Colombia’s New President and the Challenges to the Bilateral Relationship

petro and marquez

Across from Colombia’s Congress and about two blocks away from the Casa Nariño, Colombia’s presidential residence, stands the nation’s Supreme Court building, the Palace of Justice. Across from the court itself is a plaque memorializing the “Holocaust of the Palace of Justice,” when in 1985 the guerilla movement M-19 seized control of the building. In response, the national government sent in police commandos and soldiers to rescue the hostages and end the siege. Over the course of two days, 43 civilians and nearly half of Colombia’s Supreme Court were killed.

Now, a former M-19 member will assume the presidency of Colombia, Latin America’s third-largest democracy and the United States’ most important strategic ally in South America. Though Gustavo Petro claims he never served in a combat role, and indeed was being tortured by state authorities during the siege, fears founded on Petro’s guerrilla past already loom over his incoming presidency. Some of these fears, such as that the President-elect’s plan to move the country away from fossil fuels could cause an economic freefall in a nation already suffering from the economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic, are well founded. But fears that Petro will pose a seismic or even minor threat to either Colombia’s democracy and its relations with the United States are hyperbolic and premature. Allegations that Petro is a Castro-Chavista, and that he will emulate the policies of Venezuela’s Nicolas Maduro, ignore not only Petro’s political biography, but the ways that Colombia’s domestic and international institutions have previously constrained aspiring populists. Furthermore, both the incoming Petro administration and the Biden administration share an interest in fully realizing Colombia’s 2016 peace deal with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). This common goal will necessitate cooperation between leaders in both countries, potentially deepening Colombia’s democracy by guaranteeing the rights and security of previously marginalized citizens, while making a significant rift between the two countries unlikely.



Troublingly, many analysts in the United States continue to view Latin America as the same Cold War chessboard as they did in the Soviet era. But the Cold War is over and treating Colombia’s incoming president as a political pariah prior to him even assuming office is a grave error. This is true not only for President Joe Biden but for partisan legislators and commentators who have already portrayed Petro as a danger both to democracy and U.S. interests in the region. Should the United States’ relationship with Colombia itself become a partisan football, the incoming Colombian President will have incentives to move away from the United States and to do so quickly.

Petro in the Latin-American Left

The Cold War-era promotion of misunderstandings and outright deception risks aggregating all of Latin America’s leftist movements into one Soviet-sponsored bloc. Though Colombia’s largest insurgency, the FARC did receive aid from both the Soviet Union and Cuba, the ideology of M-19, to which Petro belonged, is far more complicated.

It cannot feasibly be said that M-19 was a “peaceful” movement, nor do I advocate viewing Colombia’s largest urban guerrilla group through rose-colored lenses. It was, however, uniquely Colombian, and its patchwork membership of students, priests, conservatives, and nationalists reflected a diversity of grievances and goals. The group was founded in 1970, in response to supposedly rigged elections when Colombia’s only military dictator, General Rojas Pinilla, lost his popular bid for the presidency.

Petro’s involvement in M-19 appears, by all evidence, limited. He was recruited on his college campus by the group in 1978 and avoided participation in armed conflict. By his own account, he was drawn to the group precisely because of its uniquely Colombian nature:

“This was a completely different idea from the ELN [National Liberation Army], the FARC, the Communist Party, or the various university leftist groups, which entered a dialog with models such as the soviet, the Cuban, the Chinese, while we were thinking of our own nationalist and democratic project.”

Petro worked as an ideological missionary, proselytizing and spreading propaganda while stockpiling weapons. He was far away from the group’s leadership, though Antonio Navarro Wolff, one of the group’s founders, remains an on-and-off again political ally. In August of 1985, Petro was arrested and tortured by government security forces until his release in 1987.

Though many have stoked fears that Petro’s insurgent past makes him an inherent threat to Colombia’s democracy, leftist guerrillas across Latin America have repeatedly won elections without weakening democracy. In 2010, José Mujica won Uruguay’s presidency, and like Petro was a member of an urban guerrilla movement: the Tupamaros. Dilma Rousseff, elected in 2011 as the heir apparent of popular Brazilian leftist Lula da Silva, was also a Marxist guerrilla from 1970 to 1972. All three were tortured by state forces during their imprisonment. Neither Mujica nor Rousseff transformed their nations into Marxist dictatorships, though Dilma Rousseff was impeached in 2016 for alleged involvement in the “car wash” scandal.

These more left-wing leaders stand in sharp contrast to the more radical “Bolivarian” leftists, including former Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez, Nicholas Maduro, and former Bolivian president Evo Morales, who posed greater challenges to the democracies of their respective nations. For his part, Petro has repeatedly reiterated that he does not identify with Chávez or Maduro, saying he has “much more in common with Pepe Mujica.” He also offered a more nuanced view of Venezuela, pointing out that while Chávez was popularly elected, Maduro did away with the nation’s democratic checks and balances. He has maintained that he is critical of both leaders, particularly Chávez, for relying on fossil fuels to fund their economic programs. Indeed, while Petro’s positions on oil may worry investors, his own description of the dangers of oil dep go beyond climate change and speak to the dangers of “the resource curse,” a concept from political science which describes the incentives for states who rely on natural resources to engage in corruption and anti-democratic behavior.

But though Petro has alleged that his political opponents are characterizing him as a Castro-Chavista merely to scare voters and the international community, it would be disingenuous to say that there are no valid concerns about the incoming Colombian president’s commitment to democracy.

Petro and Colombian Democracy

M-19 is unique in that it successfully negotiated with the Colombian government, resulting in the 1991 constitution, and joined democratic politics. Though some former guerrillas who chose to demobilize and participate in democratic politics were assassinated, sometimes by off-duty police and military officers tied to the Colombian state, Petro survived and began a long career in democratic politics. While it is correct to call him a “populist,” it is disingenuous to call someone who began their political career in 1991 an “outsider.”

Over a three-decade career, Petro has held a number of offices, all within Colombia’s post-1991 political framework and all gained by winning a popular election. This is a stark contrast to Chávez, whose long shadow now conjures images of a Latin American, leftist, boogeyman threat to democracy in the region. Chávez’s attempted 1992 coup showcased a conditional loyalty to democracy, just as another rising Latin American populist, Mexico’s Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s (AMLO) self-declaration of himself as Mexico’s “legitimate president” in 2006 did. Petro, by contrast, has on multiple occasions both won elections and conceded losing them, though he has conjured up specters of “fraud” which have cast troubling doubt on the legitimacy of elections. Like Donald Trump in the United States, Petro warned of potential fraud even prior to the election he eventually won.

Other pieces of Petro’s biography could provide reasonable alarm. In 2014 he was removed from his position as mayor of Bogotá for mismanaging the city’s trash collection and was barred from running for political office for fifteen years as a consequence. It took an intervention from the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights to reinstate Petro, and for him to be allowed to continue to participate in Colombian politics. Those close to Petro during his stewardship of the nation’s capital have described him as “an incompetent populist,” who does not take kindly to disagreements within his own government. Indeed, Petro’s personality has been repeatedly, publicly combative. Many observers credit his feud with Sergio Fajardo in 2018 as paving the way for the country’s electorate to coalesce around the establishment-backed Ivan Duque. And, perhaps most alarmingly for critics wary of another potentially authoritarian leader in the region, recall Petro wondering aloud at Hugo Chávez’s funeral, “Why did I distance myself from him?”

There are legitimate reasons to be cautious regarding Petro. He has a penchant for creating enemies and difficulty forging alliances. Populists who are incapable of forging alliances historically become frustrated with the checks and balances built into their democracies, and scheme to overcome these checks or even overthrow democracy entirely. The fear that this may be the case with Petro is not unfounded, but premature.

But fears that Petro poses a threat to democracy are mitigated when one acknowledges that Colombia’s checks and balances have previously stopped populists from overstepping democratic norms. Specifically, Colombia’s supreme court held firm in preventing former president Álvaro Uribe (2002-2010), Petro’s longtime political nemesis and a right-wing himself, from holding the presidency indefinitely.

When Uribe attempted to maintain indefinite control of the presidency, he did so with majorities in Congress and widespread public support. By comparison, Petro’s task of forming a majority in Congress is already proving tricky, and it is looking certain that to realize his agenda the incoming president will have to offer concessions to other political parties. Indeed, Petro is forging alliances with surprising partners, including the conservative and liberal parties. This political reality signifies that Petro is far more constrained than Uribe ever was, making Colombia’s incoming president an unlikely authoritarian threat.

Furthermore, there are international and domestic political realities which make the rise of an authoritarian Petro less likely. The first such variable is that Colombia shares a border with Venezuela, whose territory harbors remaining Colombian guerrillas and whose military is itself a criminal narcotics cartel. Though much has been written of Petro’s more conciliatory tone toward Maduro compared to his predecessors, as long as Venezuela poses a security threat to the lives of Colombians, Petro will find him a difficult friend. For those already sounding the alarm about “normalizing” relations with the Maduro regime, it would be well to remember the unenviable geopolitical reality facing Colombia, a state with the largest population of Venezuelan migrants in the world. Indeed, former President Juan Manuel Santos (2010-2018) normalized relations with Hugo Chávez, resulting in the permission of both presidents to deploy Colombian police commandos in joint, international operations within Venezuela’s own territory. There is a realpolitik necessity both in attempting to normalize relations with the neighboring dictatorship, while also working to safeguard the security of Colombian citizens from violence sponsored within Venezuelan territory.

Domestically, Petro’s simultaneous interest in realizing a “total peace” while needing to continue combating violent armed groups will likewise constrain him. Petro has promised to negotiate with Colombia’s largest remaining leftist insurgency, the ELN. He has also said his administration will address the underlying causes of the internal conflict: land inequality and the financial allure of illicit crops. Petro is correct, regrettably, when he says that the drug war has been a failure. Though some major cartel heads such as Pablo Escobar have been eliminated, the powerful cartels merely relocated their leaders to Mexico. But his correctness does not mean he will be successful in realizing land reform, nor is it clear that offering alternatives to illegal crops will be successful either. To fight insecurity, Petro will need his security forces, and will face just as difficult a balancing act as he will with Venezuela: simultaneously reforming them while commanding their deployment.

And it is the Colombian military and police forces which I will draw the reader to for one final check against an authoritarian leader in Colombia. Like the insurgents and paramilitaries they have fought, the armed forces of Colombia have committed gross atrocities in the nation’s long conflict. There are also professional officers within its ranks, who seemingly lack any partisan loyalty to Petro. Populists have transitioned their democracies towards dictatorship only with the complicity of their armed forces. Hugo Chávez took advantage of an attempted coup against him to purge the Venezuelan military of non-partisans. Alberto Fujimori, the right-wing authoritarian leader of Peru from 1990 to 2000, was only able to implement a brutal counterinsurgency campaign after the military obeyed an order to close Congress. And, if there is any concern that AMLO is a threat to democracy in Mexico, it is because he has involved military leaders intimately in his economic agenda, perhaps hoping to engender a personal, partisan loyalty to himself. Though public civil-military spats between Petro and the armed forces are concerning, it is unlikely that he will be able to use the military to degrade or destroy democracy.

The strength of Colombia’s checks and balances, its past performance against populists, its international and domestic security environments, as well as the non-partisan nature of its armed forces should all give pause to any hyperbolic worry that Petro will steamroll democracy in the nation. His political background provides evidence that while such worries are not totally misplaced, neither should they be accepted uncritically. But less clear is how Petro’s ambitious presidential agenda will or will not clash with the strategic interests of the United States.

Uribismo in South Florida, Policy in Washington

It has been written very recently that Petro’s election will challenge the non-partisan support for human rights and military aid which Colombia has traditionally enjoyed in U.S. politics through the authorization and reauthorization of “Plan Colombia.” However, I would argue that the process of conditionalizing the U.S.-Colombian relationship on partisan, rather than national interest, began prior to Petro’s electoral victory. Viral Facebook videos targeted the Colombian population of South Florida prior to the 2020 U.S. presidential election, alleging that Petro was a Castro-Chavista who endorsed Biden for president. Álvaro Uribe, now no longer holding office in Colombia, has established political ties with U.S. politicians in Florida such as Marco Rubio and freshman Florida congresswoman Maria Elvira Salazar, going so far as to publicly endorse the latter in her first election. There is a danger that actors outside of the executive branch will damage U.S.-Colombian relations for the sake of vote-getting by making bad faith accusations which tie Petro to the authoritarian politics of Hugo Chávez and Nicholas Maduro. I would urge these actors to resist the impulse to cast Petro as an existential, authoritarian threat to U.S. interests, and instead treat him as what he is: Colombia’s incoming and duly elected president.

Biden should likewise respect the will of the Colombian people, and to his credit appears to have done so. In a call between the two men, they spoke of a more “equal” partnership between their two nations. Whereas former Trump criticized Colombia’s peace process and conditionalized U.S. aid to the nation on the implementation of dangerous security policies, Biden and Petro share common interests. Analysts have pointed out that both men share an interest in fully implementing Colombia’s 2016 peace agreement. Indeed, Biden has a demonstrated, personal interest in realizing the peace deal, having traveled to Bogotá in 2018 to ask then Colombian President Ivan Duque to honor the nation’s peace deal.

This shared interest is a happy coincidence and is likely to strengthen, not weaken, ties between the two nations. Petro seems to be following precedent in maintaining ties with the United States, and while he’s talked of renegotiating certain trade deals and the extradition policy, it’s not clear that he will. U.S. aid to Colombia has likewise been changing, focusing more on development aid than counter-terror. Biden should continue to build on a desire to fully realize Colombia’s peace process, which requires both new development aid with continued intelligence and military cooperation between U.S. and Colombian security forces. This a welcome departure from other, previous forms of U.S. aid to Colombia, which according to a recent report from the National Security Archive knowingly and even approvingly enabled human rights abusers within Colombia’s security forces and political establishment.

Meanwhile, observers and international actors should watch Petro. Should he find a way to circumvent checks and balances, attack the press, or attempt to promote partisan loyalists from within the military ranks, an alarm should be sounded. But until such a moment, we should not be alarmed.



Andrew Ivey is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Houston Downtown who researches civil-military, internal conflict, and policing in Latin America. His previous research has been published in Democracy and Security, Democratization, and Defense and Security Analysis.

Image: Carlos Hernandez

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