EL COLOMBIANO, April 20, 2023


(Translated by Eunice Gibson, CSN Volunteer Translator)

The war on drugs, agricultural reform, and climate change were the main topics at their first face-to-face meeting in the White House.

Less than a year after his inauguration—while his “total peace” languishes and he proposes a swerve in the war on drugs–, President Gustavo Petro made a transcendental leap in the area of foreign policy. In the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, the first leftist Head of State in Colombia had a friendly and fraternal face-to-face this Thursday with the Chief Executive of the United States, Joe Biden.

The appointment, preceded by an intense agenda and some unusual lobbying in the halls of the U.S. Congress, lasted for nearly an hour and there were some 200 undocumented Colombians outside the White House who, cheering, asked that they receive protected status.

And although migration was one of the subjects that the two Presidents were able to discuss, the focus was centered on three collateral matters that, even though they have marked the relationship between the two countries in recent years, are now subjects of enormous changes: the war on drugs, agricultural reform, and climate change.

And in the ins and outs of the meeting there was one key issue that marked Petro’s visit to North American soil: Venezuela and the attempt to loosen the conversations between “Chavismo” and its opposition, and get over the crisis in the neighboring country.

“Colombia is the keystone of the continent. We have shared efforts and, if we work together, we could really have a continent that would be united, equalitarian, democratic, and economically prosperous,” said Biden to Petro in a fraternal tone.

The failure of the war on drugs

At times under Petro’s baton when the eradication of coca plantings took a resounding fall from 93% and the emphasis now is on the seizure of cocaine, the Colombian President—once more—laid on the table the necessity to refocus the policy of the war on drugs.

With Biden, the Colombian President pointed out the foundations of his anti-narcotics strategy, based on zero glyphosate and endorsement of having the campesinos continue to plant coca until the substitution programs show results. Evidence of that is that, even though in 2022 the number of hectares planted in coca shot up by 43%, the administration didn’t eradicate a single hectarea in January of 2023.

“It’s well understood that it’s one thing to fumigate a field, harming some human beings that lack economic power, and another thing to go after the drug trafficking business, starting with their intelligence efforts, with their property, their money and with prohibition,” defended Petro, who indeed bragged about the destruction of 70 cocaine paste laboratories between January and February, or the seizure of more than 10 tons of cocaine in the same period.

While Biden admitted plainly that they “are working together to combat the drug traffic,” Petro—in a press conference after the meeting—said that he asked for “a little more help” in the war against the cartels. “We need more small vessels, launches, or drones. There is important progress, I’m not saying it’s complete, but it is definitely making it harder for the illegal economy.”

The President even urged “studying more in depth” the substitution of the consumption that we see in the United States. That’s an indirect reference to fentanyl, a drug that—to the detriment of cocaine—is increasingly being used in North America and is responsible for the death of at least 8 people every hour in the U.S. Petro called it by its name when he discussed the problem at the meeting he had with Democratic Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi.

“We want to open the discussion of this issue and how we could articulate international drug policy with the increase in violence in Latin America and Colombia. The path to peace goes through understanding the circumstances that humanity is living through,” he said.

Although the President insisted on the new dynamics of the market and the failure of the war on drugs—a matter that’s part of his “total peace” and security policy–, for Professor Rafael Piñeros, a specialist in the analysis of contemporary political and international problems at Externado University, it’s “not very likely” and it will be difficult to make changes on this issue.

“It’s not a priority for the United States to change the focus it has used in recent years. There are funds that are already committed for a specific objective: the war on drugs, and it’s not so simple to change that objective. Congress would have to do it, and that would take a negotiation that could be complicated. Besides, drugs continue to arrive in the United States in increasing amounts, and that generates pressure on Biden to do more. It implies specific results of reduction, which are not happening.”

The hands of the gringos in agricultural reform

Collateral to the war on drugs and his policy of “total peace”, Petro suggested to Biden an aspect that has economic and security implications: agricultural reform. Although his administration has budgeted 3 billón pesos (roughly USD $665,000,000 at today’s exchange rates) for the purchase of land, and has aimed to speed up the process of land restitution, President Petro asked the cooperation of the United States in making Colombia’s agrarian reform a reality.

Along these lines, Petro pointed to the frustrated and incomplete Alliance for Progress that John F. Kennedy mapped out in the ‘60’s, trying to promote agricultural productivity in Latin America. In the case of Colombia, according to Petro, if the campesinos would have access to land, that would also contribute to attacking the criminal organizations that use inequality to strengthen their criminal businesses.

“We put together the Alliance during the construction of a much more effective drug policy; providing the campesinos with better guarantees and conditions for producing anything except coca leaves. (Biden)was committed,” maintained Petro.

From the Oval Office, the U.S. President marked the assistance from the Alliance to the Americas for Economic Prosperity, a program that Colombia joined so that—according to Biden–, the thinking was “so that our economies could grow from below to above, from the center to the coasts, and not from the above to below.”

He advanced an exchange of debt for climate activities

Perhaps the point in which there was the greatest agreement between Petro and Biden was the war on climate change and on the energy transition, an imperative that the Colombian President has placed as a regional priority. There was such harmony in this area that Biden himself said he agreed “with everything” suggested by Petro to arrive at a decarbonized economy. Along that line, he affirmed the joint efforts to confront climate change and the allotment of $500,000,000 for the protection of the Amazon region.

In response, Petro insisted on his green agenda for the region and on passing from “the capital and the greed for fossil fuels that is growing with hurricane force to an economy that doesn’t use carbon, petroleum or gas.”  There is an attachment that Biden recognized, an electric interconnection of the whole continent with Panama as the focus for clean energy. All of that, under the umbrella of the Alliance for Progress.

President Petro also called for the possibility that countries’ external debt might be paid by actions taken against climate change. “Biden seemed to understand that proposal.”

According to Professor Piñeros, in spite of the fact that there is a common interest in developing that point, the United States is well aware that the transition won’t be carried out overnight, and any changes have to be progressive. “There are funds and technology transfers.”

Petro’s assessment and the working out of their different agendas after this first face-to-face meeting with Biden is favorable and translates into the first step on the road that, nevertheless, is full of ideological arguments, but also of negotiations based on the interests of both parties. The trip is just beginning.

The plan for Venezuela: “First the elections, then lifting sanctions”

Besides Colombia’s own interests, President Gustavo Petro arrived at the White House with one more subject in his pocket that is particularly interesting to him: having the United States lift its sanctions against Venezuela, an express request from his best friend in the region, President Nicolás Maduro.

It was not for nothing that, before his meeting with Joe Biden, Petro held meetings with key Members of Congress, not only to add supporters for his policy of “total peace” and the war on drugs, but also to help out Venezuela.

Included among the Members he met with was no less than Nancy Pelosi, the former Speaker of the House of Representatives, and Senator Bob Menendez, Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

And if that were not enough, on Wednesday—no less than before the Organization of American States (OEA)—President Petro asked, as a necessity, that Venezuela be returned to the Inter-American Human Rights System.

In the face-to-face with Biden, Petro—who denied being a mediator—bragged about the international summit that he developed for next Tuesday in Bogotá to unfreeze the dialogs between Chavismo and its opposition.

According to the calculations being made in the President’s Palace, for those first conversations to prosper, the sanctions have to be lifted and, and straight off, there have to be guarantees of free and transparent elections to define Maduro’s future in 2024.

“This week’s conversations and those that will continue in México could gravitate around the two tracks that might be pushed forward gradually. On the one hand, the Venezuela timetable for elections with guarantees. For the other hand, slowly deactivating the sanctions. We will arrive at a goal and that is that the people decide freely on their own social and political destiny, without sanctions or pressures.”

However, as the popular song goes, the devil is in the details. Petro admitted that he had barely laid out what the order in the equation would be: if they lifted the sanctions first and then held elections—as Maduro obstinately keeps wanting—or if the regime could go forward in a dialog with the opposition before the blockade is lifted and guarantee transparent elections.

“There was a strategy laid out on the table which was to first have the elections and then have the sanctions lifted, or that very slowly, to the extent that they are carrying out an agenda for elections, the sanctions could be lifted gradually,” he explained.

In spite of Petro’s plans and prognostications, what’s clear is that the path to having the United States soften is position on Venezuela seems to be bogged down, more and more as the Presidential election of 2024 approaches and there is pressure on Biden.

A high official at the White House even had to send out a statement denying what Colombia’s Ambassador to Venezuela, Armando Benedetti, said, “negotiating lifting the sanctions for several months.” “We have no idea what he’s talking about,” responded a U.S. official, thus demonstrating the hard road that’s coming for the interests of Petro and Maduro.

“Rambling on and not saying anything,” criticized Salazar, the Republican

During his tour of the United States, President Gustavo Petro had a tough face-to-face with one of his strongest opponents in the North American area, Florida Representative María Elvira Salazar. Although the meeting was cordial, there was no lack of argument or controversy, to the point that Petro compared her with María Fernanda Cabal or Paloma Valencia, while the Republican Congresswoman didn’t hesitate to call him “Socialist”, and she expressed her “disappointment” with their encounter.

Salazar, of Cuban origin, lamented that, in spite of the fact that she asked the President of Colombia “a lot of questions”, she didn’t get answers. ”Basically, he didn’t answer a single question. What he did was give a class in history and talk about the oppression of the people of Latin America by the United States. We are in 2023, when there are problems that are concrete and specific,” she claimed.

Representative Salazar is a prominent protagonist in gringo Latin America policy, as she not only is known for the spectacularity surrounding every one of her speeches, due to her career in television and journalism before getting into politics—but also for being part of a bloc of opposition to Joe Biden and for attacking any leftist figures that are starting to establish themselves on the continent. At the local level, Salazar is known for having counted on former President Álvaro Uribe’s tacit help in her campaign for the Latino vote.

Regarding her meeting with Petro, she explained that she asked him if he thought that the economic, political, and social model of Nicolás Maduro, the President of Venezuela, was a good one or not. And along with that, whether he wanted to implement that model. However, she complained that he had been evasive. “He rambles on without saying anything and that’s what the Socialists do, like Fidel (Castro), Maduro or Daniel Ortega. They make the time pass, so they don’t have to answer. Marxism, according to Petro, is an acceptable ideology,” she reproached him.

With all of that, warning that Colombia’s freedom and democracy are threatened, she cautioned that “Petro has plans that nobody knows about,” and she urged that Colombians “be very alert”. She even criticized his policy for peace, accusing him of trying to deal “with drug trafficking groups and terrorists. That has not worked.”

In a much more tongue-in-cheek tone, the President answered that it had been a meeting between “two individuals who are different”, and he said he had “experience” in handling Members of Congress like Salazar, comparing her with Paloma Valencia or Cabal. “It’s very similar to the ways of thinking that you see on the extreme right of the Colombian Congress. It was a nice and friendly meeting.”

Petro was seconded by one of his oldest henchmen, the one who had accompanied him in the meeting: the President of the Senate, Roy Barreras. He said “sorry to contradict” the Congresswoman, stating that he only asked two questions, “not many”, and that they didn’t talk about Colombia.

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