Why Latin America might say “adios” to the United States
Next month, Colombia will hold its presidential election. With a former M-19 guerrilla emerging as the leading contender and a region experiencing a resurgence of the left’s ‘pink tide’, the outcome could present the Biden administration with another unwelcome national security challenge it unfortunately does not seem to see. unprepared to cope.
In the short term, the United States could lose its most important regional ally; watching a transnational criminal network with terrorist affiliations in Venezuela grow in power and influence; and, finally, to face a new, more protracted wave of irregular migration heading north. If the failures in Afghanistan and high-stakes appeasement in Ukraine aren’t enough, imagine the foreign policy implications of saying “adios” to the Western Hemisphere.
For decades, the only Latin American country of real importance to the United States was Colombia. The United States has poured billions of dollars into anti-narcotics and socio-economic programs to stabilize its institutions and grow its economy. If our leaders had the time to visit a country or hold a bilateral meeting, it would be too often with the Colombians. Their poor governance, systemic corruption and glaring economic inequalities tolerated for decades have been laid bare by the pandemic and voters are fed up. Colombia is not the only country affected by the pandemic, but it is our most important regional ally.
Gustavo Petro is the Casa de Narino candidate for the coalition of left-wing progressive politicians who form the Pacto Historico. Mr. Petro was a member of the notorious M-19 guerrilla group that terrorized Colombia in the 1980s and 1990s. He served as mayor of the Colombian capital, Bogota, and came second in the 2018 presidential election. Colombia has never had a president from the ideological left, and his critics fear he will turn them into another Venezuela.
Mr. Petro argued for using pension funds to finance social programs and called for a new socio-economic bloc to move countries away from fossil fuels. His message of taxing the rich is particularly popular among the 40% of Colombians living in poverty, who have suffered from the pandemic and are now facing soaring inflation. Mr. Petro believes that hardened dissident armed groups can be disarmed through quick negotiations and coca fields reallocated through crop substitution. Mr. Petro’s main rival is Federico Gutierrez, the former mayor of Medellin, Colombia’s second city. It is aligned with the centre-right and its program is outdated and irrelevant.
Colombia has been divided politically by COVID-19 protests, endless security concerns and young voters focused on lack of economic opportunity, the environment and corruption.
The lack of opportunities in Colombia is staggering. According to a study by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, it takes 11 generations for someone from a low-income family to reach “middle income”. Another OECD study found that after the pandemic, 22.1% of men and 46.7% of women (aged 20-24) were neither employed nor studying at an academic institution.
Colombia remains a dangerous place, with 24.3 murders per 100,000 people, the highest since 2013. In comparison, the United States had 7.7 per 100,000 in 2021. One of the main drivers of violence remains the production of coca. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime found that coca production continues to set records, rising 8% in 2020 despite a 7% reduction in land under cultivation.
If Mr. Petro is elected, he is unlikely to have a clear mandate. He will face considerable institutional opposition and a divided legislature. Mr. Petro is a crusader, and if he gets frustrated, he could become autocratic. Latin America has a long history of autocratic rulers, and as mayor Mr. Petro displayed authoritarian tendencies. The Colombian Supreme Court is ideologically in sync with him, and narco-money remains a force. The cogs of change are in motion. Many Colombians are already evaluating an exit strategy to the north.
Mr. Petro’s relationship with the ELN (National Liberation Army), a leftist revolutionary group turned drug cartel, and Venezuela will be critical and illuminating. The ELN has become a major transnational criminal organization, operating with impunity on both sides of the border. They have taken control of the cocaine production and distribution routes and are the most formidable cartel currently in Colombia.
The Colombians and Venezuelans are born rivals, like the Yankees and the Red Sox. Mr Petro is known to trade insults with Caracas. He’s an ideologue, but he’s also a pragmatic politician and he understands alliances. He called for a “slow normalization” of relations. Mr Petro is likely, at least early in his term, to take advice from Caracas but go his own way. With Mr. Petro, there could be an expanded operational and logistical base inside Colombia for TCOs backed by compromised state institutions and influenced by Caracas and Havana. The United States may find that efforts to disrupt these criminal networks are suddenly much more difficult. How he handles these relationships will clarify whether he is trying to improve the system or destroy it.
If Mr. Petro wins and joins the pink tide, they will form a formidable regional bloc against democratic interests. They could be the catalyst for a titanic increase in irregular migration. Biden’s strategy for Latin America is anemic and seems to hinge on opening borders, pronouns, “Latinx” and finding the mythical “root causes” of migration. Few people believe in us more. We are perceived not only as weak and unserious but also ridiculous. America’s reservoir of credibility is exhausted. In May, we could wake up outside in our own hemisphere. Who would have thought that the United States would have to develop an “over the horizon” strategy for Latin America?
• Ron MacCammon is a retired US military officer with over thirty years of experience in Latin America. He taught international relations at the United States Military Academy at West Point and holds a doctorate in education from the University of South Florida.