After formal introductions, handshakes, and obligatory photographs at Casa de Nariño in Bogotá, it was down to the wire between US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Colombian President Gustavo Petro. As the first stop on a four-day trip to meet three newly elected leftist Presidents in South America, among them Pedro Castillo (Peru) and Gabriel Boric (Chile), Blinken’s two-hour meeting with his Colombian host was followed by a joint press briefing in which Petro predicted that the senior U.S diplomat will “eventually be elected a US president.”
The cordial exchange of words in which the Colombian and US delegations discussed the 2016 Peace Accord with FARC, drug trafficking, illegal migration, and key components of the binational agenda was punctuated by Petro’s insistence to stop demonizing coca farmers as the root cause of the drug harvest, and to find a “more comprehensive view of drug consumption and production in the hemisphere.”
President Petro’s vision of a “proletariat of drug trafficking” – represented by subsistence farmers – who reside in remote, excluded areas and “forced to grow illegal crops” at “the service of drug traffickers” was given as the reason violence has plagued rural Colombia for decades. “This is where we produce the highest number of victims of violence in the country, and the forcefully displaced,” he said.
“The true owners of drug trafficking, whose role is to produce money, are not dressed in camouflage, uniforms, nor do they carry a rifle,” affirmed the former guerrilla commander with the M-19. “It is very likely that they have been in these very rooms and part of the political elites in Colombia. And I would say, amongst political powers outside Colombia.”
Affirmations by Petro that the U.S-led War on Drugs is a “complete failure,” and reiterated during his first UN address to the General Assembly last month in New York, was received by Blinken as part of the narrative toward “advancing the partnership with Colombia.” But on Monday, however, the U.S outlined that cooperation with Colombia has so far depended on Congressional support, but this cannot be taken for granted.
“For decades, the partnership between the United States and Colombia has benefitted people in both our countries and people across the hemisphere. Its strength has not wavered across administrations in both our countries. In the U.S. Congress, cooperation with Colombia is a priority that enjoys sustained and bipartisan support,” he outlined. “That’s in no small part because the partnership between our nations is rooted in fundamentally shared values: in democracy, in respect for human rights, preserving our planet for future generations, and the belief that all – all of our people – should be able to reach their full potential,” said Blinken.
In a carefully worded speech that contrasted in diplomatic style to Petro’s free discourse, the Secretary threw his support behind the leftist politician’s commitment to the full implementation of the Peace Accord, and “unique responsibility to ensure the rights and equity of the country’s Afro-Colombian and Indigenous groups who suffered, and continue to suffer, disproportionate harm from the conflict.” Blinken made clear that the U.S and Colombia share a “conviction that an enduring peace has to be an inclusive peace.”
While U.S drug policy, narcotics interdiction efforts, and hemispheric security were discussed behind closed doors, Petro and Blinken mentioned that one of the key components in continuing with counter-narcotics cooperation and intelligence sharing is extradition. The Colombian President had repeatedly stated during his campaign – that if elected – he would end the extradition treaty with the US. Blinken did admit that his government must address the root causes of insecurity: corruption, impunity, and inequity. “We have understood for some time – in Colombia and beyond – that we cannot effectively combat violence by focusing only on strengthening law enforcement tools and security cooperation.”
From finding common ground on climate change goals to bolstering the investigation and prosecutions of gender-based violence, human rights abuses, the killing of human rights defenders, journalists, environmental and social leaders, Petro and Blinken set the stage for a new working relationship, based on “historically strong ties” and “shared priorities.”
But Blinken did respond on Petro’s request for the US to remove Cuba from its list of State Sponsors of Terrorism. “When it comes to Cuba, and when it comes to the state sponsor of terrorism designation, we have clear laws, clear criteria, clear requirements, and we will continue as necessary to revisit those to see if Cuba continues to merit that designation,” highlighted Blinken.
The Secretary of State also affirmed “the right of all nations to have their sovereignty and territorial integrity respected,” and directly condemned President Putin’s “unjust war on Ukraine” just steps from a President who has not. Even during Petro’s first General Assembly address, he refused to mention Putin as an aggressor, let alone a war criminal. “So, across issues that matter most to our people, and that are fundamental to demonstrating that our democracies can deliver real results, Colombia and the United States have a deep history of working together,” emphasized Blinken. “We know that for all the progress that’s been made, our work is unfinished, and the challenges before us are real.”
Among the highlights of Blinken’s visit to Bogotá was a gift from the Colombian President to the visiting dignitary of a woolly ruana woven in Cogua, Boyacá, and traditional garb worn by farmers – campesinos – to stave off the cold. The emblematic accessory seemed to send a clear message ahead of the joint news conference, and palpable chill on drug policy.