Maduro’s Fortune: Petro in Colombia and a Left-Leaning Latin America

A wave of leftist political leaders is cresting in Latin America and the map is turning red. The region has taken another leftward turn, as Colombia’s Gustavo Petro recently won the country’s presidential election. With Brazil slated to hold presidential elections in October—where polls show a lead for former president Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva over incumbent Jair Bolsonaro—the panorama closing out 2022 could be decisively left-leaning. In a sign of just how far the electoral pendulum has swung to the left, Lula’s return to the presidency in Brazil would mean that the seven most populous countries in Latin America would be led by either leftist or leftist-populist presidents or, worse, characterized by dictatorships.

A leftward-shifting political landscape will have profound consequences for bilateral relationships and, by extension, U.S. foreign policy toward Latin America. This is especially the case in U.S. policy toward the region’s three undisputed dictatorships—Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela. As the hullabaloo over the recent U.S.-hosted Summit of the Americas highlighted, the ability to isolate and pressure the region’s brutal dictatorships to induce change will be drastically diminished. Presidents in Mexico, Bolivia, and Honduras, among others, boycotted the summit in protest of the decision to exclude these countries. If one thing is clear, dictators in the aforementioned countries are bullish about their chances of survival and can barely contain their glee at the “new opportunity” that has opened in Colombia, according to Venezuelan socialist party boss Diosdado Cabello.

Colombia is—and has been—the anchor for U.S. relations with Latin America, “the linchpin . . . to the whole hemisphere” according to President Biden when he met with President Duque in March to celebrate the bicentennial of the bilateral relationship. Starting in the late 1990s, the United States invested billions of dollars in a wide-ranging, bipartisan program called Plan Colombia, contributing to greater security against guerrilla groups, rule of law, and a modernized and professionalized military. Following the bilateral meeting in March, Biden announced that he intended to designate Colombia as a major non-NATO ally. The utility value (or not) of that designation may be on full display following the election of a former M-19 guerrilla in Colombia. Gustavo Petro could present a monumental challenge to U.S. foreign policy, especially with respect to the Maduro regime in Venezuela.

Venezuela Policy in a Shifting Political Landscape

Unlike the Latin America of today, in the early days of 2019, after the United States recognized Juan Guaidó as interim president of Venezuela, the regional landscape was an auspicious one for mounting serious pressure against the Maduro regime. Following the U.S. lead, Latin American leaders rapidly recognized Guaidó and sought to distance themselves from Maduro, with Colombia taking the lead in announcing its support from the World Economic Forum at Davos, alongside Brazil, Peru, and Canada. Even as the rest of the region eventually grew weary of Venezuela’s democratic opposition, frustrated with its mistakes, and fed up with the slow pace of change, Colombian president Iván Duque remained steadfast in his support of Guaidó. His relationship with Guaidó was close and his commitment to Venezuela’s return to democracy was unquestionable. In a region often given to mincing words, Duque never tired of calling the Maduro regime what it is: a ruthless and criminal dictatorship, which is being investigated by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity.

The election of Petro is thus a heavy blow for Venezuela’s opposition. Aside from geography, Duque’s commitment to the return of Venezuela’s democracy made Colombia the major artery for Venezuela’s migration, receiving over two million people and working tirelessly to offer temporary protected status for Venezuelans in Colombia. But Petro’s election may make opposition organizing from the relative safety of Colombia much harder. Indeed, the president-elect has promised to immediately reestablish relations with Maduro, meaning the first casualty will likely be the Guaidó-appointed team resident in Colombia and currently recognized by Duque’s government.

Furthermore, it is possible that Guaidó could lack the votes to keep his ambassador as the Venezuelan representative at the Organization of American States—never mind that the Maduro regime pulled itself out of this organization years ago, thus signaling only one possible government capable of representing Venezuela. If the Guaidó-appointed ambassador is forced to leave, it could be that the precedent for Venezuela’s spot at the Inter-American Development Bank has also become moot. A decline in influence—and representation—at multilateral organizations close to the causes of democracy and development could be accompanied by a revival of regionalism and multilateralism aimed at ideological projects distant from democracy and where minimal standards for participation are lacking, such as the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States, the São Paolo Forum, and the now-defunct Union of South American Nations.

One potential concern of the coming approximation between Petro and Maduro is the possibility that Maduro may request the extradition of Venezuelan opposition figures. While such a request would have to pass through Colombia’s judicial system, an extradition of opposition figures, almost assuredly guaranteeing them a one-way ticket to Venezuela’s infamous Helicoide (known as a center for torture), is a chilling prospect.

Petro has also said he will radically change Colombia’s economic development model. To him, this means renegotiating aspects of Colombia’s free trade agreement with the United States, in place since 2012. The U.S.-Colombia trade agreement has bound the fates of the United States and Colombia even closer and contributed to deepening the multidimensional partnership. Petro has also pledged to halt any further exploration of oil and gas in Colombia, one of the country’s top export revenues. In the context of Russia’s war in Ukraine and one of the tightest oil markets in decades, Colombia’s potential decrease in production will impact the United States’ ability to offset Russian oil and gas and arrest soaring inflation. Back in February, when Petro was asked about the Russian invasion of Ukraine, he responded that it wasn’t important and declared that Colombia had more important problems.

Latin American countries, and Colombia in particular, have been some of the largest beneficiaries of a U.S. ban on imports of Russian oil and gas. With less Colombian oil and gas on the world market, Maduro could seek to gain the upper hand in pitching his oil as a replacement for Russia’s—a siren song the Biden administration already fell for once. Lastly, if Petro’s economic policies cause capital flight in an already extremely tight fiscal situation, his government may turn to extra-hemispheric actors such as China and Russia to prop up the government—or worse, forgo the licit market entirely and seek opportunities for greater revenue in the illicit market, opportunities the Maduro regime could furnish with its deep involvement in Latin America’s illicit economies.

Petro also campaigned on the need to negotiate an agreement with the National Liberation Army (ELN) and fundamentally change the way Colombia fights its guerrilla groups and transnational criminal organizations. Tensions with the United States could deepen if Petro makes good on his pledge to replace the military high command. Ever since the start of Plan Colombia, which has seen over $12 billion allocated to the country since 2000, security cooperation with Colombia has been an important facet of the bilateral relationship, and Colombia remains, despite progress in recent years, the largest coca producer in the world. Furthermore, Petro may seek to end the legal mechanism of extradition to the United States, and he will almost certainly seek to change the way coca cultivation is addressed, preferring voluntary crop substitution over forced eradication campaigns.

The Maduro regime in Venezuela has not only provided safe haven to the ELN and the dissident Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, but incubates and leverages these groups as a matter of state policy. With active state involvement, Venezuela is one of the region’s largest cocaine exporters. Without Duque’s tough-on-crime approach, security in the region may suffer further and Maduro may double down on his strategic support for criminal organizations. Petro’s desire to negotiate a truce with the ELN has seen the group already adumbrate a set of conditions for negotiations that, when paired with the Maduro regime’s safe haven, could significantly empower it. The ungoverned border regions, already the source of political and security instability, risk becoming more intense areas of drug transit.

Petro has maintained a friendly relationship with Chavismo for years, and in a similar ideological vein, he seems likely to deepen Colombia’s relationship with Cuba and Nicaragua, too. The raucous nature of the Summit of the Americas, where a handful of leaders throughout Latin America and the Caribbean boycotted the gathering over the decision to leave Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Cuba uninvited, displayed a lack of appetite for isolating dictatorships, denying them a seat at the table, and demanding basic standards for participation and the receipt of benefits that flow from multilateral organizations. With Petro in charge of Colombia and Lula potentially returning in Brazil, two of the remaining regional powers that still recognize interim president Juan Guaidó in Venezuela will reverse course.

There are even implications for the nearly 2 million Venezuelan refugees currently in Colombia. While the outgoing Duque government received near universal praise for its efforts to regularize and integrate refugees, Petro has on occasion even mocked Venezuelans and the hardships they face, as has his vice president. It is telling that interim president Juan Guaidó, in one of his first tweets after Petro’s victory, appealed to him to maintain Colombia’s welcoming stance toward Venezuelans.

Sharpening U.S. Policy on Venezuela  

After a poorly attended Summit of the Americas, the Biden administration’s reputation in Latin America is at stake. The U.S. de-prioritization of the region has been an unfortunate policy trend that preceded Biden, likely playing a part in the frustration of local populations and thereby the growing influence the political left now has in the Southern Hemisphere. Combined with an increasingly competitive geopolitical environment characterized by the presence of Russia and China, Latin America could well be at an inflection point. Now, without the linchpin of Colombia, the concerted effort to pressure the Maduro regime no longer beats as strong.

In this changing strategic environment, the Biden team should be incentivized to sharpen its Venezuela policy. However, the overwhelming focus now appears to be the administration’s desire to see the Venezuelan opposition return to the negotiating table with the Maduro regime. Yet, the Maduro regime appears to think it can resist these efforts, extracting a string of concessions from the Biden administration—including a secret trip in March to establish a direct line of communication with Maduro, as well as sanctions relief on regime cronies such as Carlos Erik Malpica Flores, a nephew of Maduro’s wife and a former national treasurer and vice president of Venezuela’s state oil company—that still have not earned the regime’s commitment to return to the negotiating table. Meanwhile, Guaidó’s physical security has deteriorated as he has faced attacks from Chavista officials during his travels around Venezuela.

The changing strategic environment, combined with the recent concessions, augur poorly for the prospect of negotiations—if indeed the regime ever commits to returning to them in the first place. Negotiations at this point in time will lack urgency and regional pressure, permitting the regime to lapse into its old habit of stalling, dividing, and leveraging the process to consolidate its position internally. Unfortunately, with the new diplomatic outlet provided by Petro’s recognition of Maduro and the region’s generally leftist tide, the Maduro regime already has a best alternative to a negotiated agreement: to continue its criminal activity and strengthen Chavismo’s sphere of influence across the region.

Ryan C. Berg is senior fellow in the Americas Program and head of the Future of Venezuela Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Alexandra Winkler is a senior associate (non-resident) with the CSIS Americas Program.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2022 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.