On May 15, the United States and Colombia will mark the 10th anniversary of the Colombia Trade Promotion Agreement (COTPA)—barely two months after celebrating the 200th anniversary of diplomatic relations between the two countries.
But the date that’s most relevant these days is May 29, when Colombia’s 38 million registered voters go to the polls to elect a new president.
Long ranked among Washington’s closest allies in Latin America, Colombia boasts one of the region’s most diversified economies. Yet its current leader, center-right President Iván Duque, is deeply unpopular, with high unemployment, inflation and corruption likely to push voters towards the left, continuing the country’s trend toward increasing political polarization.
Juan Carlos Pinzón, Colombia’s ambassador to the United States, addressed these complex issues in a March 30 discussion hosted by James B. Steinberg, dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).
“The United States was the first country to recognize Colombia, and the first diplomat the US sent to Latin America was to Colombia. We have many shared values: democracy, freedom, human rights and free markets. We were on the same side of World War II, and we were the only Latin American country that sent soldiers to Korea,” said Pinzón, who returned to Washington in July 2021 for a second time as Colombia’s top envoy here; he was also ambassador here from 2015 to 2017. In between his two terms, Pinzón served as Colombia’s minister of defense.
“During the Cold War, we completely sided with the United States. Most of the countries in Latin America went into dictatorships. If you look at East Asia or Africa today, that was the kind of government typical of Latin America from the 1950s to the 1980s,” he added. “In 1961, John F. Kennedy launched the Alliance for Progress—one of the most thoughtful programs the US has ever done for Latin America—and it happened in Bogotá. Since Reagan, every US president has visited Colombia with the exception of the last one, who sent his daughter.”
Pinzón: Venezuela’s Maduro is ‘destroying democracy’
In fact, he said, Joe Biden made six trips to Colombia prior to his inauguration, the last one in 2016 as vice president to launch the US-Colombia Business Council. And a few months ago, he declared Colombia a “major non-NATO ally”—giving the country special access to US military and economic programs. Ten other countries already have such a designation: Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Israel, Japan, Kuwait, New Zealand, Philippines, Qatar and Tunisia.
No surprise, then, that “Colombia has openly expressed absolute frustration and opposition to what Putin is doing to Ukraine,” said Pinzón. “Of course we’re very concerned. Starting with the UN charter, we strongly believe in peaceful solutions to conflicts, and there needs to be some level of civilized relationship among nations. These are rules that everyone is supposed to respect.”
Closer to home, Pinzón lashed out at Nicolás Maduro, the populist president of neighboring Venezuela, as well as Daniel Ortega, the increasingly authoritarian president of Nicaragua.
In February, Duque granted temporary protection status (TPS) for 10 years to all Venezuelans in Colombia. At present, Colombia hosts 32% of the estimated 5.4 million Venezuelan migrants and refugees who have fled deteriorating conditions at home. Having TPS gives these migrants access to formal employment opportunities and essential services like healthcare and vaccines, yet their presence is putting an additional strain on Colombia’s already precarious economy.
“The dictatorships of Maduro and Ortega are harming their own people and destroying democracy as we know it. They side with rogue regimes that seek to deteriorate democratic values,” Pinzón told his audience. “In Venezuela, the media is basically controlled, and they go after whoever gets out of line. Still, people are trying to leave. I see some informal dollarization of the economy there, but how do they get the dollars? This is very much connected to the cocaine trade coming from Colombia, as well as illegal gold mining and Colombian criminals.”
During his first tenure as ambassador, Pinzón oversaw the approval of the $450 million-a-year Plan Colombia II, a US-funded security and development package. He also helped establish the Atlantic Council’s Colombia Task Force and the US-Colombia Business Council at the US Chamber of Commerce.
Ambassador says peace deal with FARC was a ‘huge mistake’
Pinzón, 50, was born and raised in Bogotá. in 1971. He has a bachelor’s degree in economics as well as three master’s degrees: one in public policy from Princeton University; one in defense and national security from Colombia’s National War College; and one in economics from Bogotá’s Pontificia Universidad Javeriana.
Under Pinzon’s term as defense minister, the Colombian Armed Forces dealt devastating blows to the FARC and ELN terrorist groups, highly degrading their logistics, structure and leadership. He also bitterly opposed the peace deal that FARC rebels signed with former President Juan Manuel Santos in November 2016 that was supposed to end more than 50 years of conflict. So did millions of Colombians who felt the peace accord gave former rebels impunity for past human rights abuses.
“What was very sad was the way the negotiations were performed,” he said, adding that “2016 is history now. The Colombian government made a huge mistake by showing the opponent how much we were willing to concede to get an agreement. The bad guys saw that.”
He added: “We fight the groups that benefit from the drug business. We were really at the lowest point of cocaine production a year and a half before the agreements, but the Colombian government made a concession ahead of time and said we would no longer fumigate, and that we’d pay peasants not to grow cocaine. The consequence is that we now have five times as much cocaine production.”
Failure to implement the 2016 peace accords—which Duque had vowed to dismantle during his 2018 campaign for president—is hardly the issue at stake in Colombia’s upcoming elections. Yet it is still a major one; Duque, the current president, had campaigned in 2018 on the promise of dismantling the agreement.
“We were doing the right thing, but we negotiated poorly and we lost a big opportunity,” Pinzón said. “But should we go back to the past? No way. What we should do is correct what needs to be corrected—and look to the future.”
However, it may be too late for Pinzón and the man who sent him to Washington, President Duque.
According to an April 29 survey by Invamer, Gustavo Petro—the leftist former mayor of Bogotá—is the clear front-runner in the upcoming election. A former member of the M-19 guerrilla group, Petro is supported by 43.6% of prospective voters. In second place is center-right candidate Federico Gutiérrez, the former mayor of Medellín, with 26.7%. In third place is independent candidate Rodolfo Hernández, the former mayor of Bucaramanga, with 13.9%, followed by centrist candidate Sergio Fajardo with 6.5%.
If no candidate receives more than half of the ballots, the top two will face off in a June runoff. The Invamer poll shows Petro winning 52.4% in such a contest, with Gutiérrez getting 45.2%.