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Blinken kicks off effort to court leftist Latin American leaders on swing through Colombia

Secretary of State Antony Blinken walks on an airport tarmac near other people
Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken arrives at Military Transport Air Command CATAM in Bogota, Colombia.
(Luisa Gonzalez / Pool)
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The Biden administration on Monday launched a weeklong courtship of three of Latin America’s newest leftist leaders in a bid to find pragmatic common ground — rather than ideological confrontation — on a host of issues, including immigration, drug trafficking and the widening influence of China.

Day One was a bit discouraging.

Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken began the mission in Bogota, Colombia, taking a meeting with President Gustavo Petro, who came to office barely two months ago, before heading to Santiago, Chile, and Lima, Peru. In Lima, Blinken will also represent the U.S. at a summit of the Organization of American States.
Administration officials say they are confident they can retain healthy relationships with these countries, even as much of Latin America shifts further to the left. That is despite the glaring embarrassment suffered when President Biden refused to invite Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela to the Summit of the Americas in June, a major event meant to showcase hemispheric cooperation. Several countries boycotted in protest.

The first stop of Blinken’s trip, Bogota, was always going to be the most challenging.

Until Petro’s election, Colombia was governed for decades by one of two main political parties, both centrist or center-right institutions that were typically seen as the best friends the U.S. had in Latin America. The Colombian and U.S. governments cooperated fully in the militarized eradication of vast coca fields, the extradition of drug traffickers and in fighting guerrillas who challenged the status quo in a 50-year civil war.

Petro, however, was once one of those guerrillas, and he has already called into question many of the shared policies. He has branded the U.S.-led war on drugs a failure and demanded a new approach that will end the forced eradication of illicit crops and might include legalization of some drugs.

A new government in Colombia is likely to alter the nation’s longstanding friendly ties with the United States.

June 11, 2022

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Some U.S. officials are privately concerned that cocaine production and exportation, which the U.S.’ multibillion-dollar efforts did not wipe out, could explode if Petro shifts his drug policy too severely.

In a joint news conference Monday at Casa Narino, the official presidential residence in this verdant Andean capital, Blinken sought to downplay differences. He said he is open to what he called a “holistic” approach to fighting drugs that includes both law enforcement and rural development while tackling the “root causes” that fuel demand. He said the U.S. and Colombian governments are “in sync.”

Yet Petro seemed to stick to his guns, saying the extradition of Colombians to the U.S. should be rethought while also criticizing the U.S. for ostracizing Cuba.

Petro has also broken with the U.S. in renewing ties with the controversial socialist leader of Venezuela, Nicolas Maduro, and in suggesting that it was a mistake to send more weapons to Ukraine.

“Each country has to take its own approach to these challenges,” a senior State Department official said when asked about Petro’s rapprochement with Maduro.

Later this week, Blinken will meet in the Chilean capital with President Gabriel Boric, a former student activist and one of the youngest leaders in the world, and in Lima with President Pedro Castillo, a former schoolteacher and leftist who is mired in corruption allegations.

Blinken said he believes the trend toward the left in recent Latin American elections reflects people wanting governments that will deliver, more than a profound ideological shift.

“We are not judging countries based on where they fall on the political spectrum but rather their commitment to democracy, the rule of law and human rights,” Brian Nichols, assistant secretary of State for Western Hemisphere affairs, said ahead of the trip.

He noted that Colombia, Chile and Peru have long been important trading partners with Washington, and all have unbroken — if sometimes turbulent — recent histories as democracies.

“Last year, we celebrated 200 years of bilateral relations with Colombia,” Nichols said. “And this year, we’ll be doing that with Chile and Peru.”

Blinken’s tour started the day after Brazilians voted for president in a race between incumbent far-right populist Jair Bolsonaro and former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, a veteran leftist. Bolsonaro did better than polls suggested he would and forced the race into a runoff when Lula failed to win more than 50% of the vote.

Perhaps more than ideology, the bigger challenge in Latin America for the Biden administration may be China. President Xi Jinping has spent billions of dollars in the region on infrastructure, loans and other projects in a thus-far-successful bid to expand China’s influence and an attempt to eclipse the traditional U.S. presence.

Immigration will also be a main topic in all three capitals during Blinken’s visit. He praised Colombia for taking in hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans fleeing hardship at home, although Petro’s renewal of relations with Caracas might signal a move to encourage Venezuelans to return to their cities.

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“There are more people displaced from their homes across our planet than at any time in recorded history,” Blinken said.

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