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Significant shift expected in relations between U.S., longtime Latin American ally Colombia

President of Colombia Ivan Duque Marquez US President Joe Biden, speaking following the group photo of leaders.
President of Colombia Ivan Duque Marquez, left, US President Joe Biden, speaking following the group photo of leaders at the IX Summit of the Americas at the LA Convention Center in Los Angeles on Friday, June 10, 2022.
(Francine Orr/Los Angeles Times)

The United States is about to lose its best friend in Latin America.

For years, Washington and Colombia have shared close relations on a wide variety of issues, including immigration, combatting drug trafficking, carrying out coca eradication in Colombia’s highlands and standing up to its neighbor, Venezuela.

One of the oldest democracies in the region, Colombia has long been ruled by one of two parties, and for decades both have been admirers and allies of the United States, regardless of whether a Democrat or Republican occupied the White House.

But in an election runoff scheduled for later this month, an outsider will win Colombia’s presidency: either Rodolfo Hernández, a real estate tycoon with scant political experience and unclear views, or Gustavo Petro, a former leftist guerrilla who fought Colombian governments for years before serving in its House and Senate and as mayor of Bogota, the nation‘s capital, between 2012 and 2015.

“This is a watershed moment in Colombian history — and potentially a watershed moment in U.S.-Colombian relations,” said Cynthia Arnson, a distinguished fellow at the Wilson Center think tank in Washington and a longtime expert on South America.

Both candidates, she said, are questioning some of the fundamental tenets of the U.S.-Colombian relationship. Petro, for example, has spoken of legalizing drugs, while Hernández is believed to be supportive of a hydrocarbons industry that those seeking to combat climate change — including Washington — would like to see diminish in influence.

“Should it occur, a loss of strategic partnership would be a blow to U.S. policy in the hemisphere,” Arnson said of the consequences of the upcoming Colombian election. “We are in for a different kind of ride.”

The implications include less cooperation from Colombia on fighting drug trafficking and the loss of a supportive voice in regional politics.

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Colombian President Iván Duque, who will leave office later this year, has made a point of his affinity with the United States while visiting Los Angeles for the Summit of the Americas.

He stood next to President Biden at the opening ceremony Thursday and received a standing ovation for his government’s willingness, at the United States’ behest, to give residency status to hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans who have fled their country.

Duque has repeatedly shown that he is willing to agree to demands from the United States. Members of his political party made forays in late 2016 to meet with Donald Trump at Mar-a-Lago, his Palm Beach, Fla., resort, in an attempt to curry favor with the then-president-elect.

At the summit in Los Angeles this week, Duque was a rare Latin American voice supportive of the Biden administration’s decision to exclude the leaders of Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela from the event. The exclusion prompted a boycott by several countries, as well as criticism from other Western Hemisphere leaders who nevertheless decided to attend.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken, also in Los Angeles for the summit, said in an interview with The Times that he believed a good relationship would continue with Bogota regardless of how Colombia’s election plays out.

“We have a strong, deep relationship over many decades that goes from government to government, irrespective of who’s in power [in Colombia],” Blinken said. “I think the interests that we share are such that we’ll work with whatever government emerges.”

He said it remained to be seen whether the same level of cooperation would continue.

“In our hemisphere, we have a pretty wide variety of democratic governments of the left, of the right, of the center — but what is increasingly animating those governments is a simple proposition,” Blinken said. “They know that they need to try to deliver for their people, they need to actually produce results that matter to their people” on issues such as COVID-19, healthcare, the economy and climate change.

It is unclear what type of foreign policy Petro or Hernandez would pursue, but both have hinted at deep change. In the first round of voting last month, Petro bested Hernández by more than 10 percentage points but did not reach the 50% threshold necessary to avoid a runoff. Now there is speculation that Colombia’s many conservative sectors will join forces to back Hernández and prevent a leftist from being elected president.

But it could go either way.

“Colombia is the United States’ most important ally in the region, and a new era is being substantially redefined — in Colombia, in U.S.-Colombia relations and in Colombia’s role in Latin America,” said Michael Shifter, past president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a think tank in Washington that specializes in Latin America.

Colombia was the site of the hemisphere’s longest war, as groups of leftist rebels fought governments, with drug traffickers immersed in the mix, for some three decades, until the United Nations brokered a peace accord in 2016 with strong support from the Obama administration.

Washington also sponsored Plan Colombia, a multibillion-dollar economic, diplomatic and military assistance plan in the early 2000s aimed at fighting guerrillas and drug traffickers — probably the United States’ largest financial investment in South America.

In recent weeks, Colombia and the United States celebrated 200 years of bilateral relations, the oldest such connection in the Americas. Some analysts are convinced that the history between the two countries will preserve their strong ties.

“That’s a reminder that U.S.-Colombia ties have lasted across administrations, across parties, both in Colombia and here in the U.S.; it’s shared values, shared culture, shared history,” said Mark Green, a former State Department and USAID official who now serves as president of the Wilson Center.

“So even with some of the changes, I’m sure we’ll find ways to keep working together for the good of both countries, but also for the region,” he said, adding: “What it precisely means, no one knows.”

Los Angeles Times staff writer Cesar Rojas Angel contributed to this report.


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