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In test of ties with U.S., Colombian leader proposes shift on drugs

Colombian President Gustavo Petro delivers a speech Monday at the Simón Bolívar international bridge in Cúcuta, Colombia, after the reopening of the border with Venezuela for trading. (Guillermo Legaria/Getty Images)

NEW YORK — Colombia’s new leftist leader is proposing steps to decriminalize elements of his country’s flourishing narcotics industry, signaling a potential break with a past hard-line strategy on drugs and a test of Bogotá’s ties with its most powerful ally, the United States.

President Gustavo Petro, a former guerrilla whose election this summer marked an end to decades of conservative rule in Colombia, described plans that would permit small-scale farmers to legally grow coca leaf, the raw material for cocaine, and address deforestation and climate change by paying farmers not to plant the crop — or anything else — in Colombia’s rainforest.

He said the booming international drug trade, more powerful than it was in the days of famed Colombian cartel leader Pablo Escobar, and the destabilizing toll it had taken on Latin American nations illustrated the “resounding failure” of the U.S.-backed war on drugs.

“We need to construct a more effective path,” he said in an interview on the margins of the annual gathering of world leaders at the U.N. General Assembly in New York last week. He made an appeal for support from consumer nations, principally the United States.

“I can’t go down this path alone, given that the demand comes from outside Colombia,” he said.

Colombia, the largest cocaine supplier to U.S., considers decriminalizing

Petro’s desire to pursue significant changes to Colombia’s policies, which for decades have included U.S.-funded efforts to forcibly eradicate coca plants and spray pesticide on coca fields, reflect a desire for profound change in a country where persistent economic inequality and the toll of the coronavirus pandemic have generated waves of popular unrest, like elsewhere in Latin America. Thousands of Colombians marched on Monday in opposition to proposals Petro has put forward including tax increases and land reform.

The president’s agenda could also cause fissures in the U.S.-Colombia relationship, a partnership that has provided Bogotá billions of dollars in U.S. aid and represented a cornerstone of U.S. dealings with the region. Already, Petro has abandoned the previous government’s policy on Venezuela, reestablishing ties with leftist President Nicolás Maduro and reopening the two countries’ borders to trade for the first time since 2019.

Brian Winter, vice president for policy at the Americas Society/Council of the Americas, said Petro represents a “paradigm shift” on the issues that have dominated the U.S.-Colombian relationship, including the drug trade, border security and each country’s policy toward Venezuela. Petro is also urging changes to extradition practices that have allowed U.S. courts to try Colombian drug traffickers.

“He’s talking about a wholesale reinvention of the relationship between Colombia and the United States as it’s existed for the last 30 years,” Winter said. While both sides are proceeding cautiously as they size one another up, he said, “there’s no doubt that this very important relationship is changing and might look dramatically different two years from now.”

At the United Nations last week, Petro telegraphed his willingness to challenge the prevailing view among U.S. allies, not just on the drugs trade but on the war in Ukraine. In a fiery speech, he warned Latin American nations — in a nod to the U.S.-led campaign to support Kyiv against Russia — to be wary of pressure from outside powers “to ally ourselves on the fields of battle.”

Petro assumed power in Colombia as other countries in the region have taken a shift to the left, with the election of former protest leader Gabriel Boric in Chile and Marxist Pedro Castillo in Peru. As the Biden administration seeks to reassert U.S. influence in Latin America and respond to China’s deepening inroads, it will have to navigate those governments’ desire to establish a different rapport with Washington.

Petro, who served time in prison in the 1980s for his links to a guerrilla group, urged the United States to follow Colombia in broadly decriminalizing drug consumption and taking a “pragmatic” rather than “fundamentalist” approach to the narcotics trade.

Coca crops have reached record highs in recent years amid growing insecurity in rural Colombia, a sign of trouble more than five years after the government signed a peace accord with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the powerful leftist rebel group.

To respond to those problems, Petro said he would pursue a plan to implement “phased decriminalization,” beginning with coca leaf production by small-scale farmers known as campesinos. He described those farmers as victims of the drug war and other societal forces, citing their expulsion from rich farmland to remote jungle areas where poor soil and distance from markets made coca leaf one of the few economically viable crops.

“The campesino who grows coca leaf, in my opinion, is not a criminal,” he said. He said his proposal was aimed in part at protecting a vulnerable part of Colombian society and eliminating one potent driver of violence.

“As long as there’s prohibition there will be mafia,” he said. Decriminalizing some production “doesn’t mean ending the American cocaine market, but it does mean taking Colombia out of this cycle of violence.”

Petro repeatedly stressed the responsibility of consumer countries — especially the United States — to take greater responsibility for addressing demand at home in lieu of focusing on suppressing production abroad.

It appeared to be a more cautious step than what people close to his government had previously proposed, perhaps due to U.S. opposition to broad decriminalization and a lack of explicit support from his Andean neighbors Peru and Bolivia, who along with Colombia account for most global coca production. Petro declined to say whether he thought Colombian lawmakers would support such a move.

In what he called a potential “synergy” tacking drugs and climate change, Petro proposed that countries including the United States could help pay some Colombian campesinos to become stewards of the rainforest, eschewing the cultivation of coca or other crops in new areas and ensuring that virgin areas of Colombia’s Amazon survive.

Renata Segura, deputy program director for Latin America at the International Crisis Group, said Petro appeared to be attempting to position himself as an international leader on drug policy but would face challenges in forging a consensus beyond the failure of the current approach.

“A lot of conservative right-wing sections [of Colombia] would be horrified at the idea of any kind of regulation, but there is a very widespread opinion that the war on drugs has been very bad for Colombia,” Segura said. In that sense, she added, “I think he is reading the room.”

A State Department spokesperson, speaking on the condition of anonymity under department rules, said the Biden administration would work with Colombia to “disrupt the supply of illicit drugs and to promote holistic policies” supporting peace and development in coca-growing areas, in addition to efforts to reduce demand at home.

Some congressional Republicans are already voicing concern. In a letter last week to Rahul Gupta, the Biden administration’s top official for drug control policy, Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) expressed consternation about Petro’s potential decriminalization plans and other issues.

“President Petro’s drug policy and posture towards the United States is alarming,” they wrote.

In a departure from many countries closely allied with the United States, Petro has also questioned the U.S.-led policy of support for Ukraine’s war against Russia’s invasion, which is also backed by most European countries.

“Let the Slavic nations speak among themselves; let the people of the world do it,” he said in his U.N. address. “War is only a trap that brings closer the end of times in a giant orgy of irrationality.”

Petro said in an interview that sending arms to Kyiv would escalate the conflict. Citing Ukraine’s Russian-speaking population, he said Ukraine’s assertion that the fighting was a justified means for defending its sovereignty was one of several versions of events surrounding the conflict.

“There are two narratives, like in every war,” he said.

Samantha Schmidt in Bogotá and Karen DeYoung in Washington contributed to this report.

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