WASHINGTON – President Joe Biden said Thursday that he intends to designate Colombia as a major non-NATO ally, a step that will provide the Latin American nation with benefits in the areas of defense, trade and security cooperation.
Biden made the announcement as he hosted Colombian President Ivan Duque at the White House for the first time. The visit follows weekend talks between Biden administration officials and the leftist government of Nicolás Maduro in neighboring Venezuela, which has a tense relationship with both the U.S. and Colombia.
Avoiding a potentially awkward moment, neither Biden nor Duque raised the U.S.-Venezuela meeting in their public remarks. Colombia is a close U.S. ally, and Duque leads opposition to Maduro in the region,
Biden said he intends to bring Colombia into the NATO fold.
“That's exactly what you are, a major, major non-NATO ally, and this is a recognition of the unique and close relationship between our countries," he told Duque, who sat directly across from the president at a large table in the Cabinet Room, each leader joined by a small group of advisers.
"Colombia is the lynchpin, in my view, to the whole hemisphere,“ Biden said.
Duque said Biden’s announcement recognized “values and the principles” shared by both Western Hemisphere countries.
Back home, Duque has been criticized for not sitting down earlier with the U.S. president, his strategic partner. The two did meet briefly late last year at a gathering of world leaders for a climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland.
Duque's visit to the White House came amid Russia's invasion of Ukraine and approaching presidential elections in Colombia that will decide his successor.
When both presidents mentioned Venezuela, it was in the context of the assistance Colombia has provided nearly 2 million Venezuelan refugees who have crossed the border to flee poor economic and living conditions back home.
Duque has led regional opposition to Venezuela's Maduro, whom he describes as a “dictator" — a characterization he repeated under questioning by Colombian journalists after his meeting with Biden. Duque recognizes opposition leader Juan Guaidó as Venezuela’s interim president.
Colombia’s government has questioned the military assistance Russia has provided to Venezuela and has expressed fears of possible “foreign interference” in Colombia, which shares a vast border with Venezuela, without providing evidence.
Duque has not spoken publicly about the U.S.-Venezuela meeting, and continued to hold his tongue Thursday following the White House visit.
“On the issues and details having to do with the visit (to Venezuela), I think U.S. authorities have to answer about that,” he told the Colombian journalists. “Our position with respect to the regime of Nicolás Maduro has not changed at all.”
Colombian Vice President and Foreign Minister Marta Lucía Ramírez has said the meeting “took her by surprise.”
Venezuela recently announced a military deployment on the border to combat what it said are Colombian armed groups.
Both Biden and Duque denounced the Russian invasion of Ukraine, with Biden saying it was not just a threat to Ukraine but to “peace and stability” everywhere. He commended Duque for the strong stance he took against the invasion, including Colombia's vote in the U.N. General Assembly to condemn Russia's actions.
Duque has spoken out against Russia and pledged support for the international humanitarian response and the “corresponding sanctions.”
The war, which has entered its third week, is a “very horrifying moment for the world” that must be condemned “with a very strong sentiment," Duque said.
“Nothing justifies the bloodbath that we have been seeing continuously over the news in the last week,” he emphasized.
According to the State Department, U.S. law allows the designation of “major non-NATO ally” status for friendly countries, providing them with certain benefits in the areas of defense, trade and security cooperation. It's a symbol of close ties.
However, such countries are not entitled to the same security guarantees as full-fledged members of the NATO alliance. NATO member countries agree to defend each other if one comes under attack, but that protection does not extend to a major non-NATO ally.
Duque's visit comes shortly before a possible change in government in Colombia. It will hold presidential elections on May 29 and leftist candidate and Duque rival Gustavo Petro leads in the polls. Presidents in Colombia are limited to one, four-year term.
Petro has said he has other priorities and Colombia should not interfere in the invasion of Ukraine but focus on resolving internal problems with illegal armed groups.
Associated Press writers Astrid Suarez in Bogotá, Colombia, and Josh Boak in Washington contributed to this report.