US Secretary of State Antony Blinken promised this week to broaden Washington’s relationships beyond security funding in the struggle to promote democracy in Latin America.
Blinken made a three-day visit to the region, meeting a host of conservative leaders.
Colombian President Iván Duque, who has come under fire over a deadly police crackdown on protests, welcomed the top US diplomat at the Casa de Narino palace in Bogotá for two days of talks that will focus on key priorities of US President Joe Biden – climate change and migration.
Blinken will meet ministers from around the region amid a sharp rise in the number of desperate Haitians who are making a long trek from South America to the United States.
Duque was a close ally of former US president Donald Trump and has so far not been able to meet Biden, who faces pressure from left-leaning lawmakers in his Democratic Party to suspend assistance to Colombia on rights grounds.
Colombia for decades has been a top recipient of US military assistance, including in its decade-long campaign against FARC rebels.
In a speech in Ecuador prior to his visit to Colombia, Blinken said that the US record on security assistance in Latin America has been "mixed."
"That's because often we tried to fix the problem by relying too much on training and equipping security forces, and too little on the other tools in our kit," he said at the Universidad San Francisco de Quito, with the green Andean foothills behind him.
"We focused too much on addressing the symptoms of organised crime, like homicides and drug-trafficking, and too little on the root causes. We're working to correct that imbalance."
He acknowledged the long shadow of US support for dictators, saying, "There were times when we supported governments in the Americas that did not reflect the choice or the will of their people and did not respect their human rights."
In a letter to Blinken ahead of his visit to Bogota, Human Rights Watch said that Duque has presided over police brutality "unprecedented in recent Colombian history" with dozens killed this year in a crackdown on major demonstrations over proposed tax reforms.
"A strong public and private response by the Biden administration could help prevent further human rights violations," wrote the group's Americas chief, José Miguel Vicanco.
Blinken in his speech said that the United States had tools in addition to security funding. He pointed to the Biden administration's greater push on fighting corruption, including denying visas to officials involved in graft.
The Biden administration, largely following the lead of Trump, has ramped up pressure on leftist autocratic leaders in Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela, where President Nicolás Maduro has suspended dialogue with the US-backed opposition.
His call for an economic focus comes as China lavishes loan money for infrastructure in Latin America, worrying the United States which sees a rising and authoritarian Beijing as the biggest long-term challenge.
Amazon deforestation pact
Speaking Thursday, Blinken said that the United States will also launch an Amazon-wide regional pact to reduce deforestation, a bid to fight a key factor in climate change.
Washington's top diplomat said the a "new regional partnership specifically focused on addressing commodity-driven deforestation" would be set up “in the coming days.”
The initiative will "provide actionable information to companies so that they can really reduce their reliance on deforestation," Blinken said.
He said the pact would also include financial assistance to help manage protected indigenous areas and support the livelihoods of farmers.
Without giving further details, Blinken said he expected the partnership would help preserve 4,500 hectares (11,000 acres) of forest and prevent the emissions of 19 million metric tons of carbon dioxide.
Rainforests are crucial for the environment because they serve as huge carbon sinks, but greenhouse gas emissions from burning and industrial-scale agriculture in the Amazon account for higher total annual emissions than those of Italy or Spain.
By far the largest Amazon nation is Brazil, where President Jair Bolsonaro has championed big agriculture in the forest and has been accused of abetting the killings of environmental defenders.
Biden to meet Pope Francis
Joe Biden is expected to discuss the Covid-19 pandemic and climate change with Pope Francis at the Vatican later this month, ahead of international summits in Rome and Glasgow, Scotland.
The October 29 meeting will be the first for the two men since the Democratic leader took office. Biden, the second Catholic US president, previously visited the Vatican and met with the Argentine pontiff when he was vice-president, and Francis was greeted by Biden and his family on a visit to Washington in 2015.