© Reuters. U.S. President Joe Biden meets with Colombian President Gustavo Petro in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, U.S., April 20, 2023. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
By Jeff Mason and Julia Symmes Cobb
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Joe Biden praised Colombian President Gustavo Petro on Thursday for his country’s treatment of refugees from Venezuela and for his commitment to democracy and human rights.
During a meeting at the White House, Biden said the United States and Colombia could deepen their cooperative relationship and noted both nations had been working to fight climate change, counter narcotics traffic, and address migration.
Petro has called for lifting sanctions on Venezuela but a senior U.S. official said before the meeting that Biden would reiterate that he is not prepared to provide significant sanctions relief to President Nicolas Maduro’s government until he agrees to democratic steps with opposition political parties.
Petro urged a move toward a carbon-free economy, one of his top campaign promises. Colombia’s main exports are oil and coal.
“As we begin the next century of our partnership, I believe we can do even more” to deepen and develop cooperation, Biden told Petro during Thursday’s meeting.
Biden said Colombia was the keystone to the hemisphere and said there was an opportunity, with hard work, to have a Western Hemisphere that was democratic and economically prosperous.
Biden thanked Petro for the hospitality and support that Colombia was showing to Venezuelan refugees.
Some 2 million Venezuelan migrants are living in Colombia, which has granted them legal status and a 10-year right to remain. Several Colombian presidential administrations have decried a lack of international aid to help their country manage the migrant influx and provide health, education and other services for Venezuelans, many of whom arrive with very little.
“We’re working closely with regional partners to help Colombia meet this challenge,” Biden said.
“I really want to thank you for your outspoken and strong commitment to peace and human rights,” he told Petro, a former member of the urban guerrilla group M-19.
Petro has promised to end Colombia’s six-decade conflict, which has killed at least 450,000 people, through peace deals or surrender agreements with leftist rebels, crime groups founded by former right-wing paramilitaries and gangs.
“I believe that humankind in the Americas may well have the greatest potential for democracy and freedom,” Petro said through an interpreter.
Petro has derided the U.S.-led war on drugs as a failure and called for a new international approach. His administration has touted captures of higher-ranking drug traffickers, rather than eradication of coca, as the way to fight drug gangs.
“I asked for a bit more help on (interdiction of drugs), we need more boats, more tenders, more drones,” Petro told reporters after the meeting.
Petro, whose birthday was on Wednesday, quipped during his meeting with Biden that being 63 in this generation was like being 40 in the “old” generation.
“I fully subscribe to that,” said Biden, 80.