Colombia’s New President and the Challenges to the Bilateral Relationship

Across from Colombia’s Congress and about two blocks away from the Casa Nariño, Colombia’s presidential residence, stands the nation’s Supreme Court constructing, the Palace of Justice. Across from the court docket itself is a plaque memorializing the “Holocaust of the Palace of Justice,” when in 1985 the guerilla motion M-19 seized management of the constructing. In response, the nationwide authorities despatched in police commandos and troopers to rescue the hostages and finish the siege. Over the course of two days, 43 civilians and practically half of Colombia’s Supreme Court had been killed.

Now, a former M-19 member will assume the presidency of Colombia, Latin America’s third-largest democracy and the United States’ most necessary strategic ally in South America. Though Gustavo Petro claims he by no means served in a fight function, and certainly was being tortured by state authorities throughout the siege, fears based on Petro’s guerrilla previous already loom over his incoming presidency. Some of those fears, resembling that the President-elect’s plan to transfer the nation away from fossil fuels might trigger an financial freefall in a nation already affected by the financial fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic, are properly based. But fears that Petro will pose a seismic and even minor menace to both Colombia’s democracy and its relations with the United States are hyperbolic and untimely. Allegations that Petro is a Castro-Chavista, and that he’ll emulate the insurance policies of Venezuela’s Nicolas Maduro, ignore not solely Petro’s political biography, however the ways in which Colombia’s home and worldwide establishments have beforehand constrained aspiring populists. Furthermore, each the incoming Petro administration and the Biden administration share an curiosity in totally realizing Colombia’s 2016 peace cope with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). This frequent purpose will necessitate cooperation between leaders in each international locations, doubtlessly deepening Colombia’s democracy by guaranteeing the rights and safety of beforehand marginalized residents, whereas making a big rift between the two international locations unlikely.



Troublingly, many analysts in the United States proceed to view Latin America as the similar Cold War chessboard as they did in the Soviet period. But the Cold War is over and treating Colombia’s incoming president as a political pariah prior to him even assuming workplace is a grave error. This is true not just for President Joe Biden however for partisan legislators and commentators who’ve already portrayed Petro as a hazard each to democracy and U.S. pursuits in the area. Should the United States’ relationship with Colombia itself grow to be a partisan soccer, the incoming Colombian President could have incentives to transfer away from the United States and to accomplish that rapidly.

Petro in the Latin-American Left

The Cold War-era promotion of misunderstandings and outright deception dangers aggregating all of Latin America’s leftist actions into one Soviet-sponsored bloc. Though Colombia’s largest insurgency, the FARC did obtain help from each the Soviet Union and Cuba, the ideology of M-19, to which Petro belonged, is way extra difficult.

It can not feasibly be mentioned that M-19 was a “peaceful” motion, nor do I advocate viewing Colombia’s largest city guerrilla group by means of rose-colored lenses. It was, nonetheless, uniquely Colombian, and its patchwork membership of scholars, clergymen, conservatives, and nationalists mirrored a variety of grievances and targets. The group was based in 1970, in response to supposedly rigged elections when Colombia’s solely navy dictator, General Rojas Pinilla, misplaced his fashionable bid for the presidency.

Petro’s involvement in M-19 seems, by all proof, restricted. He was recruited on his school campus by the group in 1978 and prevented participation in armed battle. By his personal account, he was drawn to the group exactly due to its uniquely Colombian nature:

“This was a completely different idea from the ELN [National Liberation Army], the FARC, the Communist Party, or the various university leftist groups, which entered a dialog with models such as the soviet, the Cuban, the Chinese, while we were thinking of our own nationalist and democratic project.”

Petro labored as an ideological missionary, proselytizing and spreading propaganda whereas stockpiling weapons. He was far-off from the group’s management, although Antonio Navarro Wolff, one in all the group’s founders, stays an on-and-off once more political ally. In August of 1985, Petro was arrested and tortured by authorities safety forces till his launch in 1987.

Though many have stoked fears that Petro’s rebel previous makes him an inherent menace to Colombia’s democracy, leftist guerrillas throughout Latin America have repeatedly received elections with out weakening democracy. In 2010, José Mujica received Uruguay’s presidency, and like Petro was a member of an city guerrilla motion: the Tupamaros. Dilma Rousseff, elected in 2011 as the inheritor obvious of fashionable Brazilian leftist Lula da Silva, was additionally a Marxist guerrilla from 1970 to 1972. All three had been tortured by state forces throughout their imprisonment. Neither Mujica nor Rousseff reworked their nations into Marxist dictatorships, although Dilma Rousseff was impeached in 2016 for alleged involvement in the “car wash” scandal.

These extra left-wing leaders stand in sharp distinction to the extra radical “Bolivarian” leftists, together with former Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez, Nicholas Maduro, and former Bolivian president Evo Morales, who posed larger challenges to the democracies of their respective nations. For his half, Petro has repeatedly reiterated that he doesn’t determine with Chávez or Maduro, saying he has “much more in common with Pepe Mujica.” He additionally provided a extra nuanced view of Venezuela, mentioning that whereas Chávez was popularly elected, Maduro did away with the nation’s democratic checks and balances. He has maintained that he’s vital of each leaders, notably Chávez, for counting on fossil fuels to fund their financial packages. Indeed, whereas Petro’s positions on oil could fear buyers, his personal description of the risks of oil dep transcend local weather change and converse to the risks of “the resource curse,” an idea from political science which describes the incentives for states who depend on pure sources to have interaction in corruption and anti-democratic habits.

But although Petro has alleged that his political opponents are characterizing him as a Castro-Chavista merely to scare voters and the worldwide neighborhood, it might be disingenuous to say that there are not any legitimate considerations about the incoming Colombian president’s dedication to democracy.

Petro and Colombian Democracy

M-19 is exclusive in that it efficiently negotiated with the Colombian authorities, leading to the 1991 structure, and joined democratic politics. Though some former guerrillas who selected to demobilize and take part in democratic politics had been assassinated, generally by off-duty police and navy officers tied to the Colombian state, Petro survived and started a protracted profession in democratic politics. While it’s right to name him a “populist,” it’s disingenuous to name somebody who started their political profession in 1991 an “outsider.”

Over a three-decade profession, Petro has held a variety of places of work, all inside Colombia’s post-1991 political framework and all gained by successful a well-liked election. This is a stark distinction to Chávez, whose lengthy shadow now conjures pictures of a Latin American, leftist, boogeyman menace to democracy in the area. Chávez’s tried 1992 coup showcased a conditional loyalty to democracy, simply as one other rising Latin American populist, Mexico’s Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s (AMLO) self-declaration of himself as Mexico’s “legitimate president” in 2006 did. Petro, against this, has on a number of events each received elections and conceded dropping them, although he has conjured up specters of “fraud” which have solid troubling doubt on the legitimacy of elections. Like Donald Trump in the United States, Petro warned of potential fraud even prior to the election he finally received.

Other items of Petro’s biography might present affordable alarm. In 2014 he was faraway from his place as mayor of Bogotá for mismanaging the metropolis’s trash assortment and was barred from operating for political workplace for fifteen years as a consequence. It took an intervention from the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights to reinstate Petro, and for him to be allowed to proceed to take part in Colombian politics. Those shut to Petro throughout his stewardship of the nation’s capital have described him as “an incompetent populist,” who doesn’t take kindly to disagreements inside his personal authorities. Indeed, Petro’s character has been repeatedly, publicly combative. Many observers credit score his feud with Sergio Fajardo in 2018 as paving the means for the nation’s voters to coalesce round the establishment-backed Ivan Duque. And, maybe most alarmingly for critics cautious of one other doubtlessly authoritarian chief in the area, recall Petro questioning aloud at Hugo Chávez’s funeral, “Why did I distance myself from him?”

There are respectable causes to be cautious concerning Petro. He has a penchant for creating enemies and issue forging alliances. Populists who’re incapable of forging alliances traditionally grow to be annoyed with the checks and balances constructed into their democracies, and scheme to overcome these checks and even overthrow democracy fully. The concern that this can be the case with Petro isn’t unfounded, however untimely.

But fears that Petro poses a menace to democracy are mitigated when one acknowledges that Colombia’s checks and balances have beforehand stopped populists from overstepping democratic norms. Specifically, Colombia’s supreme court docket held agency in stopping former president Álvaro Uribe (2002-2010), Petro’s longtime political nemesis and a right-wing himself, from holding the presidency indefinitely.

When Uribe tried to preserve indefinite management of the presidency, he did so with majorities in Congress and widespread public help. By comparability, Petro’s activity of forming a majority in Congress is already proving difficult, and it’s wanting sure that to notice his agenda the incoming president could have to provide concessions to different political events. Indeed, Petro is forging alliances with stunning companions, together with the conservative and liberal events. This political actuality signifies that Petro is way extra constrained than Uribe ever was, making Colombia’s incoming president an unlikely authoritarian menace.

Furthermore, there are worldwide and home political realities which make the rise of an authoritarian Petro much less doubtless. The first such variable is that Colombia shares a border with Venezuela, whose territory harbors remaining Colombian guerrillas and whose navy is itself a legal narcotics cartel. Though a lot has been written of Petro’s extra conciliatory tone towards Maduro in contrast to his predecessors, so long as Venezuela poses a safety menace to the lives of Colombians, Petro will discover him a troublesome good friend. For these already sounding the alarm about “normalizing” relations with the Maduro regime, it might be properly to keep in mind the unenviable geopolitical actuality dealing with Colombia, a state with the largest inhabitants of Venezuelan migrants in the world. Indeed, former President Juan Manuel Santos (2010-2018) normalized relations with Hugo Chávez, leading to the permission of each presidents to deploy Colombian police commandos in joint, worldwide operations inside Venezuela’s personal territory. There is a realpolitik necessity each in making an attempt to normalize relations with the neighboring dictatorship, whereas additionally working to safeguard the safety of Colombian residents from violence sponsored inside Venezuelan territory.

Domestically, Petro’s simultaneous curiosity in realizing a “total peace” whereas needing to proceed combating violent armed teams will likewise constrain him. Petro has promised to negotiate with Colombia’s largest remaining leftist insurgency, the ELN. He has additionally mentioned his administration will tackle the underlying causes of the inner battle: land inequality and the monetary attract of illicit crops. Petro is right, regrettably, when he says that the drug battle has been a failure. Though some main cartel heads resembling Pablo Escobar have been eradicated, the highly effective cartels merely relocated their leaders to Mexico. But his correctness doesn’t imply he shall be profitable in realizing land reform, neither is it clear that providing alternate options to unlawful crops shall be profitable both. To combat insecurity, Petro will want his safety forces, and will face simply as troublesome a balancing act as he’ll with Venezuela: concurrently reforming them whereas commanding their deployment.

And it’s the Colombian navy and police forces which I’ll draw the reader to for one ultimate verify in opposition to an authoritarian chief in Colombia. Like the insurgents and paramilitaries they’ve fought, the armed forces of Colombia have dedicated gross atrocities in the nation’s lengthy battle. There are additionally skilled officers inside its ranks, who seemingly lack any partisan loyalty to Petro. Populists have transitioned their democracies in the direction of dictatorship solely with the complicity of their armed forces. Hugo Chávez took benefit of an tried coup in opposition to him to purge the Venezuelan navy of non-partisans. Alberto Fujimori, the right-wing authoritarian chief of Peru from 1990 to 2000, was solely ready to implement a brutal counterinsurgency marketing campaign after the navy obeyed an order to shut Congress. And, if there’s any concern that AMLO is a menace to democracy in Mexico, it’s as a result of he has concerned navy leaders intimately in his financial agenda, maybe hoping to engender a private, partisan loyalty to himself. Though public civil-military spats between Petro and the armed forces are regarding, it’s unlikely that he shall be ready to use the navy to degrade or destroy democracy.

The energy of Colombia’s checks and balances, its previous efficiency in opposition to populists, its worldwide and home safety environments, in addition to the non-partisan nature of its armed forces ought to all give pause to any hyperbolic fear that Petro will steamroll democracy in the nation. His political background gives proof that whereas such worries are usually not completely misplaced, neither ought to they be accepted uncritically. But much less clear is how Petro’s formidable presidential agenda will or won’t conflict with the strategic pursuits of the United States.

Uribismo in South Florida, Policy in Washington

It has been written very lately that Petro’s election will problem the non-partisan help for human rights and navy help which Colombia has historically loved in U.S. politics by means of the authorization and reauthorization of “Plan Colombia.” However, I might argue that the strategy of conditionalizing the U.S.-Colombian relationship on partisan, reasonably than nationwide curiosity, started prior to Petro’s electoral victory. Viral Facebook movies focused the Colombian inhabitants of South Florida prior to the 2020 U.S. presidential election, alleging that Petro was a Castro-Chavista who endorsed Biden for president. Álvaro Uribe, now not holding workplace in Colombia, has established political ties with U.S. politicians in Florida resembling Marco Rubio and freshman Florida congresswoman Maria Elvira Salazar, going as far as to publicly endorse the latter in her first election. There is a hazard that actors outdoors of the government department will injury U.S.-Colombian relations for the sake of vote-getting by making unhealthy religion accusations which tie Petro to the authoritarian politics of Hugo Chávez and Nicholas Maduro. I might urge these actors to resist the impulse to solid Petro as an existential, authoritarian menace to U.S. pursuits, and as a substitute deal with him as what he’s: Colombia’s incoming and duly elected president.

Biden ought to likewise respect the will of the Colombian folks, and to his credit score seems to have accomplished so. In a name between the two males, they spoke of a extra “equal” partnership between their two nations. Whereas former Trump criticized Colombia’s peace course of and conditionalized U.S. help to the nation on the implementation of harmful safety insurance policies, Biden and Petro share frequent pursuits. Analysts have identified that each males share an curiosity in totally implementing Colombia’s 2016 peace settlement. Indeed, Biden has a demonstrated, private curiosity in realizing the peace deal, having traveled to Bogotá in 2018 to ask then Colombian President Ivan Duque to honor the nation’s peace deal.

This shared curiosity is a cheerful coincidence and is probably going to strengthen, not weaken, ties between the two nations. Petro appears to be following precedent in sustaining ties with the United States, and whereas he’s talked of renegotiating sure commerce offers and the extradition coverage, it’s not clear that he’ll. U.S. help to Colombia has likewise been altering, focusing extra on improvement help than counter-terror. Biden ought to proceed to construct on a need to totally notice Colombia’s peace course of, which requires each new improvement help with continued intelligence and navy cooperation between U.S. and Colombian safety forces. This a welcome departure from different, earlier types of U.S. help to Colombia, which in accordance to a current report from the National Security Archive knowingly and even approvingly enabled human rights abusers inside Colombia’s safety forces and political institution.

Meanwhile, observers and worldwide actors ought to watch Petro. Should he discover a means to circumvent checks and balances, assault the press, or try to promote partisan loyalists from inside the navy ranks, an alarm ought to be sounded. But till such a second, we shouldn’t be alarmed.



Andrew Ivey is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Houston Downtown who researches civil-military, inner battle, and policing in Latin America. His earlier analysis has been revealed in Democracy and Security, Democratization, and Defense and Security Analysis.

Image: Carlos Hernandez

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