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With New Colombian President, the Left Surges in Latin America

With New Colombian President, the Left Surges in Latin America #Colombian #President #Left #Surges #Latin #America Welcome to Lopoid

BOGOTÁ, Colombia—When President Biden invited Colombian President

Iván Duque

to the White House in March, he told him that “Colombia is the linchpin, in my view, to the whole hemisphere, north and south.”

Mr. Biden thanked Mr. Duque for swiftly condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and said the U.S. would designate Colombia, which has since 2000 received $13 billion in aid to fight drugs, a major non-NATO ally. Mr. Duque said ties between the two countries had “reached the highest peak ever.”

But on Sunday, voters in the U.S.’s closest ally in Latin America elected as president a former leftist guerrilla,

Gustavo Petro,

who says he wants to phase out oil and mining, overhaul the U.S.-backed drug war and renew relations with Venezuela’s regime. Colombia joins Argentina, Chile, Peru, Mexico and some smaller countries that have elected leftist leaders in the last four years whose policies sometimes are at odds with Washington’s interests in Latin America.

“If Petro moves ahead with what was in his campaign, the U.S.-Colombia relationship is surely going to change,” said Cynthia J. Arnson, a Latin America scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington. “The willingness or interest of Colombia to line up with U.S. foreign policy looks like it will be diminished.”

The political trend is fundamentally different from the “Pink Tide” that swept across Latin America in the 2000s, when voters elected leftists in Brazil, Argentina, Chile and Ecuador.

Back then, leaders were often in agreement and worked in concert. A commodities boom fueled by exports of oil, soybeans and metals to China filled coffers. And Venezuela’s strongman,

Hugo Chávez,

led leftist allies in rebuffing the U.S. while forming international bodies to counter the Organization of American States and United Nations, which they saw as beholden to Washington. The windfall allowed Venezuela, for instance, to buy Argentine bonds after that country’s default and fund a program to provide discounted oil to the Caribbean.

This time, the leftist leaders of countries from Chile to Mexico often have diverging positions with each other on issues ranging from climate change to abortion to relations with Washington. Mexico’s president is conservative on social issues, while Chile’s young leader wants to legalize abortion and supports transgender rights. Mr. Petro wants transition from fossil fuels. The leftist front-runner ahead of Brazil’s October presidential election,

Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva,

hails his country as an oil power.

And the way they deal with the U.S. varies from the past.

President Biden renewed close U.S.-Colombian ties in a meeting with President Iván Duque during a regional conference in Los Angeles this month.

Photo:

Alberto Valdes/Zuma Press

“At the end of the day, they do many different things and in many different ways,” said Daniel Lansberg-Rodríguez, director on Latin America for the New York geopolitical risk advisory, Greenmantle.

Though largely swept into office in a wave of anti-incumbent sentiment stoked by the economic impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, the new leaders now face mounting inflation, low economic growth and rising deficits. Their budgets are far from flush.

“Right now they’re in their own silos, full of their own domestic issues,” said Juan Cruz, a former Latin America adviser to the White House.

Indeed, despite rising prices on everything from oil to copper, which helped generate a 6.9% rebound last year, the outlook this year and the next is grim. The World Bank estimates Latin America will grow just 2.3% this year and 2.2% in 2023. Brazil will grow 1.5% growth this year and 0.8% next year for Brazil, while Mexico will expand 1.7% this year for Mexico and 1.9% in 2023, the World Bank estimates.

That doesn’t mean the U.S. doesn’t have serious challenges, particularly in countries where the issues that have mattered most to Washington—such as drugs and migration—are most serious.

Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, speaking in Mexico City this month, didn’t attend a regional conference in Los Angeles hosted by the Biden administration.

Photo:

Luis Barron / Eyepix Group/Zuma Press

Mexico, led by nationalist President

Andrés Manuel López Obrador,

skipped the Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles hosted by the Biden administration, as did Honduras, despite pleas from Vice President

Kamala Harris,

who visited the new leftist president, Xiomara Castro. Relations are also frosty with populist

Nayib Bukele

in El Salvador and Guatemala’s conservative President

Alejandro Giammattei,

two other leaders who stayed home.

Add to those countries others led by longtime authoritarian leaders, such as in Venezuela and Nicaragua, and the region now features a range of countries that are either less open to cooperating with the U.S. or are, in some cases, openly antagonistic.

“We’re moving toward a region ever less disposed to cooperate with us on the security and policy issues that are important to us,” said Evan Ellis, professor of Latin American studies at the U.S. Army War College. “It’s a worrisome moment.”

A senior U.S. official said Monday that the U.S. is working hard to engage countries across the region on issues such as food security and the lack of fertilizers. Secretary of State

Antony J. Blinken

on Monday spoke with Mr. Petro about mutual goals to address climate change and improve public health. Mr. Blinken also discussed counternarcotics strategy with Mr. Petro.

Mr. Ellis says that China, hobbled by the pandemic, can’t take advantage at the moment but that it will do so as governments, whipsawed by economic problems, seek Chinese loans and investments. “China will see an extremely target-rich environment in Latin America,” Mr. Ellis said.

Some countries are consumed by their own problems—and have shown little time for the U.S.

In Peru, President Pedro Castillo, a rural schoolteacher and activist who won power in April 2021, struggles to just stay in power after facing two impeachment motions. His government has rotated through dozens of cabinet officials and been hit by corruption scandals and protests. Though businesses had worried he would reverse a market-friendly economy, he has done little. And the administration’s relations with the U.S. aren’t a priority, political analysts say.

“Things are just so chaotic. To call Castillo’s government a left-wing government is kind of a misnomer now,” said Nicolás Saldías, a Latin America analyst at the Economist Intelligence Unit. “It is a government that just wants to survive.”

The Biden administration does share progressive political positions with some leaders.

Chilean President Gabriel Boric diverges from some Latin American leftist leaders in criticizing U.S. adversaries Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela.

Photo:

martin bernetti/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

In Chile, President

Gabriel Boric,

who took office in March, advocates strong environmental protections to address climate change, backs abortion and is working to end the gender pay gap. Mr. Boric, who has pledged to increase the state’s role in the economy, has also criticized the regimes in Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela, all U.S. adversaries.

“He is seen as somebody who can really re-energize Latin American politics from the left, but not a radical, authoritarian, anti-democratic left,” said Julio Carrion, a political scientist at the University of Delaware.

After winning the election, Mr. Petro said he wanted his country to become a model for green-energy transition, which he sees as a cornerstone of regional diplomacy and economic management. And he wants to talk to Mr. Biden about climate change.

“The time has come to sit down with the U.S. government and talk about what it means that they emit more greenhouse gases over there than anyone else, and we absorb them over here,” Mr. Petro said in his acceptance speech Sunday after winning the election.

In an interview last month, Mr. Petro had said he wanted to talk to Mr. Biden about the U.S.-backed effort to fight the cocaine trade, which he said had failed.

“It’s a problem between presidents,” he said. If the drug war does not end, he said, “it could last another 40 years spending resources ineffectively without resolving the problem.”

While many of Mr. Petro’s proposals break from the policies of past Colombian presidents, the Biden administration could still find common ground on climate change and migration policies, said

Jason Marczak,

who tracks the region for the Atlantic Council in Washington.

Write to Juan Forero at Juan.Forero@wsj.com and Kejal Vyas at kejal.vyas@wsj.com

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