After Colombia’s elections the US must be prepared to engage Petro

Gustavo Petro is going to win the first round of Colombia’s presidential elections on Sunday.  There has been plenty of coverage about why an ultimate Petro victory in a second round would be a high-risk proposition. Regardless, the U.S. should be prepared to cautiously engage the next democratically elected president of Colombia.

Gustavo Francisco Petro Urrego is a former Marxist guerilla and former member of the Movimiento 19 de Abril (M-19), a group that committed terrible violent acts against innocent civilians. Petro, a Hugh Chávez admirer, has run on an anti-corruption, anti-corporatism, and pro-peace platform. He believes that there is room for “a revolution.” Petro labels himself as a Castro-Chavismo progressive leftist. Like Lula in Brazil, he has run for president several times in 2010, 2018, and now in 2022 giving Petro high name recognition. Petro was once mayor of Bogota but was removed for mismanagement.

The United States has long-term interests in Colombia, and the Colombian people get to decide who their leader is through elections. The United States and other Colombian friends have to work with whoever the Colombian people choose. Whether we like it or not, the Biden administration should take some calculated diplomatic risks with Petro if he wins.

If Petro doesn’t reach 50 percent, as is likely the case, there will be a second round for the top two vote getters. A second round will give a chance to the “anyone but Petro” forces to come together. Petro currently leads in the first round with 36 percent, while Federico “Fico” Gutiérrez, the center–right candidate, and Rodolfo Hernández, the “new politics” candidate, have 21 percent and 19 percent respectively. It would be preferable if “Fico” Gutierrez were to win in the second round, but it is unclear if he can even get to a second round.

On the basis of the historical record, Petro should not be leading the polls, but young people in Colombia have short memories.

Around 40 percent of the population is under the age of 24. Most young people were not around for the worst actions of M-19 nor even of the worst actions of the FARC nor the ELN.  Similar to Salvadoran voters 15 years ago who voted an ex-Leftist guerrilla FMLN into power, Colombia’s success allows younger voters to be tempted by a populist politician who promises things that may be too good to be true.

If one looks at the big picture, Colombia is one of the greatest development and peace success stories of the last 50 years. Colombia is a country which has made significant progress on economic, social and health metrics in the last 40 years. It has been able to bounce back from a global pandemic and is a strong net global contributor. Colombia signed a peace accord with the FARC in 2016. It became a member of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in 2020. Colombia is strong enough and generous enough that it just regularized 2 million Venezuelan refugees. Colombia is our key partner in South America.

What is to be done?

If Petro wins, President Biden should do several things right away. The administration has gone out of its way to demonstrate to the new Leftist president of Honduras, Xiomara Castro, our readiness to seek accommodation based on shared interests. They should do the same with Petro if he becomes the president-elect.

Petro admittedly has very little direct experience with the United States. It would be worthwhile to explore possible opportunities to engage and to demonstrate the value of ties with the United States to someone who may not fully appreciate all that the United States can do to help Colombia.

First, President Biden should call and congratulate the winner of the second-round election as soon as the election is called for one candidate or the other.

Second, Vice President Harris should lead a high-level delegation of Republicans and Democrats to the swearing-in of the next president of Colombia even if it is Petro.

Third, the Biden administration has not announced a new ambassador-designate to Colombia.  They should name one now. The current ambassador, Phillip Seth Goldberg, is scheduled to move to South Korea this summer. Perhaps the administration is waiting to see the outcome of the Colombian election. Historically this has been a challenging, but friendly post. Under a Petro administration, serving as U.S. Ambassador to Colombia will be a much more challenging role. We will need an ambassador with the gifts and talents of former ambassadors Anne Patterson or Bill Brownfield. Thankfully the U.S. has enjoyed decades of strong soft power engagement through several strong USAID mission directors to Colombia, including the current one, Lawrence “Larry” Sacks. Sacks is also scheduled to cycle out.

Fourth, President Biden should be prepared to offer a White House visit, but should wait to see if Petro makes early irresponsible moves. If Petro takes provocative actions, then that offer should not be made.

The U.S. partnership with Colombia has been one of the best between any two countries in the last 20 years. Rather than risk losing the mutual benefits of decades of collaboration, we should try to engage Petro and his team if he wins.

One can hope: In the last three elections, no Colombian president has won in the first round. The political landscape can be reshaped in the second round. Ideally, Fico gets to the second round and the voters of Colombia coalesce around him. If that does not happen, we need to prepare to make a good faith effort to actively engage with a president-elect Petro.

Daniel F. Runde is a senior vice president and William A. Schreyer chair in Global Analysis at CSIS. He previously worked for the U.S. Agency for International Development, the World Bank Group, and in investment banking, with experience in Africa, Asia, Europe, Latin America and the Middle East.

Tags Biden Biden foreign policy Colombia Colombian elections Colombia–United States relations Economy of Colombia Gustavo Petro Politics of Colombia

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