Colombian leader Petro offers drug shift to test US relations

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

President Gustavo Petro, a former guerrilla whose election this summer marked the end of decades of conservative rule in Colombia, outlined plans that would allow small farmers to legally grow coca leaf, the raw material for cocaine, and to fight deforestation and climate change by paying farmers not to plant the crop – or anything else – in the Colombian rainforest.

He said the rise of the international drug trade, stronger than it was in the days of notorious Colombian cartel boss Pablo Escobar, and the destabilizing toll it had taken on developing countries Latin America exemplified the “resounding failure” of the US-backed war on drugs.

“We need to build a more efficient path,” he said in an interview on the sidelines of the annual gathering of world leaders at the United Nations General Assembly in New York last week. He appealed for support from consumer nations, primarily the United States.

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

Petro’s desire to pursue significant changes in Colombia’s policies, which for decades have included US-funded efforts to forcibly eradicate coca plants and spray coca fields with pesticides, reflects a desire for profound change in a country where persistent economic inequalities and the toll of the coronavirus pandemic have generated waves of popular unrest, as elsewhere in Latin America. Thousands of Colombians marched on Monday in opposition to the proposals put forward by Petro, notably tax increases and agrarian reform.

The president’s agenda could also cause cracks in U.S.-Colombian relations, a partnership that has provided Bogotá with billions of dollars in U.S. aid and has been a cornerstone of U.S. relations with the region. Already, Petro has abandoned the previous government’s policy on Venezuela, restoring 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 issues that have dominated US-Colombian relations, including drug trafficking, border security and each country’s policy towards Venezuela. Petro also calls for changes to extradition practices that have allowed US courts to try Colombian drug traffickers.

“It speaks of a complete reimagining of the relationship between Colombia and the United States as it has existed for 30 years,” Winter said. While both parties proceed with caution as they gauge each other, he said, “there is no doubt that this very important relationship is changing and could look dramatically different two years from now.”

At the United Nations last week, Petro telegraphed his willingness to challenge the prevailing view among American allies, not just on the drug trade, but on the war in Ukraine. In a fiery speech, he warned Latin American countries – in a nod to the US-led campaign to support Kyiv against Russia – to be wary of pressure from outside powers “to ally us on the battlefield”.

Petro seized power in Colombia as other countries in the region took a left turn, with the election of former protest leader Gabriel Boric in Chile and Marxist Pedro Castillo in Peru. As the Biden administration seeks to reassert American influence in Latin America and respond to growing Chinese incursions, it will have to grapple with these governments’ desire to establish a different rapport with Washington.

Petro, who served a prison sentence in the 1980s for his ties to a guerrilla group, urged the United States to follow Colombia in broadly decriminalizing drug use and adopting a “pragmatic” approach rather than ” fundamentalist” of the drug trade.

Coca harvests have hit record highs in recent years amid growing insecurity in rural Colombia, a sign of unrest more than five years after the government signed a peace accord with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia ( FARC), the powerful left-wing rebel group.

To address these issues, Petro said he would pursue a plan to implement “gradual decriminalization”, starting with the production of coca leaves by small farmers called campesinos. He described these farmers as victims of the war on drugs and other societal forces, citing their eviction from rich farmlands to remote areas of the jungle where poor soils and distance from markets have made leaf of coca one of the few economically viable crops.

“The campesino who grows the coca leaf, in my opinion, is not a criminal,” he said. He said his proposal was in part to protect a vulnerable part of Colombian society and eliminate a powerful engine of violence.

“As long as there is prohibition, there will be the mafia,” he said. Decriminalizing part of the production “does not mean ending the American cocaine market, but it does mean getting Colombia out of this cycle of violence”.

Petro has repeatedly stressed the responsibility of consumer countries, in particular the United States – to take greater responsibility for meeting domestic demand instead of focusing on suppressing production overseas.

It seemed like a more cautious step than people close to his government had previously proposed, perhaps due to U.S. opposition to broad decriminalization and a lack of explicit support from its Andean neighbors Peru and Bolivia, which together with Colombia account for most of the coca in the world. production. Petro declined to say whether he thought Colombian lawmakers would support such a move.

In what he called a potential “synergy” against drugs and climate change, Petro proposed that countries, including the United States, could help pay some Colombian campesinos to become guardians of the forest. tropical, avoiding the cultivation of coca or other crops in new areas and ensuring that the pristine regions of the Colombian Amazon survive.

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

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

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

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

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

Departing from many countries closely allied with the United States, Petro also questioned the American policy of supporting Ukraine’s war against Russian invasion, which is also supported by most European countries.

“Let the Slavic peoples speak among themselves; let the people of the world do it,” he said in his address to the UN. “War is just a trap that draws the end of time closer in a giant orgy of irrationality.”

Petro said in an interview that sending weapons to Kyiv would escalate the conflict. Citing Ukraine’s Russian-speaking population, he said Ukraine’s assertion that fighting was a justified way to defend its sovereignty was one of many 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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