Colombia Turns Left


At a time of deep frustration with the status quo, the reasons for Gustavo Petro’s victory in Colombia’s presidential runoff are not difficult to discern. But it is much less clear whether Petro will be able to implement his ambitious reform agenda.

MEXICO CITY – Gustavo Petro, a veteran left-wing politician and ex-guerrilla, has been elected Colombia’s next president, defeating his opponent – the eccentric right-wing populist Rodolfo Hernández Suárez – by a small but uncontested margin. With that, one of Latin America’s most conservative countries has, at long last, joined the list of those that have voted in (and later out) self-proclaimed “progressive” leaders – sometimes with a legislative majority, often without one – since 1998.

In fact, Latin America has lately been experiencing what some might describe as a new “pink tide.” Petro’s victory follows those of Manuel López Obrador in Mexico, Pedro Castillo in Peru, Gabriel Boric in Chile, Luis Arce in Bolivia, Xiomara Castro in Honduras, and Alberto Fernández in Argentina. These democratically elected leftists contrast with the three leftist dictatorships that continue to plague the region: Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela.

Petro comes from the armed left, though not necessarily the Marxist-Leninist sort. The guerrilla movement of which he was a member back in the 1980s, the M-19, was more a hyper-nationalist, pro-Cuban group – maintaining close links to Havana, as well as to some drug-trafficking activities – than a traditional revolutionary organization.

The M-19 carried out several highly publicized, somewhat eccentric exploits, like stealing the sword of Simón Bolivar in 1974 and seizing the Dominican Republic’s embassy in Bogotá during a diplomat-filled reception in 1980. It also committed bloody deeds. Its 1985 assault on Colombia’s Palace of Justice, for example, led to more than 100 deaths, as well as the destruction of thousands of documents, some of which might have incriminated the perpetrators in drug-related activities.

In my 1992 book Utopia Unarmed: The Latin American Left after the Cold War, I described the links between one of the M-19’s financiers, the drug cartels, and the Cuban regime. Of course, Petro was barely an adult at the time, and almost certainly was not involved in any of these activities.

The reasons for Petro’s recent victory are obvious. Colombians are frustrated with an elite-led democracy that, while functional, has failed to deliver the goods. This frustration was apparent last year, when a reasonable tax-reform proposal by the outgoing Iván Duque administration, linked to the right-wing former president Álvaro Uribe, provoked mass protests.

For Colombians, the parties that replaced the old Liberal-Conservative two-party arrangement have been largely discredited. Even the widely respected former president, Juan Manuel Santos, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, has faced dissatisfaction with the results of the 2016 peace agreement he negotiated with another guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).

Against this backdrop, it is not surprising that the anti-incumbent sentiment that has swept Latin America in the last few years has engulfed Colombia, spurring voters to embrace a more progressive candidate. Petro also benefited from Suárez’s unappealing mimicry of Donald Trump and Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro in the runoff.

Colombia is now on an uncertain path. The good news is that some elements of Petro’s platform place him in the ranks of the modern, globalized, democratic left, alongside Boric and perhaps Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, the former Brazilian president who is likely to be elected again this autumn, and distinguish him from populists like López Obrador and Fernández.

For example, Petro has proposed a major tax reform, which includes higher taxes on mining, a wealth tax, and a stronger value-added tax (VAT). The additional revenues would be channeled toward higher educationstudent-debt forgiveness, free early childcare (up to three years old), and pension reform. Petro has also called for a minimum income for the elderly, a job guarantee, and ambitious climate action.

To be sure, the numbers do not necessarily add up, and Petro will most likely be forced either to scale down his ambitions or make his tax reform more expansive and, possibly, regressive (say, by raising the VAT). In any case, Petro seems to grasp that Colombia needs something like a modern welfare state, that this will cost money, and that the only way to finance it is through taxes.

Petro also campaigned on a pro-feminist, anti-racist, pro-LGBT platform, though his own positions on these issues are somewhat contradictory. That said, his running mate, Francia Márquez, a prominent activist and the first Afro-Colombian vice president-elect – has strong credentials on these matters.

Where Petro tilts toward the more populist Latin American left is in his anti-extractive vision. Petro has apparently embraced an anti-oilanti-coal, even anti-coffee stance. Environmentally, this makes sense. And, in a country with many mighty rivers, his plan to shift to renewable-energy sources is hardly harebrained. But coal, coffee, mining, and oil represent a significant share of Colombia’s foreign-currency earnings. While tourism might create revenue and jobs in the long run, the long run is far away.

How Petro deals with a fragmented Congress could also become a cause for concern. While Petro’s coalition fared well in last March’s elections, it did not obtain anywhere near a majority in either the House or the Senate. To implement his agenda, he will need support from smaller centrist parties or the larger, more conservative groupings. Worryingly, however, he has occasionally insinuated that he might claim emergency powers, so that he can bypass congressional approval in service of his goals.

Ultimately, Petro will have to choose between reaching agreements with the powerful, conservative Colombian business community on significant reforms and tempering his ambitions. Boric and López Obrador have faced similar dilemmas, though they have handled them very differently. Petro has neither a mandate for revolution nor leads a country that is inclined toward it. But if he navigates these tensions wisely, he may well be able to reform a country that desperately needs it.

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