Elections in Colombia: Gustavo Petro defeats Rodolfo Hernández for president
Colombia, the third-largest country in Latin America, now becomes the latest country to swing left in a region ravaged by the economic onslaught of the coronavirus pandemic. Petro’s triumph, in one of the continent’s historically most conservative countries, is a stark example of how widespread discontent has shaken the status quo.
His victory is notable not only because of his political ideology, but also because of his life story: a former underground guerrilla, who served a prison sentence in the 1980s for his involvement in a rebel group, will now become president in a country still reeling from armed criminal violence. His presidency could have profound implications for Colombia’s economic model, the role of government and its relations with other countries in the hemisphere, including the United States, its most important ally.
“Today is a celebration for the people,” Petro said in a tweet Sunday night. “Let’s celebrate the first popular victory. May the sufferings of many now be amortized in the joy that today floods the heart of the country.
Hernández quickly accepted the results on Twitter.
“I hope this decision that has been made is beneficial for everyone,” he said in a video address on social media. “I hope that Gustavo Petro will be able to lead the country, that he will be loyal in his speech against corruption and that he will not disappoint those who chose him.”
Petro’s comfortable lead has dispelled fears – at least for now – that a very thin race could cause either candidate to question the election results and spark a wave of civil unrest. , a year after massive protests swept the country.
Petro’s campaign has galvanized communities struggling with the pandemic in a country where half the population does not have enough to eat and 40% live in poverty. His campaign tapped into the desperation and anger of those who took to the streets last year during massive nationwide protests. And his victory is a strong rebuke to the deeply unpopular administration of incumbent Iván Duque, which many believe has done little to improve the economic situation in one of the region’s most unequal countries.
Voters on Sunday also made history by electing the country’s first black female vice president, Francia Márquez, an environmental activist, lawyer and former housekeeper who energized a large Afro-Colombian community that has long felt forgotten by power.
But some fear that Petro’s policies, including his proposal to ban all new oil exploration, could destroy Colombia’s economy. Others say a Petro presidency could test the country’s ancient but fragile democracy. He said he would declare a state of economic emergency to fight hunger if elected, a proposal criticized by some constitutional law experts.
Analysts worry about his willingness to circumvent Congress and other democratic institutions to advance his agenda. Others predict he will not be able to deliver on his promises with a divided legislature. As mayor of Bogotá, Petro oversaw a slew of staff departures and was criticized for refusing to listen to his advisers.
“The question is whether institutions will also be able to moderate this and hold him accountable,” said Sandra Botero, a political scientist at Rosario University in Colombia.
Petro proposes to transform the country’s economic system by redistributing wealth to the poor. He says he will implement free higher education, universal public health care and a minimum wage for single mothers. He says he would raise taxes on the 4,000 wealthiest Colombians and boost the local agricultural industry.
The United States has long viewed Colombia as its most important and stable ally in the region. President Biden has described the country as the “keystone” of democracy in the hemisphere. Now, some fear that a Petro presidency will put a strain on this longstanding partnership, particularly in the two countries’ efforts to combat drug trafficking.
Petro argues that anti-narcotics policies over the past decades have been a failure and that aerial coca eradication has done nothing to reduce the flow of cocaine into the United States. He pledged to focus instead on crop substitution. He also suggested amending the extradition treaty between the two countries.
“The prospects for continuing our normal approach to tackling transnational crime are pretty much nil,” said Kevin Whitaker, former U.S. ambassador to Colombia and now a member of the Atlantic Council.
But Michael Shifter, a member of the Inter-American Dialogue, predicts that a Petro presidency will involve “a lot of political posturing” but little actual hostility toward the United States, much like the presidency of Andrés Manuel López Obrador in Mexico. Shifter says this reflects a “new reality” captured by the division during Biden’s Summit of the Americas earlier this month. “Latin America is on its way and the United States is on its way,” he said.
Petro told the Washington Post that he envisions a progressive alliance with Chile and Brazil, a new Latin American left based not on extractive industries but rather on environmental protection. He also said he would normalize relations with neighboring Venezuela, a significant change from Duque, one of the region’s fiercest opponents of socialist President Nicolás Maduro.
The election marks another blow to the political establishment in Latin America, where voters have sought to punish incumbent governments for the devastation caused by the coronavirus pandemic. In Peru, a rise in poverty helped propel Marxist rural schoolteacher Pedro Castillo to the presidency last year. In Chile, the region’s free-market model, voters this year chose Gabriel Boric, a 36-year-old former student activist, as president. And in Brazil, Latin America’s largest country, leftist former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva is leading the polls to oust President Jair Bolsonaro in October.
Many Colombians voting in the country’s capital on Sunday said they were desperate for something – anything – different from past presidents.
“We’ve been subjugated to the right and the far right for over 200 years…and things here are bad, bad, bad,” said Henry Perdomo, a 60-year-old who works in the industry, a few moments after voting for Petro in a popular neighborhood in southern Bogotá. “We need a change.”
But some of his neighbors feared what this change might bring. Blanca Elena Timón Diaz, 52, who previously worked as a cleaner, feared that Petro would jeopardize her savings and “turn the country into Venezuela”. His vote for Hernández was, more than anything, a vote against the left.
Petro was a member of the April 19 Movement, or M-19, an urban political guerrilla that later demobilized, struck a peace deal with the government, and became a political party. Fanny Betancourt, 81, still vividly remembers seeing M-19 guerrillas storming the Bogota courthouse in 1985. Her father was killed in the attack. Petro denies involvement in the siege; he was imprisoned at the time. She said she couldn’t stand the idea of a former M-19 rebel as president.
For generations, many Colombians have associated the left with armed insurgencies in its long history of conflict. Petro’s victory, less than six years after the country signed historic peace agreements with its largest rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), shows how well the country has overcome this stigma, said lawyer and political analyst Hector Riveros.
The vote came after an election cycle that was more tense, violent and uncertain than any other in Colombia’s recent history. For the first time, Colombians have chosen between two populist and protesting candidates. Petro’s rival, Hernández, the former mayor of Bucaramanga who had never previously held or sought national office, came forward with a singular message of stamping out corruption.
But the construction magnate’s unfiltered message and lack of proposals turned away voters like Luz Marina Ríos, a 48-year-old woman in the capital. She said she was desperate for a president who would find new solutions to improve the lives of struggling families like hers.
She lost her job at a garment company during the pandemic and hasn’t been able to find work since. Her family had to cut back on their meals as food prices soared. a pound of meat that used to cost around $2 now costs $4, she said. Her teenage son had to work weekends to pay for his bus ride to school.
“We’re either going to fix it or we’re going to get worse,” she said, “but we need total change.”
Diana Durán contributed to this report.