WASHINGTON (AP) — President Joe Biden is set to host Colombian President Gustavo Petro on Thursday for talks at the White House amid deep differences on U.S. drug policy and Venezuela but a shared desire to deepen cooperation on climate change, migration and energy policy.
Petro has sharply criticized U.S.-led efforts to prohibit cocaine, saying at a speech at the United Nations last year that oil consumption promoted by “global powers” is more deadly than cocaine and that the “war on drugs has failed.“
As cocaine production in Colombia continues to rise, Petro’s government has been reluctant to eradicate coca fields planted by small farmers. The Colombian president says that he prefers to chase money launderers and large-scale drug traffickers instead of stripping small farmers in isolated areas of their livelihood.
This new approach has been criticized by U.S. officials who long have advocated for the eradication of coca fields in Colombia as part of the effort to undermine drug trafficking groups and loosen their grip on some parts of the country.
In order to broker peace deals with rebel groups, Colombia will have to lift arrest warrants against rebel leaders who are wanted in the U.S on drug trafficking charges. The South American nation is looking to spend millions of dollars on economic development projects in rural areas that have long been afflicted by violence and is seeking U.S. support on that front.
Petro, who was elected last year, is in the midst of an ambitious effort to bring “total peace” to his nation of 50 million after six decades of conflict.
A 2016 peace deal between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia rebel group, known as FARC, reduced violence throughout much of the country. But homicides and forced displacement have increased in some isolated areas, where smaller groups began to fight over drug trafficking routes, illegal mines and other resources abandoned by FARC.
Under Petro, Colombia’s policy toward Venezuela’s authoritarian government has shifted. Colombia no longer backs U.S.-led plans to isolate Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro and force him to resign or call for new elections. Instead Petro’s administration has engaged the Maduro, held bilateral meetings and resumed diplomatic relations.
Petro has called for sanctions on Venezuelan government companies and officials to be lifted and for talks on democratic reforms in Venezuela to resume. His government will host an international conference on Venezuela next week.
Colombia’s government and its largest remaining rebel group — the communist-inspired National Liberation Army, known as ELN — launched talks in November, shortly after Petro was elected president. Petro has called the talks with the ELN a cornerstone of his effort to resolve a conflict that dates back to the 1960s.
Some rural areas of Colombia are still under the grip of drug gangs and rebel groups despite the 2016 peace deal with the larger FARC.
Some U.S. lawmakers have also been critical of Petro’s warming relations with Maduro and President Miguel Díaz-Canel in Cuba.
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla. in a Medium post before the leftist Colombian president’s visit, argued that Petro is misguided in thinking that the Venezuelan and Cuban leaders will use their influence over ELN to Colombia’s favor. Venezuelan security forces have carried out joint operations with ELN against former members of the FARC rebels on the countries’ shared borders. Cuba has held talks in Havana between Colombian officials and ELN.
“But it’s a fool’s errand, because internationally ostracized dictators have nothing to gain from increasing stability in the region,” Rubio wrote.
Petro is also seeking ambitious economic and social reforms that will give the state a greater role in the economy as Colombia struggles to overcome problems such as growing rates of poverty and drug violence.
Biden and Petro’s government have cooperated on the migration issue.
The United States, Panama and Colombia announced last week that they will begin a 60-day campaign aimed at halting illegal migration through the treacherous Darien Gap between Colombia and Panama, where the flow of migrants has multiplied this year.
The announcement came as the Biden administration awaits the expected end of a pandemic-related rule May 11 that has suspended rights to seek asylum for many. Without that instrument of dissuasion at the U.S. border, there is concern migrant arrivals could again become unmanageable.
Suárez reported from Bogotá, Colombia.
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