Jose Miguel Gomez / REUTERS Bogotá, Colombia, November 2009.

The Wrong Way to Pressure Colombia

How an American Warning Unsettled Bilateral Ties

On September 13, U.S. President Donald Trump issued a memorandum rebuking a number of Latin American and Asian countries for their role in the international drug trade. Trump reserved a special warning for Colombia, which he noted had seen an “extraordinary growth of coca cultivation and cocaine production over the past 3 years.” Although the United States did not designate Colombia under section 706(2)(A) of the Foreign Relations Authorization Act—a measure that would restrict some U.S. aid to the country—Trump said that Washington had “seriously considered” that step and would not rule out taking it in the future.

Trump’s warning sought to pressure Colombia to reduce coca cultivation, but it was a political mistake. Colombia, which is among the United States’ closest partners in the Western Hemisphere, will hold presidential elections in May 2018, and the U.S. president’s rebuke may have strengthened candidates who favor downgrading their country’s economic and military ties with Washington, such as Gustavo Petro, the former mayor of Bogotá. Trump’s threat was widely reported in the Colombian press and produced a backlash even from pro-American politicians. Vice President Óscar Naranjo described the criticism as unfair, for instance, and Minister of Defense Luis Carlos Villegas suggested that the United States should concentrate on stopping drugs from crossing its own borders. Petro went a step further, tweeting that it was time for Colombia to “nationalize” its antidrug policies.

Cuban President Raul Castro stands between Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and FARC leader Rodrigo Londoño in Havana, September 2015.

Cuban President Raul Castro stands between Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and FARC leader Rodrigo Londoño in Havana, September 2015.

PETRO POLITICS

Petro currently leads the polls against more than a dozen other contenders for the presidency. As a young man, he was a member of the 19th of April Movement, a left-wing guerrilla group. In the decades since, he has served as a lawmaker in both houses of Colombia’s legislature and, most recently, as Bogotá’s mayor, a position he vacated in 2015. Staunchly opposed to Colombia’s 2006 free trade agreement with the United States, Petro also argued against a 2009 agreement that would have allowed U.S. personnel to be stationed on seven military bases in Colombia, which he suggested would have produced an illegal occupation of the country’s territory. (Venezuela, Bolivia, and Brazil also opposed the deal; Colombia’s Constitutional Court eventually overturned it because the country’s legislature had not approved it.)  

Petro’s popularity stems partly from the end of Colombia’s decades-long conflict with the FARC,  or the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, in 2016. Colombia’s left long lacked the opportunity to grow on a national scale because voters tended to associate it with the war. The FARC’s demobilization and Petro’s populist appeal have changed this. If Petro wins next year, Washington could lose a reliable ally.

In July, Petro defended the Venezuelan government’s decision to convene a constituent assembly that neutered the remaining democratic checks against President Nicolás Maduro. This was no accident: Petro’s relationship with Maduro’s late predecessor, Hugo Chávez, dates to 1994, when Chávez visited Colombia after a failed coup attempt in Venezuela. During Petro’s last campaign for the presidency, in 2010, he became immersed in a scandal after members of his party, the Alternative Democratic Pole, met with members of the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela. A video of the meeting, leaked in March of that year to the newspaper El Tiempo, showed that the group had discussed the need to coordinate their efforts to oppose conservative politicians in Colombia. Members of Petro’s party also asked the mayor of the Venezuelan border town of Ureña to help locate Colombian dual citizens in Venezuela who might vote for their party’s candidates.

The U.S. military’s involvement in Colombia dates to the mid–twentieth century, when Washington backed crackdowns on leftist insurgent groups and their allies there and elsewhere in the Third World.  Decades later, in 1999, the administration of U.S. President Bill Clinton introduced Plan Colombia, an aid program that Washington sold as a counternarcotics effort but in practice extended the United States’ earlier policies against armed left-wing groups—especially the FARC, which had grown from 3,500 rebels in 1986 to 14,000 in 1996. Over the last two decades, as U.S. troops and planes lost access to Panama, Ecuador, and Bolivia, Colombia’s cooperation has become even more important to the United States’ interests in Latin America.

Some in the Trump administration seem to appreciate this fact. White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, for instance, described the ties between Colombia and the United States as a “special relationship” in 2015. But Trump’s statement must make some in Bogotá wonder whether a peripheral country such as theirs can have a “special relationship” with a superpower—and whether the United States should be doing more to curb the demand for drugs within its own borders instead of focusing on supply-side solutions.

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