By Matt Spetalnick
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Biden administration is willing to discuss the existing U.S.-Colombia trade agreement with the Andean country’s next president, a senior U.S. official said, as Washington dispatched a high-level delegation on Thursday to begin forging a relationship with him on a wide range of issues.
President-elect Gustavo Petro, a 62-year-old economist who will become Colombia’s first leftist leader next month, talked during his campaign about proposals to renegotiate trade pacts, including a 2012 deal with the United States. But he moderated some of his stances by the time he was elected last month.
Asked whether Washington is willing to renegotiate the accord or open it up for discussion, the administration official said: “Any conversations relating to the U.S.-Colombia trade promotion agreement will be led by the U.S. Trade Representative.”
“We look forward to engaging in those discussions with the Petro administration after he is inaugurated on Aug. 7,” the official said. Washington, he added, hopes to advance economic ties to address “social inequalities in both our societies” and on a “mutually beneficial” basis.
The official previewed a visit to Bogota beginning on Thursday that could test for what has long been one of the closest U.S. partnerships in Latin America. They will meet Petro and his team to start developing an agenda for what the official called a “critical” relationship, and will also see outgoing President Ivan Duque.
Petro has called the U.S.-led drug war a “complete failure,” saying the government should instead support small farmers with substitute crops and increase their incomes.
Asked how the delegation would address the issue, a second official said it wants to “to listen and to understand the contours and the nuances” of Petro’s ideas.
President Joe Biden’s administration believes a “holistic approach” focused on economic livelihoods and security is needed and they can find common ground, the official added.
Petro has also raised concerns in Washington over his outreach to Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, who is under U.S. sanctions. The two have discussed reestablishing normal relations at their countries’ border.
Asked whether Petro’s efforts could undermine efforts to isolate Venezuela’s Socialist leader, the second official said Colombia could help encourage Maduro and the Venezuelan opposition to resume negotiations.
The visit is also intended to provide reassurances against “speculation” about the U.S.-Colombia relationship, one official said, referring to questions about how well the countries would work together once Petro takes office.
The visit, which the U.S. National Security Council said would last until Friday, will include discussion of implementation of a 2016 peace deal between the government and FARC rebels, according to the officials.
The delegation includes the White House’s top Latin America adviser Juan Gonzalez, Assistant Secretary of State Brian Nichols, principal deputy national security adviser Jon Finer and Philip Gordon, Vice President Kamala Harris’ national security adviser.
(This story refiles to correct typographical error in “relationship” in paragraph 5)
(Reporting by Matt Spetalnick; Editing by Marguerita Choy and Lisa Shumaker)