The Biden administration Monday launched a week-long 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.
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 he heads 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 made to showcase hemispheric cooperation. Several countries boycotted in protest.
“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 featured as 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.”
For Blinken, the first stop is expected 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 half-century-long 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.
Some U.S. officials are privately concerned that cocaine production and exportation, which U.S. multi-billion-dollar efforts did not wipe out, could explode if Petro shifts his drug-policy strategy too much.
Publicly, however, Blinken and other administration officials have indicated there is a willingness to listen to new ideas.
“We have very much of a shared approach on this,” a senior State Department official said of discussions with Colombian government officials. “While, from our perspective, law enforcement and security are important, necessary components to dealing with drugs, they’re insufficient. We have to deal more effectively with the root causes that drive the drug trade, that drive demand.”
The official, who briefed reporters on condition of anonymity, said he believed the Petro administration was “in sync” with that approach, noting that “if there are differences, we will work through them.”
Petro has also broken with the U.S. in renewing ties with the controversial socialist leader of Venezuela, Nicolas Maduro, and in suggesting it was a mistake to send more weapons to Ukraine.
“Each country has to take its own approach to these challenges,” the State Department official said when asked about Petro’s rapprochement with Maduro.
In the Chilean capital later this week, Blinken will meet 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.
Asked about the trend toward the left in Latin America, the State Department official said he believed recent elections seem to be “more about people wanting governments that will deliver results irrespective of whether they’re to the left or right.”
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 in infrastructure, loans and other projects in a thus-far-successful bid to expand China’s influence and an attempt to eclipse traditional U.S. presence.
Immigration will also be a main topic in all three capitals to confront what the official called a “truly historic” displacement of people across the globe.