Petro’s Receding Power in Latin America’s Political Chessboard

Petro's relevance is in decline and his relations with incoming governments far and near will be complicated.


Source: Daniel Munoz/AFP via Getty Images.

Gustavo Petro is losing relevance in the region as the rise of opposing leaders diminishes his prospects of becoming a global icon.

Gustavo Petro’s election as the first left-wing president in Colombia shook the region. His triumph took place in a regional context of anti-incumbency, in which he sought to strengthen Colombia’s regional alliances and become a leading global voice on climate change, the war on drugs, and peace. However, Petro’s relevance is in decline and his relations with incoming governments far and near will be complicated. Since Petro’s election, Latin America has undergone some inopportune political changes for Petro, diminishing his prospects of becoming a global icon.

Petro’s inauguration speech—in which he vowed to lead the region and the world—has been difficult to deliver on considering troubled domestic politics, geopolitical conflicts elsewhere, and constant diplomatic blunders provoked by the president’s antics on X (formerly known as Twitter). The president’s credibility has been tarnished on more than one occasion due to his harsh criticism of rivals and his undiplomatic tone. Uncouth as he may be, it is unlikely that the president will change his behavior on social media, again undermining his global aspirations.

His domestic appeal has likewise suffered from his abrasive comments and mishandling of economy and security issues inside the country. Disapproval for Petro now stands at 66 percent. Factors such as difficulty in passing reforms, low budget execution by his ministries, and Colombia’s lackluster economic performance signal floundering confidence in the government. Furthermore, the president’s partial defeat in the October regional elections will complicate his relationship with newly elected local governments. In addition, he will have to contend with a new cadre of right-wing presidents in neighboring countries—more likely competitors than partners for global protagonism. 

This will make consolidating relations with neighboring leaders a focal point for Petro in the coming year. Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, the president of Brazil, will be a strong ally for Petro, but this will require close coordination, preparation, respect, and discretion—something Petro is not so  well-known for. Brazil, the largest country in Latin America, shares important aspects of its agenda with the Petro administration, such as climate change and strategic non-alignment, but Petro will be expected to follow Lula’s lead on some issues, which seems against the Colombian’s nature.

However, the election of ideological rivals in Ecuador and Argentina in 2023 will muddy Petro’s plans for regional ideological cohesion. Daniel Noboa’s electoral victory in Ecuador this past October can be credited to his rival, Luisa González, being closely associated with left-wing former President Rafael Correa, a divisive figure inside Ecuador and a close Petro ally. Although cordial relations with Ecuador are expected to continue due to the shared border and bilateral trade between the two countries, Petro will likely come to disagreements with the new Ecuadorian leader, considering his elite background, strong support for free market economics and foreign investment, and intentions to strengthen the country’s security apparatus in the country following an explosion of violence and gang warfare. 

In Argentina, Alberto Fernandez’s departure from the Casa Rosada was not well received by the Colombian president, and an extension of diplomatic niceties under the Milei presidency seems unlikely. Beyond the loss of a close ally, we anticipate a tense relationship between leftist Petro and the recently elected Javier Milei, a self-declared “anarcho-capitalist.” Although Petro acknowledged Milei’s victory, he expressed his disagreement with his proposals, branding them as a ‘sad choice’ for Latin America. Petro refused to attend the Argentine’s inauguration on December 10 and in his stead sent Alvaro Leyva, Colombia’s foreign minister.

Petro’s other existing regional relationships are unlikely to be mended. Strong tensions exist between Petro and Nayib Bukele, the president of El Salvador. Petro is a fierce critic of El Salvador’s security policies, which have garnered international condemnation for human rights abuses. Petro is also on unfriendly terms with Dina Boluarte, the president of neighboring Peru, and his social media commentary on the impeachment of former president Pedro Castillo led Peru’s congress to declare Petro “persona non grata”, a rare designation for a neighboring leader.

Incoming leaders may prove decisive for Petro’s broader influence, due to Latin America’s busy electoral calendar in 2024. Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador’s strong endorsement of Petro laid the groundwork for the consolidation of a key ally, considering Mexico’s role in the fight against drug trafficking, nationalization of public works, and contracts in the oil sector. However, should AMLO’s anointed successor, Claudia Sheinbaum, lose upcoming June elections, relations between Mexico and Colombia would likely sour. 

Venezuela is another hot-button issue for Petro, and considering Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro’s continuous indecision regarding holding free and fair elections, the future of that relation is anything but clear. Petro has met with Maduro more than any other regional leaders and has friendly ties with the Venezuelan president. The two countries not only share a border, but also share common threats to territorial control by organized crime groups and guerillas, challenges with illegal mining, and contraband and drug trafficking along the shared border. Should Maduro stay in power, Petro is expected to capitalize on his friendly relationship via an oil partnership with the country, but should the opposition prevail, we can expect Petro to lose another key ally for his regional leadership ambitions.  

Latin America will not be his only concern; the 2024 presidential election in the United States will also affect Petro’s agenda. The ever-more-likely potential for Donald Trump’s reelection lays a minefield before Petro. Trump’s radical positions on the war on drugs, migration, and the Venezuelan government, as well as his prolific social media outbursts are all risks for a healthy bilateral relationship. While Petro could use his closer relationship with China as a hedge, decoupling with the US would also have high costs for Colombia and damage international perceptions of Colombia as a steady and stable ally. 

The walls are not closing in on President Petro yet, but it is fair to say that the initial oomph of his presidency has dissipated. Petro’s aspirations to become a regional and global leader seem to be receding as the days go by. Hopefully, that will be a reason for the president to reflect on his ambitions and stabilize his precarious house of cards.


Sergio Guzmán is the Director of Colombia Risk Analysis, a political risk consulting firm based in Bogotá. Follow him on Twitter @SergioGuzmanE and @ColombiaRisk.

Daniela Rueda was an intern at Colombia Risk Analysis and is a current undergraduate student at Universidad Javeriana. Follow her on Twitter @Daniruer

Global Americans takes pride in serving as a platform that offers in-depth analyses on various political, economic, environmental, and foreign affairs issues in the Western Hemisphere. The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Global Americans or anyone associated with it, and publication by Global Americans does not constitute an endorsement of all or any part of the views expressed. 

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