WASHINGTON – President Joe Biden hosted Colombian President Gustavo Petro on Thursday for talks at the White House amid deep differences on U.S. drug policy and Venezuela but a shared desire to deepen cooperation on climate change, migration and energy policy.
The leaders, in remarks before reporters at the start of the Oval Office meeting, tried to keep the focus on areas of agreement, including strengthening their democracies and building economies less dependent on carbon sources.
“We are going down the same river, a river that leads us to ever-greater democracy and ever-greater freedom," Petro said. He added: “We have a common agenda and a lot of work to do.”
Biden said the countries shared a goal to build a “united, equal, democratic and economically prosperous” Western Hemisphere. “Colombia is the key to the hemisphere," he said.
The two even joked about their ages; Petro turned 63 on Wednesday and Biden, at 80, is the oldest U.S. president in history. But their exchange before the cameras glossed over some of the growing differences between Washington and Bogota.
Petro has sharply criticized U.S.-led efforts to prohibit cocaine, saying at a speech at the United Nations last year that oil consumption promoted by “global powers” is more deadly than cocaine and that the “war on drugs has failed."
During his White House visit, Petro dialed back the direct criticism of the U.S. After the meeting, he told reporters that the two sides discussed his agricultural reform efforts and shift in drug policy.
As cocaine production in Colombia continues to rise, Petro’s government has been reluctant to eradicate coca fields planted by small farmers. The Colombian president says that he prefers to chase money launderers and large-scale drug traffickers instead of stripping small farmers in isolated areas of their livelihood.
“We framed it in the context of the construction of a drug policy ... (in which) peasants can have better guarantees and conditions to produce anything other than the coca leaf,” Petro said.
This new approach has been criticized by U.S. officials who long have advocated for the eradication of coca fields in Colombia as part of the effort to undermine drug trafficking groups and loosen their grip on some parts of the country.
In order to broker peace deals with rebel groups, Colombia will have to lift arrest warrants against rebel leaders who are wanted in the U.S on drug trafficking charges. The South American nation is looking to spend millions of dollars on economic development projects in rural areas that have long been afflicted by violence and is seeking U.S. support on that front.
Petro, who was elected last year, is in the midst of an ambitious effort to bring “total peace” to his nation of 50 million after six decades of conflict.
A 2016 peace deal between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia rebel group, known as FARC, reduced violence throughout much of the country. But homicides and forced displacement have increased in some isolated areas, where smaller groups began to fight over drug trafficking routes, illegal mines and other resources abandoned by FARC.
Under Petro, Colombia’s policy toward Venezuela’s authoritarian government has shifted. Colombia no longer backs U.S.-led plans to isolate Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro and force him to resign or call for new elections. Instead Petro’s administration has engaged the Maduro, held bilateral meetings and resumed diplomatic relations.
Petro has called for sanctions on Venezuelan government companies and officials to be lifted and for talks on democratic reforms in Venezuela to resume. His government will host an international conference on Venezuela next week.
Petro told reporters after the meeting he advocated for “a gradual and progressive deactivation of sanctions" that would allow Venezuelans "to decide freely, without sanctions, without pressure, their own destiny.”
White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said earlier that the Biden administration “would review our sanctions policies in response to constructive steps by the Maduro regime and if the Venezuelan parties can make meaningful progress” in returning to democracy.
Colombia’s government and its largest remaining rebel group — the communist-inspired National Liberation Army, known as ELN — launched talks in November, shortly after Petro was elected president. Petro has called the talks with the ELN a cornerstone of his effort to resolve a conflict that dates back to the 1960s.
Some rural areas of Colombia are still under the grip of drug gangs and rebel groups despite the 2016 peace deal with the larger FARC.
Some U.S. lawmakers have also been critical of Petro's warming relations with Maduro and President Miguel Díaz-Canel in Cuba.
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla. in a Medium post before the leftist Colombian president's visit, argued that Petro is misguided in thinking that the Venezuelan and Cuban leaders will use their influence over ELN to Colombia's favor. Venezuelan security forces have carried out joint operations with ELN against former members of the FARC rebels on the countries' shared borders. Cuba has held talks in Havana between Colombian officials and ELN.
“But it’s a fool’s errand, because internationally ostracized dictators have nothing to gain from increasing stability in the region,” Rubio wrote.
The two governments have cooperated on the migration issue.
The United States, Panama and Colombia announced last week that they will begin a 60-day campaign aimed at halting illegal migration through the treacherous Darien Gap between Colombia and Panama, where the flow of migrants has multiplied this year.
The announcement came as the Biden administration awaits the expected end of a pandemic-related rule May 11 that has suspended rights to seek asylum for many. Without that instrument of dissuasion at the U.S. border, there is concern migrant arrivals could again become unmanageable.
Colombia has seen more than 2.4 million Venezuelan refugees and migrants cross into the country, stretching the capacity of hospitals, educational institutions and other infrastructure, according to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.
Biden thanked Petro “for the hospitality and support Colombia continues to show to Venezuelan refugees.”
Suárez reported from Bogotá, Colombia, and Garcia Cano from Caracas, Venezuela. Associated Press writer Chris Megerian contributed to this report.