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Biden is shoring up South American ties to help counter Russia

President Biden announced he would designate Colombia as a major non-NATO ally during a meeting with President Iván Duque on Thursday.
Patrick Semansky
President Biden announced he would designate Colombia as a major non-NATO ally during a meeting with President Iván Duque on Thursday.

Updated March 10, 2022 at 6:41 PM ET

President Biden said he will designate Colombia as a major non-NATO ally, telling President Iván Duque during a White House visit that Colombia is "the essential partnership we need in this hemisphere."

The meeting comes as the United States works to shore up relationships in the hemisphere at a time when Russia has worked to expand its influence in the region through ties with Venezuela, Cuba and Nicaragua — and high-profile meetings with the presidents of Argentina and Brazil.

Biden thanked Duque for condemning Russia's invasion of Ukraine, which Duque said "has been a horrifying moment for the world."

"Nothing justifies the bloodbath that we have been seeing," Duque said.

Duque has been one of the more outspoken leaders in the region about the invasion of Ukraine and the dangers of Russian influence. It's a message the United States would clearly like to see take hold.

"President Duque has been particularly outspoken on the linkages between Russia and certain countries of the region, especially Venezuela," Kevin Whitaker, a former U.S. ambassador to Colombia who also served as a diplomat in Venezuela, told reporters on a briefing call ahead of the meeting.

For Russia, "to see one of its more closer and more trusted partners in South America having direct discussions with the U.S. government can only be a matter of concern," Whitaker said.

Gas prices are seen in front of a billboard advertising HBO's Last Week Tonight in Los Angeles, March 7, 2022.
Jae C. Hong / AP
Gas prices are seen in front of a billboard advertising HBO's Last Week Tonight in Los Angeles, March 7, 2022.

The meeting comes days after a secret trip to Venezuela

The meeting came just days after a secret weekend trip to Caracas by senior administration officials to meet with Venezuelan leader Nicolas Maduro, who is is not currently recognized as its president by the United States. Officials told reporters it was the first such high-level visit since the late 1990s.

Venezuela's oil industry has become entwined with Russia, particularly since U.S. sanctions on Caracas shut the door to oil trade. With Russia now heavily sanctioned over the invasion with Ukraine, American officials saw a "unique environment" to advance U.S. national security interests, a senior administration official said.

After the visit, two Americans long detained in Venezuela were released:

  • Gustavo Cárdenas, one of six executives of gas company Citgo arrested during a 2017 work trip and later charged with corruption
  • Jorge Alberto Fernández, a Cuban American man arrested on separate charges last year
  • "We traveled down there to secure the release of detained Americans and to urge a return to the negotiating table" with Venezuela's opposition, one of the officials said. "We see a negotiated outcome as really the only way forward toward a peaceful restoration of democratic order in the country."

    The U.S. cut diplomatic ties with Caracas years ago

    The White House has said that energy security was also part of conversations. The administration, which banned imports of Russian oil this week, has been looking for ways to take the edge off record gasoline prices.

    While it's too early to say what the Caracas meeting will mean for future relations, it's a significant step as the White House looks for more ways to isolate Russia for its invasion of Ukraine.

    Venezuela has some of the largest oil reserves in the world and used to export a significant portion to the United States.

    But that stopped with sanctions aimed at punishing Maduro for human rights abuses and undermining democracy. Caracas has since become closely tied to Moscow, particularly when it comes to selling its oil.

    Restarting trade would be complicated, given that the United States does not recognize Maduro as the Venezuelan president. He's also been indicted in the United States on drug trafficking charges.

    There are domestic political concerns about dealing with Maduro

    In some of South Florida's Latin American communities, what the Biden administration is doing is seen as hypocritical.

    Eddy Acevedo, who served as the national security adviser for the U.S. Agency for International Development during the Trump administration, says negotiating with Maduro is wrong.

    "It does undermine President Biden's notion here about being strong against dictators," said Acevedo, who is now at the Wilson Center. "You cannot be inconsistent on that and try to punish Putin and reward Maduro at the same time."

    Acevedo said that even if the White House wanted Venezuela wanted to fill the void left by Russia, it would not be able to. Despite sitting on large oil reserves, production has dropped tremendously during Maduro's tenure and is a fraction of what is produced by Russia.

    The White House also downplayed the chances of a quick resumption in trade. "As you are assessing how to spend your energies in this time of a lot of news in the world, I would not focus a lot of them on conversations about the future of the United States importing oil at this point in time ... from Venezuela," press secretary Jen Psaki said.

    Colombia's Duque is not a fan of Maduro either

    Duque's energy minister warned against the idea of working with Venezuela on oil. In an interview with The Financial Times, Diego Mesa said: "If you've just banned oil from what they call the Russian dictator, it's difficult to explain why are you going to be buying oil from the Venezuelan dictator."

    Biden and Duque did not mention the Caracas trip during the public portion of their meeting, though Biden praised Duque for the way his country has handled 1.8 million migrants from Venezuela in recent years.

    After the meeting, Duque declined to tell reporters whether he spoke to Biden about the new engagement with Maduro, saying that both Colombia and the United States agree that they want to see democracy return to Venezuala.

    "Nicolas Maduro is a dictator and we have condemned that dictatorship and have sued Nicolas Maduro before the International Criminal Court," Duque said.

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    Colombian President Ivan Duque speaks during his meeting with President Biden in the Cabinet Room of the White House.
    Patrick Semansky / AP
    Colombian President Ivan Duque speaks during his meeting with President Biden in the Cabinet Room of the White House.

    Franco Ordoñez is a White House Correspondent for NPR's Washington Desk. Before he came to NPR in 2019, Ordoñez covered the White House for McClatchy. He has also written about diplomatic affairs, foreign policy and immigration, and has been a correspondent in Cuba, Colombia, Mexico and Haiti.
    Roberta Rampton is NPR's White House editor. She joined the Washington Desk in October 2019 after spending more than six years as a White House correspondent for Reuters. Rampton traveled around America and to more than 20 countries covering President Trump, President Obama and their vice presidents, reporting on a broad range of political, economic and foreign policy topics. Earlier in her career, Rampton covered energy and agriculture policy.