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U.S.-Colombian Relations: Continuity, Rupture or Something In-Between?

Cindy Arnson

At a meeting with Colombian President Iván Duque at the White House on March 10, President Biden said the U.S.-Colombia relationship “is the foundation, in my view, of regional security and prosperity” and called Colombia the “keystone of our efforts to build a hemisphere that is prosperous, secure and democratic.” Biden announced the U.S. intention to designate Colombia a major non-NATO ally. The relationship, Duque said, had reached its “highest peak ever.”

Now, however, Colombia’s presidential election on Sunday is raising fears the relationship is set to change in fundamental ways.

For over two decades, no country in Latin America has had as close a partnership with the United States as Colombia.

Through Plan Colombia, launched in 1999-2000 to counter drug trafficking and guerrilla insurgency, the United States has provided over $13 billion in security and economic assistance, vastly more aid than to any other country in the Americas. While security assistance is twice as large as economic and development assistance, the two categories have been more balanced in recent years. The U.S. Agency for International Development has provided tens of millions of dollars to support rural livelihoods and implement Colombia’s historic 2016 peace accord.

A bilateral free trade agreement implemented in 2012 has greatly expanded trade and investment. In contrast to other South American nations for which China is the main trading partner, Colombia’s largest export destination and source of imports is the United States. Through the U.S.-Colombia Action Plan, members of the Colombian armed forces offer security training throughout the region and the world. Cultural ties, from rock music icons to the recent Disney hit “Encanto,” have flourished. Both countries celebrate the values and principles of liberal democracy, however imperfect.

How much of that close relationship will change as a result of Colombia’s presidential election?  Given the campaign declarations of both leftist candidate Gustavo Petro and outsider Rodolfo Hernández, the answer is: a lot.

To understand what’s at stake requires recognizing the main driver of Colombia’s 2022 change election: a profound rejection of politics as usual. The pandemic occasioned brutal increases in poverty and inequality in Colombia as elsewhere; although growth surged in 2021, inflation has skyrocketed, cutting deeply into the incomes of poor and middle-class families. LAPOP’s most recent public opinion survey demonstrates that, despite emergency social spending, 40 percent of Colombians suffered food insecurity in 2021 and over two-thirds saw their personal finances deteriorate. Only 26 percent of Colombians are satisfied with democracy (in the region, only Peru and Haiti have worse levels), and trust in elections (22 percent) is the lowest in the hemisphere. The lack of trust was undoubtedly deepened by lapses in the vote count in Colombia’s March 2022 legislative elections, to the initial detriment of Petro supporters.

Notably, 78 percent of Colombians (trailing only Peru and Brazil) say most politicians are corrupt – an issue Hernández has made the central theme of his campaign. The 2021 Latinobarómetro poll highlighted similar levels of dismay with Colombia’s leaders: only 18 percent of Colombians in 2020 said the country was governed to help all people rather than a small group of powerful elites.

Whomever wins on Sunday – and close results could be contested for days, including with violence – will claim a mandate to do things differently, including in areas that are ballasts of the U.S.-Colombia relationship.

One area of particular U.S. sensitivity is counter-narcotics policy. Coca cultivation is at record highs, but both candidates have railed against the drug war, embracing some form of drug legalization.  In Petro’s case, that seems limited to marijuana, but in typically unfiltered remarks, Hernández has suggested it could eventually include cocaine. Both contenders favor investments to provide alternative livelihoods in neglected rural areas over heavy-handed tactics, including forced coca eradication. Petro has criticized extradition, long a centerpiece of counter-drug collaboration between Bogotá and Washington.

On the economic front, both Petro and Hernández support renegotiating parts of the U.S.-Colombia free trade agreement to protect domestic agriculture and manufacturing. Both oppose fracking, and Petro advocates a dramatic transition away from oil and coal production, which constitute the majority of Colombia’s exports and where U.S. firms play a significant role.

Petro is bent on taxing the wealthy. This is not unreasonable in a country where only 5 percent of the population pay personal income taxes, but it is likely to create a backlash from investors, including from the United States. In another area of potential tension, both men favor reestablishing diplomatic relations with the Nicolás Maduro government in Venezuela, and neither seems keen on continuing Colombia’s generous welcome to Venezuelan migrants, a policy championed by the U.S. government.

In addition, both propose opening peace negotiations with the ELN guerrilla group. The Biden administration would likely, if skeptically, welcome peace efforts, but they could prove controversial on Capitol Hill, where critics will highlight the ELN’s complicity in criminal economies in Venezuela and Colombia and terrorizing of civilians along the countries’ common border. Additional friction could arise if, as is likely, the talks are held in Cuba – the site of prior negotiations with the FARC guerrillas.

Finally, a major source of potential strain between Colombia’s next government and the United States will be domestic security policy. The military and police constitute the leading edge of U.S.-supported counterinsurgency and counter-narcotics campaigns, and have benefited from U.S. military and intelligence assistance, cooperation and training. Potential budget cuts and changes in doctrine – including separating the National Police from the Defense Ministry, as Petro proposes – could create friction between the armed forces and Colombia’s new president, and complicate the close relationship between the U.S. armed forces and their counterparts in Colombia.

In recent remarks, U.S. Ambassador to Colombia Philip Goldberg indicated that, regardless of who wins Colombia’s presidential election, “We intend to maintain a strategic relationship with Colombia. It is very important for both countries, for the economies of both countries, for the security of both countries.” It remains to be seen if, and to what degree, Colombia’s next president shares that view. Equally uncertain is whether the strong U.S. bipartisan consensus over Colombia policy – which has lasted through multiple changes of administration in both countries – will endure or begin to fray.


About the Author

Cindy Arnson

Cynthia J. Arnson

Distinguished Fellow and Former Director, Latin America Program
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Latin America Program

The Wilson Center’s prestigious Latin America Program provides non-partisan expertise to a broad community of decision makers in the United States and Latin America on critical policy issues facing the Hemisphere. The Program provides insightful and actionable research for policymakers, private sector leaders, journalists, and public intellectuals in the United States and Latin America. To bridge the gap between scholarship and policy action, it fosters new inquiry, sponsors high-level public and private meetings among multiple stakeholders, and explores policy options to improve outcomes for citizens throughout the Americas. Drawing on the Wilson Center’s strength as the nation’s key non-partisan policy forum, the Program serves as a trusted source of analysis and a vital point of contact between the worlds of scholarship and action.  Read more