President Joe Biden said Thursday that he intends to name Colombia a "major non-NATO ally" — a particularly timely announcement for a South American nation seen as a bulwark against Venezuela, which is a Russian ally and foe of the United States.
"Today I'm proud to announce that I intend to designate Colombia a major non-NATO ally … that's exactly what you are," Biden said. "This is a recognition of the unique and close relationship between our countries."
Colombia shares a long border with oil-producing Venezuela, which has garnered renewed attention from Washington as Russia's invasion of Ukraine prompted the U.S. to ban Russian energy imports, further jolting global oil markets.
Colombia is home to 1.8 million refugees from Venezuela. President Ivan Duque Marquez is an outspoken critic of Venezuelan leader Nicolas Maduro, who is under U.S. sanctions for human rights abuses and political repression, and who recently expressed support for Russian President Vladimir Putin amid the war in Ukraine.
"We appreciate a lot that you have made the decision to designate Colombia a primary, non-NATO ally because that is the recognition of the values and the principles that we have shared," Duque said.
Biden administration officials visited Caracas last weekend to discuss with the Maduro regime a possible loosening of U.S. sanctions to allow oil imports. This week, Venezuela released two Americans who had been imprisoned in the country.
Eddy Acevedo, of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, said Colombia also has much to offer the U.S. during this sensitive time.
"Colombia has many things to give," said Acevedo, who serves as chief of staff and senior adviser to the president of the think tank. "It is dumbfounding as to how there's been this approach, extending this olive branch to Maduro, when there are allies within this hemisphere that could potentially help us."
Acevedo added, "Our largest number one importer of petroleum is actually Canada. Our number two importer is actually Mexico. And rounding up some other allies in the top 10 is Colombia and Ecuador. So we can use other means and other allies within our hemisphere to increase production not only domestically, but imported from friendly allies instead of rogue regimes."
For their part, Biden administration officials said they do not seek a return to a Cold War system where the world is divided into spheres of influence.
"The countries of Latin America and the Caribbean aren't chess pieces on a board where the United States and Russia are competing for power," a senior administration official told reporters ahead of the visit. "They're countries that get to choose where their national security interests lie. And I — but I think the invasion of Ukraine by Russia has been a defining moment where the majority of the region has rejected military intervention. But I think it's really going to be up to the countries of the region to decide what's ultimately in their national security interests."
Biden and Duque said they would privately discuss counterterrorism cooperation, regional immigration, climate change and energy transition ahead of a Summit of the Americas, to be hosted by the U.S. in June.