro will bring his proposal to change the focus, not just talking about the failure of the war on drugs, but also to present alternatives to the prohibitionist model that has been very much a part of the bilateral relationship in recent years. “There is no viable anti-drug agenda in Colombia, if it isn’t negotiated with the U.S.,” comments Jaramillo Jassir.

Gumbiner agrees with that and puts great stress on the necessity for Petro to get especially close with the Republicans. “There is great concern in that party over the anti-drug trafficking policy of the Petro administration and over the increasing production of cocaine in the country. The most critical goal for him in the meetings with Congress is to reaffirm his commitment to combat the drug traffic jointly. Although there might be differences in tactics, Petro has to convince the Republicans of his determination. That is particularly important given the control they have over the House of Representatives, and their role in approving the budget for assistance to Colombia,” emphasizes Gumbiner.

Even though right now the main concern of the United States on drugs is that fentanyl is being consumed recreationally and has consequences more awful than those of cocaine, the former diplomat stresses that Colombia has been an important partner for the North American country in the war on drugs, so it’s imperative to put the matter on the table.

In addition, Gumbiner believes that the United States, besides hoping to reinforce the bilateral relationship on the war on drugs, President Biden also wants his Colombian counterpart to support his rejection of the Russian aggression in Ukraine, “with the understanding that Colombia wants to remain neutral in the conflict”.

Finally, among the subjects on the agenda, in spite of the fact that Colombia does not have it as a top item, the United States is interested in talking up the subject of migration, particularly from Venezuela. There are expectations in the Biden administration regarding the role that President Petro is taking on by building bridges between Venezuela and the opposition.

“If Petro could be an interlocutor with Maduro to advance the process of democratization in Venezuela, if that were to assure free elections in 2024, he can count on U.S. and international support, but if his efforts only serve to build status for Maduro without progress toward democracy, there could be negative consequences for the bilateral relationship with the United States.”

Institutionalization of the relationship

That the United States has invited President Petro to the White House indicates “the importance of the relationship between Colombia and the U.S., and that it has been strengthened by the election of President Petro. The meeting will be the continuation of many high level meetings in the last eight months, including the visits by Secretary of State Blinken, and by Senator Robert Menendez (Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee), the dialog that took place in Washington in March, and the Bilateral Defense Work Group, that took place in April in Bogotá. So Colombia has been a strategic partner for the U.S. for many decades, and it’s important that that continue.”

With a different reading, Mauricio Jaramillo Jassir sees the opportunity of this invitation to re-institutionalize the country’s diplomacy which, in recent months, has been transferred to Twitter, to his way of thinking.

“The visit with all the formalities will give the President visibility and legitimacy and reaffirm the importance of having foreign policy be institutional. Let’s remember that Petro has made statements and made decisions that were criticized in tweets from Peru and El Salvador, for example,” the analyst explains.

Because this is the first formal meeting between President Petro and his counterpart and United States Members of Congress, since his is a leftist administration, he will have to demonstrate that he is capable of sustaining a strategic relationship with the U.S., one of the partners that’s most important for Colombia. “He will need to prove that he has evolved from being a guerrilla, an opposition leader, and a leftist to being a head of state, ready to play a positive role for democracy, steering clear of being an ideologue,” concluded the former diplomat.

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