Colombian President Petro meets Biden in Washington, DC

The two leaders discussed issues such as climate change, migration and drug trafficking in a White House meeting.

Joe Biden leans over from a beige chair to speak with Gustavo Petro in front of an empty fire place
Colombian President Gustavo Petro, left, sits in the Oval Office of the White House with his US counterpart, Joe Biden, in Washington, DC [Kevin Lamarque/Reuters]

Colombian President Gustavo Petro has met US President Joe Biden on Thursday, as the two countries seek to confront issues such as climate change, migration and drug policy.

In a statement to the press, Petro called for economies across the Americas to move away from their reliance on oil, coal and gas, reiterating a pivotal part of his clean-energy platform.

“We have the greatest potential for democracy and freedom in the Americas, as well as the greatest potential for green energies,” he said.

Biden, meanwhile, echoed Petro’s call for greater cooperation between their two countries, particularly as the US and Colombia worked together to combat international drug trafficking. He also praised Petro for his “total peace” platform.

“I really want to thank you for your outspoken and strong commitment to peace and human rights,” Biden said.

In a news conference earlier on Thursday, White House national security spokesperson John Kirby framed the US-Colombia relationship as a “true partnership” but also a question of domestic defence.

“Colombia and Colombia’s future, their security, their prosperity, remains a national security interest of the United States, and during the conversation today, President Biden and President Petro will continue to make progress on these and many other issues,” Kirby told reporters.

Earlier in the day, Petro posted a picture of his meeting with Democratic lawmakers Nancy Pelosi and Jim McGovern, calling them “great friends”.

Colombia’s neighbour Venezuela was one of the topics broached in Thursday’s discussions, as the South American country continues to face an economic crisis and political instability.

Widely considered Colombia’s first left-wing president, Petro has moved to reestablish relations with Venezuela after years of tensions under previous administrations. He has previously called for the US to ease sanctions against Venezuela, citing its troubled economy.

In front of reporters in the Oval Office, Biden praised Petro’s government for accepting asylum seekers crossing from Venezuela to Colombia.

Millions of Venezuelans have left the country as they seek economic opportunities elsewhere. Washington and Bogotá reached an agreement last week agreeing to collaborate on an effort to crack down on irregular migration through the Darien Gap, connecting Colombia with its northern neighbour Panama.

The US currently does not recognise the socialist government of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro. In a statement to reporters after his White House visit, Petro said a “strategy was proposed” that might see US sanctions against Venezuela lifted if “an electoral agenda is fulfilled”.

Earlier in the day, Kirby said that the US was willing to reevaluate its policy toward Venezuela if there were “constructive steps by the Maduro regime” to “return to a democracy” in the country.

“I think we’ve also been very, very clear that we’re not afraid to take action should the Maduro regime fail to negotiate in good faith or to follow through on its commitments,” Kirby added.

A close-up of Gustavo Petro speaking from a beige chair in the Oval Office
Colombian President Gustavo Petro expressed that he and US President Biden shared a common commitment to ‘democracy, freedom and peace’ [Kevin Lamarque/Reuters]

The question of how to approach violence and drug trafficking has also loomed large over Thursday’s talks between Biden and his Colombian counterpart.

Petro took office in August 2022, after campaigning on a platform that promised a new approach to addressing the country’s decades-long internal conflict, which has pitted government forces against far-right groups, left-wing forces and drug cartels.

His administration has promised peace talks and negotiations with the armed groups, in the hope of ending the conflict.

A June report by Colombia’s Truth Commission had been highly critical of previous administrations’ militarised approach to combatting drug manufacturing and trafficking, which the commission accused of prolonging the conflict and leading to human rights abuses. It estimated that more than 450,000 have been killed in the fighting.

Colombia has remained the world’s largest producer of cocaine, but it has partnered with the US on its global “war on drugs”, a campaign of military intervention and aid to stamp out drug trafficking.

In the early 2000s, the US poured millions of dollars into the South American nation as part of a controversial initiative called “Plan Colombia”, designed to target groups with ties to the drug trade.

But in a speech before the United Nations last year, Petro asked world leaders to acknowledge that “the war on drugs has failed”. He also announced in January that Colombia would no longer focus on eradicating coca farms.

However, Petro’s plans for “total peace” in Colombia have faced challenges. Despite ongoing negotiations with organised criminal groups and remaining rebels, the country’s internal violence has continued. In late March, for instance, an attack allegedly carried out by the left-wing ELN rebel group killed nine Colombian soldiers in a blow to the peace talks.

But a report published in March by the Red Cross found that fighting overall between the government and armed groups had decreased. It welcomed Petro’s efforts to promote negotiations.

However, the report also concluded the violence has continued to harm civilians, displacing more than 180,000 people in 2022.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies