America’s Closest Ally in South America Faces Possible Change with Next President

On Sunday, Colombian voters again go to the polls to elect the country’s next president in a runoff election. The first round of the election – held on May 29 – led to the runoff as frontrunner Gustavo Petro won 40% of the votes while the runner up, Rodolfo Hernandez, came in with 28%.

Since neither candidate collected the requisite 50% to avoid a runoff, the candidates now face off in hopes of becoming Colombia’s next president. As voters head to the polls on Sunday, it looks like the election could go either way.

The Traditional Right-Left Divide

For decades, Colombia has been ruled by one of two main parties, either the Liberal or Conservative parties. Outgoing President Ivan Duque, a Conservative leader, will leave office at the end of the year. His hopeful successor, Federico Gutierrez, failed to defeat either Mr. Petro or Mr. Hernandez in the first round of the election.

Now, as the Los Angeles Times correctly observes, Colombian voters have the choice of two political outsiders: a former leftist guerilla who later served in the House and Senate of the very government the guerilla groups were fighting or a real estate mogul with vaguely defined political stances and scant political experience.

On the Left

Voters throughout Colombia have been clear about wanting change, a transition away from the traditional Conversative-Liberal monopoly. In a country with a long history of left-wing insurgencies – including the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN) who were entrenched in a decades-long war with the Colombian government with aims breaking open a political system traditionally dominated by two parties – a former guerilla fighter may win the presidency.

Mr. Petro is a 62-year-old former mayor Bogota who has promised to bring about just such a transformation. His left-wing, populist policies include free higher education and a universal public healthcare system. He plans to raise taxes on Colombia’s wealthiest citizens. He also wants to shift the country toward renewable energy, with the intention of ditching oil production. Not surprisingly, much of Mr. Petro’s support has come from those in society who have largely been left behind, including young, poor, rural voters as well as those of the Afro-Colombian and Indigenous minorities.

Based on his political stances, a fear of Mr. Petro taking the country in a far left shift is likely unfounded, as he seeks to implement European-style social democratic programs.

On the Right

On the other hand, Mr. Hernandez’s political ideology remains largely undefined. Part of his appeal is that he offers an alternative to both Mr. Duque, the outgoing president, and Mr. Petro despite his limited governmental experience. As the runoff election looms, much of Mr. Hernandez’s support will likely come from supporters of the conservative Mr. Gutierrez, who came in third in the first round of the election.

Yet, there are a few issues he has commented on. Mr. Hernandez’s primary campaign pledge is the promise to root out government corruption, which he  for most of Colombia’s problems. He has expressed contempt for spending money on international diplomacy. Mr. Hernandez is a controversial and contradictory political figure as he is a pro-business candidate but also supports traditionally left-wing positions such as supporting abortion rights and legalizing marijuana.

In short, Mr. Hernandez, the former mayor of a tiny Colombian town called Bucaramanga, presents himself as what NPR aptly calls a “gruff and foulmouthed anticorruption crusader.”  

A Key Relationship is On the Brink

The type of foreign policy that Messrs. Petro or Hernandez would pursue remains unclear. Both candidates have noted that Colombian voters can expect change.

At the core of Colombia’s foreign policy is its relationship with the United States. Colombia is the United States’ closest ally in the region, having just celebrated 200 years of bilateral relations.

During the Cold War, Colombia remained staunchly in the U.S. camp when Latin America was a battleground in the superpower fight between the United States and its primary Cold War adversary, the Soviet Union. More recently, in March, U.S. President Joe Biden designated Colombia as a non-major NATO ally, granting additional defense and security benefits.

Seen as one of the most stable democracies in South America, the United States and Colombia have shared close ties on myriad issues such as immigration, fighting guerilla insurgencies, drug trafficking, coca eradication, and diplomatic camaraderie on Venezuela. U.S. officials in Washington are watching the results of the Colombian election closely.

Now, both candidates are “questioning some of the fundamental tenets of the U.S.-Colombian relationship.” Quite alarming to the United States is the possible election of Mr. Petro, whose positions on many issues will likely complicate Washington’s relationship with Bogota.

Mr. Petro has noted that he wants to recalibrate the U.S.-Colombian relationship. For one, Mr. Petro favors legalizing the drug trade. He has ridiculed the “war on drugs,” which has been a key U.S. policy toward Colombia for decades. Despite Washington’s continued sponsorship of Plan Colombia, a multibillion dollar economic, diplomatic, and military plan aimed at defeating guerilla fighters and drug traffickers, Mr. Petro contends that that Colombia’s soaring cocaine production – which is four times higher than when Pablo Escobar’s heyday – is proof that the war has failed.

Additionally, Mr. Petro wants to renegotiate Colombia’s free trade agreement with Washington, to which a senior U.S. official recently stated would be a no-go. Mr. Petro argues that the trade pact has “handed rural Colombia to the drug traffickers” as farmers are forced to grow coca just to survive.

Equally unpredictable is the future of U.S. ties with Colombia should Mr. Hernandez emerge victorious from the election. Mr. Hernandez, who, with a comb over and no filter, has been compared to Mr. Trump, pledged to tackle corruption. He has otherwise failed to articulate any concrete foreign or domestic policy goals.

Much like Mr. Petro, Mr. Hernandez frequently criticizes the U.S.-led war on drugs. He agrees with Mr. Petro on restoring diplomatic ties with its autocratic neighbor despite breaking off ties in 2019. Mr. Petro’s leftist proclivities lend a certain degree of concern in Washington as Colombia has never elected a leftist to lead the country.

However, the unpredictability in Mr. Hernandez’s approach to governing and Colombia’s relationship with the United States may be equally unsettling. No matter which candidate wins on Sunday, the United States’ relationship with its best friend in South America will most certainly change.

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