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US top diplomat begins Latin America tour with visit to Colombia

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has begun a week-long tour of Latin America, with the top United States diplomat making a first stop in Colombia to meet the country’s newly sworn-in, left-wing president.

During his trip to Colombia, Chile and Peru this week, Blinken also will attend a ministerial summit and hold talks on regional challenges including migration, drug trafficking, post-pandemic recovery, climate change and the crisis in Venezuela.

“Heading to Colombia to build on our vital, strong partnership,” the US secretary of state wrote on Twitter on Monday.

“The vibrant ties between our people touch on virtually every aspect of our lives—our economies, security, respect for human and labor rights, and efforts to build a more democratic and equitable hemisphere.”

Reporting from the Colombian capital Bogota, Al Jazeera’s Alessandro Rampietti said “it is telling” that Blinken’s first stop will be in Colombia, which elected its first left-wing President Gustavo Petro earlier this year.

“The US wants to maintain a good relationship with this country. Remember that Colombia and the US have had a strategic partnership on a number of issues – obviously, the most important one being security and the ‘war on drugs‘ – for decades now,” Rampietti said, adding that the relationship remains positive.

But the Colombian leader has clearly stated that “the ‘war on drugs’ has been a failure that has had major, dramatic consequences for Latin America” and he is hoping that Washington will redistribute some of the funds used in that fight towards local development, Rampietti added.

“This obviously clashes with the classic vision that American governments have had.”

Colombia is a top cocaine producer and has historically faced pressure from the US to eradicate drug crops. Since taking office just weeks ago, Petro also has moved to re-establish diplomatic ties to the government of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro.

“There is a high level of concern within the US government regarding the current president’s embrace of the new left in Latin America and the tacit rejection of defence cooperation with the United States,” a defence official at the US Embassy in Colombia told Al Jazeera last week, just days after a key border crossing along the Colombia-Venezuela border reopened.

The reopening was welcomed by communities on both sides of the frontier, which in recent months has seen deadly clashes between armed groups, as well as crossings by Venezuelan migrants and refugees fleeing violence and dire socioeconomic conditions in their country.

US officials have acknowledged privately the need to show the US’s southern neighbours that they remain a policy priority despite the focus on big geopolitical issues, such as the Russian war in Ukraine and tensions over Taiwan.

Blinken will aim to solidify US partnerships in the face of China, which has been expanding its economic footprint across the resource-rich region.

“[The trip] reflects the interest of the United States to pay more attention to Latin America, and specifically South America in this case, in terms of the deepening relationship there is with China,” said Guillermo Holzmann, a Chilean academic and political analyst.

Washington also has been pushing its allies across South and Central America to stem irregular migration amid an increase in arrivals at the US-Mexico border.

This week, Blinken’s second stop will be in Chile, where voters earlier this year elected the country’s youngest-ever president, former student activist Gabriel Boric.

Boric, who campaigned on an ambitious social justice platform, has seen his approval ratings drop, and last month he reshuffled his cabinet after a new constitution he championed failed to pass in a nationwide referendum.

On Thursday, Blinken will travel to Peru’s capital Lima to attend a ministerial meeting of the Organization of American States (OAS) General Assembly, where Washington will push to pass a new resolution against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

He will also meet with left-wing President Pedro Castillo, who continues to fight for his political survival amid a string of impeachment attempts and government shake-ups.

The pair will discuss “increasing regional security, strengthening democratic governance, protecting the environment, and promoting inclusive economic development”, the US State Department said in a statement.



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