Coca legalization, trading with a US adversary, and providing migration favors. That’s what the US-Colombian relationship is shaping up to entail in 2023. And Washington should welcome the shift.
Colombian President Gustavo Petro, elected earlier in 2022, is transforming his country’s relationship with the United States in ways that drastically depart from the status quo and the conventional dynamic between the two nations. As the Biden administration decides how to react, it may be best to accept Colombia’s more assertive policies.
First, cocaine. Petro has signaled that his calculated new approach to the drug trade will begin with decriminalizing small-scale coca leaf growing. He stated, “the Campesino [small farmer] who grows coca leaf, in my opinion, is not a criminal.” This means Colombia will not reinstate aerial spraying measures — a euphemism for dumping herbicide on areas suspected of being used for coca cultivation.
Some US politicians fear that softer policies in Colombia will translate to an increase in cocaine coming into the United States. The fear seems justified; the US Office of National Drug Control Policy reported that in 2021, 972 metric tons of cocaine were produced in Colombia when spraying was halted, compared to around 300 metric tons in the early 2010s when herbicide dumping still covered over 100,000 hectares of arable land. However, Amazon Watch and the Center for International Environmental Law view the adverse economic and health effects of aerial spraying as human rights violations. The chemical cocktail used in spraying can contaminate the water table, leaving impoverished farmers without access to clean water. Aerial spraying is also indiscriminate and farmers who are not planting coca can be affected, forcing them to leave now-toxic land. In addition, the World Health Organization has listed glyphosate, the main chemical component in aerial sprays, as a dangerous carcinogen.
Petros’ most significant challenge to US policymakers is his proposal about migration. The Colombians view migration as a challenge for the Americas collectively.
Thus far, security officials have kept to blanket statements, like Deputy National Security Advisor Jonathan Finer telling reporters, “The Biden administration is not supportive of decriminalization.” Going further than sweeping remarks, such as attempting to pressure Petro to abandon his new policy is an ill-advised use of US political capital. Considering the two countries have spent around $2 billion on aerial spraying since 2000 without a conclusive win, exploring options of how those funds could be better allocated is prudent. For example, rerouting funds to increased border security measures, such as advanced surveillance, drug dogs, and general manpower, is more palatable to human rights advocates and the Petro administration and potentially more effective in the long term. Increased personnel on the border, especially those equipped with highly trained drug-sniffing dogs, will serve as both a deterrent and means to ensnare perpetrators of illicit activities. Advanced surveillance, such as drones, infrared cameras, and other devices will augment personnel’s ability to secure the border. While it is a swiss cheese model, it placates all parties involved.
Next, Venezuela. On Dec. 13, 2022, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro announced that his government would “be completely reopening the border, for all of western Venezuela with Colombia, for the passage of vehicles, motorcycles, and trucks” at the start of the new year. This development is a blow to the US policy of supporting Juan Guaido as the rightful leader of Venezuela. However, this will produce a relatively small payday for Maduro. In 2018, before the contentious Guaido-Maduro election, Venezuelan exports to Colombia totaled $131 million; in 2020, with sanctions and the pandemic, they fell 80% to $26.8 million. While restoring this trade relationship may benefit Maduro’s standing, it is not worth more than a quiet objection from the United States.
Petro’s most significant challenge to US policymakers is his migration proposal. Petro presents a quid pro quo, asking the United States to grant Colombian citizens who entered illegally a temporary status called Deferred Enforced Departure. In return, Colombia would allow more than two million Venezuelan refugees to remain in Colombia. Colombia’s ambassador to the United States, Gilberto Murillo Urrutia, wrote in a letter to Secretary of State Tony Blinken, “Migration is a regional issue that should be addressed under the principle of shared responsibility, strengthening regional cooperation to ensure migratory regularization.” In other words, the Colombians view migration as a challenge for the Americas collectively.
If Colombia keeps millions of Venezuelans from moving northward, the US government should delay the deportation of Colombian nationals. It is unclear how many Colombians are illegally in the United States now. There is also a legitimate concern that a protective status would encourage more Colombian nationals to attempt to cross the US border. Without accurate data, it isn’t possible to know how much of a concession granting Deferred Enforced Departure status would be. Still, according to Customs and Border Protection Data, in the fiscal year 2022, there were 130,971 encounters with Colombians at the border. Considering that Colombia is already granting protections to Venezuelan refugees, it is unlikely Petro would make a drastic policy reversal just because the United States refused to give Deferred Enforced Departure status to Colombians. However, it would be a “good faith” move for the United States to agree to Petro’s proposal, hoping to encourage future collaboration on migration in the region.
While this metamorphosis of the US-Colombian relationship is unsettling for anyone reassured by continuity, US policymakers would be wise to shift with Petro’s new direction. In August 2022, the Biden administration appeared to be digging in its heels, releasing a statement that the continuation of US drug interdiction in Colombia was necessary. By October 2022, Blinken’s office posted a fact sheet that was vague regarding specific counter-narcotics action but emphasized harmony in the US-Colombian relationship. How this dynamic will continue to unfold remains to be seen.
Lucy Santora is a former Marcellus Policy Fellow at the John Quincy Adams Society.