Gustavo Petro | From an urban guerrilla to the first leftist President in Bogota

Colombia’s President-elect carries both enormous expectations and humongous challenges 

June 26, 2022 01:03 am | Updated 01:03 am IST



A former member of an urban guerilla outfit and later elected as Mayor of Bogota, Gustavo Petro made history by winning the second round run-off in the presidential election in Colombia, securing 50.4% of the vote over his rival, a property tycoon, Rodolfo Hernandez’s 47.3% last week. Mr. Petro’s victory marks the first time that an avowedly leftist politician won the President’s post in a country which has had a right wing/ centrist establishment for decades.

Yet, Mr Petro’s ascent to the presidency was no flash in the pan. A self described social democrat and a progressive, the economist had managed more than 41% of the votes in the 2018 presidential run-off, finishing second to Ivan Duque of the Democratic Center party. In this election, Mr. Petro’s victory was secured through an enhanced support from the poor in the country, especially in the most impoverished provinces (departments). The Economist reported that turnout in Magdalena and Choco departments, the poorest in the country, went up by 16%. The overall turnout went up by 4.16%, boosted largely by an increase in voting among Mr. Petro’s supporters.

Mr. Petro’s opponent, Mr. Hernandez, left no stone unturned in seeking support from different segments, by tacking onto right wing populism and utilising social media campaigns to experience a surge in his popularity. But Mr. Petro’s grassroots campaign focused on policies that he promised would tackle long-term poverty and inequality that were a consequence of decades of conservative rule and had exacerbated problems during the pandemic in particular. His campaign was boosted by his choice of running mate in Vice-President designate Francia Marquez, a human rights and environmental activist and who is now the first Afro-Colombian to secure that position.

Aided by the poor

Mr. Petro’s victory was aided not only by the rural poor, but also from support in the capital city of Bogota, where he served as Mayor for a period of nearly three years in the early 2010s. As Mayor, he worked on expanding amenities to the sprawling urban slums in the city, subsidising public transport, and recognising the work of the informal recycling sector that employed so many of the poor. This tenure significantly increased his personal popularity and expanded support for his Humane Colombia movement, which has now graduated into a political party that integrated into the “Historic Pact for Colombia” (PHxC) coalition with the support of other left-wing political parties and social movements in 2021 and catapulted Mr. Petro to becoming its presidential candidate.

His opponents have sought to play on fears of Mr. Petro being a “radical leftist” based on his earlier association with the urban guerilla movement, “April 19” or M-19, which he joined at the age of 17. As a rebel, Mr. Petro went by the name ‘Aureliano’, a reference to Nobel laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, which features the perennial rebel Aureliano Buendia. Largely a political activist associated with the M-19 group, Mr. Petro never participated in militant action, but he was arrested and later tortured in prison before the group demobilised in the early 1990s. A decade later, Mr. Petro had become a member of Congress and had entered legal political life.

Mr. Petro’s platform was one of economic reforms to address the severe issues of inequality and poverty in Colombia — one of the most unequal societies in Latin America — including significant agrarian reform, progressive taxation, a strong emphasis on climate-centric policies such as reliance on clean energy, besides expansive social welfare programmes in education and health care. Mr. Petro rejects his critics’ likening of his ideology to be akin to that of other Latin American socialists such as Hugo Chavez, and says he is ideologically closer to figures such as Jose “Pepe” Mujica, the former Uruguayan President, who also rose from being a former urban guerrilla to becoming one of Latin America’s most popular Presidents in the early 2010s.

In an interview to The Economist last month, Mr. Petro identified taxation of the Colombian wealthy elite, prohibition of new hydrocarbon extraction projects while taxing dividends and surpluses gained in the existing ones, a transition from exports gained from the extraction industry to domestic production and agrarian transformation as key policy initiatives that his government will pursue. Colombia, which teetered into what critics called a “narco-democracy” in the late 20th/ early 21st century continues to be a major partner and recipient of U.S. funds to tackle the problem of cocaine production.

But the “war against drugs” has only militarised Colombian society, creating a nexus between the illegal narcotics production industry and the elite in several Colombian towns and the countryside. He has identified the renewed emphasis on helping agrarian populations with credit and incentives as a way to wean them off from the control of the narcotic mafia and weakening its hold on the economy.

Mr. Petro’s alternative emphasis on the “war on drugs” has caused some alarm within the Washington establishment, which for decades in its relationship with Colombia has relied on a policy of penal provisions such as extradition of drug lords, eradicating coca production and a strong security relationship that focused both on the drug war as well as on threats from rural guerilla insurgents such as the (now disbanded) Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and National Liberation Army (ELN).

A new pink tide

In the early-mid 2000s, the term “pink tide” was used to describe the swathe of left-wing regimes that took root in most parts of Latin America — from Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela to Evo Morales’s Bolivia to Rafael Correa’s Ecuador on the one end of the leftist (socialist) spectrum to Lula Inacio Da Silva’s Brazil, Nestor Kirchner’s Argentina, Michelle Bachelet’s Chile among others in the social democratic end.

The regimes in the socialist spectrum were inspired by the Cuban Revolution in some ways, especially the successes in the social sector by the revolutionary government in Havana. These regimes sought to rewrite the social contract between the people and government in their respective countries — by setting up new Constituent Assemblies that worked towards political reforms which included decentralisation of power. They attempted to utilise the proceeds from the hydrocarbon extraction industry for the creation of a redistribution based economy and also worked towards building international alliances (or blocs) such as the ALBA (Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of our America that promoted alternative economic policies and integration.

The “socialist” regimes were, in hindsight, only partially successful. An excessive reliance on the hydrocarbon extraction industry and a confrontational path of governance that sought to concentrate power in the executive presidency instead of empowering the separation of powers and institutions led to the rise of authoritarianism and a collapse of the economy in Venezuela. The “Bolivarian socialist model” resulted in diminished popularity and reduced returns in Ecuador even as reactionary political forces sought to win back power in countries like Bolivia.

The “social democratic” regimes did not fare too well either. Former President Lula Silva left power at the height of his popularity and the Workers Party remained in power till 2016 before the Brazilian elite utilised a corruption scandal to remove his successor Dilma Rousseff out of power and the country moved towards populist right-wing rule under Jair Bolsanaro.

Mr. Petro seems to be cognisant of the failings of these Left regimes in the early 21st century and has emphasised a significant difference — instead of harnessing the profits from the hydrocarbon extraction industry for redistribution, his political platform would instead focus on diversification of the economy and reducing dependence upon it. He has reiterated that he will adhere to the constitutional norms of a single tenure government and will not pursue radical reforms of the kind seen in Venezuela for example. At the same time, Mr. Petro has emphasised the reopening of the borders with neighbouring Venezuela and betterment of diplomatic ties despite political and ideological differences.

Historic victory

While Mr. Petro has managed a historic presidential victory, he faces significant challenges in implementing his agenda as the PHxC only has 15% of seats across both houses of Congress. Other institutions that were built and thrived during former President Alvaro Uribe’s tenure — one that marked right-wing authoritarianism and the instituting of neoliberalism — will also resist any significant changes to the economy that are being proposed by Mr. Petro. It will be up to him to mobilise further support from civil society to make incremental progress and lessons learnt from the Left’s experience in Latin America in the past decade will come in handy. After all, Mr. Petro now represents the “new Pink tide” in the continent as other progressives such as Xiomaro Castro in Honduras, Gabriel Boric in Chile, Alberto Fernandez in Argentina and Pedro Castillo in Peru, who have inherited similar challenges in their respective countries.

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