Jose Miguel Gomez / REUTERS

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.

Caro_WrongWayToPressureColombia_SantosTomochenkoHavanaPeaceDeal_rtx1s5fq.jpg Alexandre Meneghini / REUTERS

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. 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

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