Lifetime Petro supporter holds up sign stating “Rebellious youth, sing, dance, study, an honest government has arrived.”
All photos courtesy of Joseph Bouchard, taken on Presidential Inauguration Day, August 7, 2022

On June 19, Colombia elected its first-ever leftist President, Gustavo Petro, former economist, senator, and M-19 guerrilla, along with the first-ever Black Vice President, environmental activist Francia Márquez. Petro-Francia campaigned on a progressive platform promising universal healthcare, public access to higher education, transitioning to green energy, a peaceful resolution to the civil conflict, and a general move to a more “independent, self-reliant Colombia”. In their electoral victory speech, they reiterated their commitment to transitioning away from foreign dependency in key sectors in which the US and Canada are vested in — mainly energy, agriculture, and security.

Some observers, particularly in the United States and on the right of the political spectrum in Latin America, have expressed concern over the election’s significance for Colombia’s relations with Canada and the United States. Current Florida Governor Ron DeSantis called Petro “a former narco-terrorist and a Marxist,” arguing his administration would be “disastrous.” At the same time, Senators Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio put forward a bill in late July to reimpose terrorism sanctions on the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), which had been lifted after the peace accord was signed in 2016.

These knee-jerk responses support a pessimistic view of how US and Canadian relations will develop going forward, especially given both countries’ relationships with other left-wing South American governments past and present. Instead, this shift in Colombia’s political landscape can provide the three countries a new mutually beneficial path forward, free of the contentious relations of the past that could more effectively tackle the economic, political, and environmental issues they share now. 

There is already sustained energy in developing diplomatic relations that could foster cooperation on these issues of mutual national interest. Justin Trudeau congratulated Petro and Marques over twitter, adding “I look forward to working with you both on our priorities, including democracy, gender equality, and the climate.”   Petro soon replied, tweeting that he looked forward to working together on those issues. While, US President Joe Biden called Petro to congratulate him on his victory, mentioning his hopes to strengthen “bilateral cooperation” on the climate, health security, counter-narcotics strategy. State visits between the nation’s leaders are scheduled, and USAID Administrator Samantha Power already met with the Colombian President and Vice-President. 

A New Paradigm 

Historically, Colombia has long been a conservative ally of the US and Canada in the region, standing at their side during the Drug War and for most of the Cold War. This paradigm of Colombia as a conservative country has now been shattered.

Petro’s unexpected victory has itself been seen as a response to this decades-long successive conservative rule in the country, with the ever-growing economic inequality, corruption, internal conflict, and human rights violations they oversaw glossed over by security and financial support provided by the US and Canada in their joint interest of fighting both the Drug War and left-wing factions of the Colombian conflict. 

Popular frustration with the conservative status quo came to a boil in 2021, when protests sprung up across the country, against increased taxes, corruption, and detrimental healthcare reforms proposed by then-President Iván Duque Márquez. Petro’s platform, which moves away from conservative domestic policies and the continued patronage of the US and Canada, was, naturally, popular among the electorate.

Politicians and pundits on the left and right alike assume that Petro’s platform will inherently lead to clashes with the US and Canada. However, the global challenges posed by climate change, trade, and political conflict mean neither party can afford a souring of diplomatic relations.

Canada and the United States cannot economically afford to ostracize the Colombian government, a key trade partner to both countries, nor can they afford on the security front to lose the country to developing Chinese economic influence

On the other side, it is undoubtedly in Colombia’s national interest to maintain ties with the two strongest military and economic powers in the hemisphere. The security guarantees the US provides Colombia aids in pacifying the immense security problems they face with the domestic conflict.. Additionally, Colombia cannot risk antagonizing the US or Canada as they might face economic sanctions and trade embargos as placed on other left-wing countries in the region in Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Cuba. The US and Canada remain among Colombia’s largest trading partners.

The political shift in Colombia necessitates a new approach from the United States and Canada that can reset and continue diplomatic relations, one that respects Colombia’s sovereignty and emphasizes joint collaboration on issues of mutual – but ultimately Colombian – interest and benefit addressed in Petro’s popular platform.

Arms sales and military cooperation should no longer be the sole focus of the bilateral partnership. Petro has signaled his intent to reduce dependence on security forces that receive US training, to end the Drug War, and to open diplomatic peace talks with the factions of Colombia’s domestic conflict. 

The US and Canada can begin providing support on issues of mutual interest that Petro hopes to tackle. Namely, sustainable economic development, countering climate change, and supporting regional security through diplomatic peace rather than conflict.

A white flag with a hole to represent the Colombian peace disrupted by the civil conflict

Regional Security through Domestic Peace

All three governments have already expressed their wish to cooperate in the mutual interest of security in Colombia. During his phone call with Petro congratulating him on his victory, Biden mentioned his hope for the two countries to continue cooperating on implementing the 2016 Colombian peace agreement. While the Trudeau administration in Canada has had a history of supporting a resolution to the Colombian conflict.

Petro-Francia’s ambitious security platform hopes to put an end to Colombia’s domestic conflict by signing new peace deals with guerrilla and paramilitary groups. Petro-Francia have proposed tentative peace talks with various individual groups, including the ELN, the Gulf Clan, and the various Autodefensas (self-defence groups).

While the US and Canada long supported the expansion of policing and militarism in dealing with the civil conflict, putting a (permanent) end to a volatile conflict that has constantly threatened to swallow a key trade and political partner in Colombia would stabilize risk for foreign investors, boosting Colombian industries’ market value, while allowing both countries to divert foreign security concerns and funding elsewhere more pressing. 

The US and Canada could offer diplomatic support to the Petro administration in negotiating with Colombia’s far-right and far-left armed factions. An emphasis should be put on supporting mediation and dialogue, rather than a securitized approach, which has already been tried on repeated occasions, with limited success and a heavy human cost. 

Canadian and American governments should offer rhetorical support through public and private statements to the peace process, without committing any kind of security assistance to fight the illegal armed groups. The US and Canada could also offer a secure location to mediate the accords. A good choice would be Miami, given its economic, historic, cultural, and political ties to the Caribbean countries. 

Two supporters of the M-19 guerrilla group holding the group’s flag

A New Green Internationalism 

On climate change, Petro-Francia intend to transition Colombia away from fossil fuels and towards green and renewable energy and technology. On the campaign trail, Petro stated that, as President, he would ban pilot fracking projects, and halt the expansion of all extractive industries, applying to oil, natural gas, and mining. 

The climate transition has been part of Petro’s message for a long time. As Senator, Petro said his vision involves “a grand coalition of powers that can speak much more strongly in a global context to fight against climate change, and to transition Latin America toward economies that are decarbonized, productive and based on knowledge.” Through this sentiment, Canada and the US can find common ground with the Petro government in continuing Colombian trade relations. 

While many assume that Petro’s move away from extractive industries may draw ire from the United States and Canada, where companies from both countries have invested billions of dollars into the Colombian oil industry, it also offers the two countries new areas of investment in Colombia and the unprecedented potential to develop green technologies with a willing major oil producer. And the sentiment is there; while congratulating Petro on his electoral victory over twitter, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau added  “I look forward to working with you both on our priorities, including democracy, gender equality, and the climate.” Petro soon replied, tweeting that he looked forward to working together on those issues.

Economically, the tourism, agricultural, and green tech industry have also been proposed as replacements for the fossil-fuel industry to boost Colombia’s developing economy. Canadian and American investments can be redirected to these sectors. While collaborating with the Petro-Francia administration in a green energy transition can greatly aid the US and Canada both economically and in the development of green technologies. Colombia could gain from Canada’s experts in hydroelectricity, as it could from American nuclear scientists and wind turbine technology. The three countries could, therefore, sign a green free trade agreement for renewable technology that would see the US and Canada financially incentivized to develop more effective green technology, setting an international precedent for green trade.

Most importantly, these climate solutions are politically and economically feasible. Unlike others of the world’s largest energy exporters such as the Gulf states and Russia, Colombia is not currently a major exporter of the US and Canada’s energy sector. While Colombia exports most of its energy resources to Canada, the United States, and its South American neighbors — the share of the US and Canada’s energy coming from Colombia represents a small percentage

While other major energy exporters are not willing to collaborate with the US and Canada on developing green energy alternatives due to political or economic conflict, Petro’s Colombia presents an opportunity to explore what a green foreign policy approach with a major fossil fuel producer could look like. 

The benefits of a green trade deal between the three countries would allow Petro to succeed in his decarbonizing of the Colombian economy. The US and Canada would set global precedents in the development of effective, profitable green technology and environmental diplomacy.

A moving monument symbolizing peace and prosperity in Colombia

Diplomacy through Development

Colombia suffered from a povery rate of 39.1% in 2021 and has the second highest level of income inequality in South America. Petro-Francia have made abundantly clear that fighting poverty and expanding public spending are at the root of their policy priorities during their 4-year stay in the Presidential Casa de Nariño
Petro-Francia plan to increase human capital investment in Colombia. They have promised to heighten government intervention in various sectors of the economy to stimulate investment and create jobs. Additionally, they intend to subsidize university tuition and develop education programs for minority and rural communities. Massive transportation and telecommunications infrastructure projects are also planned to create jobs and develop the country’s mostly rural landscape — where most of the Colombia remains without road access and many without internet access

The US and Canada have a vested interest supporting Petro with his economic reforms in a bid to counter Colombian poverty’s role in the Drug War, develop human capital in a key trade partner in Colombia and rebuff economic influence from China during the Trade War. Specifically, some of the roots of crime in Colombia would be tackled, namely the lack of economic, political, and educational opportunities.

Regarding the Drug War, both in Colombia and the US/Canada, the decades-long approach focused on security and policing has evidently gone nowhere. The past decade saw a massive surge of illicit drug exports from Colombia to the US and Canada. This comes as both countries continue to suffer from an opioid and overdose epidemic, where small but deadly amounts of the surgical painkiller fentanyl are being found in drugs smuggled from Colombia and elsewhere. The opioid and overdose epidemic cost the US and Canada $78.5 and $3.5 billion respectively in lost productivity, healthcare costs, police funding and more. Therefore, diverting previous funding from security aid and police training into Petro’s policies aimed at alleviating poverty would greatly benefit the US and Canada in more effectively tackling the Drug War and its ramifications on their economies.

Economically, boosting the spending power of the average Colombian citizen would make investments and trade relations with the country more lucrative. Despite the fact that 39.1% of Colombians were below the poverty line at the end of 2021, the country’s free-trade agreements with both the US and Canada have remained lucrative. Providing aid for Petro’s policies looking to raise the standard of living would only serve to further strengthen these trade relations by boosting the consumer’s purchasing power.

Additionally, the US and Canada have a geopolitical interest in investing in some of the infrastructure projects the Petro administration will push for in his bid to fight poverty through human development. China has financed a variety of infrastructure projects in Colombia, including the metros of Bogotá and Medellín, public transportation networks on the Caribbean and Pacific coasts, and a planned railroad network throughout the Amazon.  Huawei, the Chinese telecom giant, has quickly established itself as the largest player in the South American markets, including Colombia. The US and Canada can work on challenging this growing Chinese influence by investing in Colombian infrastructure and human capital along with the proposed plans of the new Petro-Francia government. 

Supporters of Petro and Francia holding a Patriotic Union flag, a political party founded by the FARC guerrilla group in the 1980s

Setting a Precedent 

As politicians with left-leaning platforms gain popularity throughout South America, the US and Canada cannot afford a black-and-white, Cold War-era style foreign policy that immediately antagonizes left-leaning governments, especially as the Trade War with China continues to develop. 

Additionally, with the ramifications of climate change becoming increasingly global, the US and Canada, and all major international actors, cannot afford to place ideological rivalries above potential partnerships in developing climate change strategies. 
These possible diplomatic efforts by the US and Canada toward Colombia could set an important precedent globally. They can ensure continued relations in a manner that respects and supports Colombia’s new progressive trajectory while also seeing geopolitical security, economic and environmental interests met. A peaceful resolution to the Colombian civil conflict, the development of green technology and trade, and tackling the Drug War through alleviating poverty and investing in human capital are all mutual goals that would not only benefit the three countries’ immediate issues but set a example on the global stage regarding the effectiveness of diplomacy and the potential for coordinated international efforts on the climate.

Edited by Majeed Malhas

Joseph Bouchard

Originally from Quebec City, Joseph earned a BA in International Relations and Latin American Studies from the University of British Columbia and a Master's of International Affairs in National Security...