BOGOTÁ, Colombia — For more than two centuries, Colombia was considered a conservative stalwart in Latin America. Even as leftist governments came and went in the region, a center-right political establishment remained in control, a continuity that cemented the country’s role as a key US ally.
Gustavo Petro, a senator and former guerrilla, was elected the country’s first leftist president, galvanizing millions of poor, young Colombians and fighters desperate for someone different.
His victory, unthinkable just a generation ago, was the most impressive example yet of how the pandemic has transformed Latin American politics. The pandemic hit the economies of this region harder than almost anywhere else in the world, driving 12 million people out of the middle class in a single year. Across the continent, voters have punished those in power for failing to lift them up out of their misery. And the winner has been the Latin American left, a heterogeneous movement of leaders that could now assume a leading role in the hemisphere.
“Election after election, the right wing tries to scare people into thinking that the communist monster is coming,” said Alberto Vergara, a political scientist at the Universidad del Pacífico in Peru. “And election after election, he has lost.”
It happened in Peru, where voters last year elected Marxist school teacher Pedro Castillo. It happened in Chile, the region’s model of free markets, where Gabriel Boric, a 36-year-old former student activist, returned power to the left.
And now it has happened in Colombia, a country where the left has long been associated with guerrilla movements during decades of bloody internal conflict. Leftist candidates who dared to run for office in the past were often assassinated. This time, the candidate chosen by the conservative establishment did not even make it to the second round after his message about the dangers of a Petro presidency failed.
Gustavo Petro, former guerrilla, will be the first leftist president of Colombia
All eyes are now on Brazil, Latin America’s largest country, where former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva is leading the polls to oust President Jair Bolsonaro in October. A Lula victory would mean all the largest countries in the region, including Mexico and Argentina, are led by presidents of the left. From Bogotá to Santiago, many voters no longer accept the argument that a shift to the left will mean a government led by the likes of Hugo Chávez or Fidel Castro.
And that’s partly because today’s leftist leaders look and sound very different from those of the past, at least in the case of Petro and Boric. Instead of building an economy rich in oil, the foundation of neighboring Venezuela’s ruinous socialist revolution, they seek to build a united front against climate change. They have tried to distance themselves from the sexism from earlier leftist eras, gaining power by promising to protect the rights of women, LGBTQ people, and Black communities. And they are backed by a young and politically engaged electorate that has taken to the streets in large numbers in recent years to protest inequality.
Its success also reflects a social transformation in a predominantly Catholic region, where feminist movements have pushed Colombia, Argentina and Mexico to decriminalize abortion. Some countries are following Colombia’s lead in advancing euthanasia rights, and Chile last year recognized same-sex marriage.
Petro said in an interview with The Washington Post earlier this year that he envisions a progressive alliance with Chile and Brazil. If Lula wins and Petro succeeds, this coalition could be a powerful force in the hemisphere and could leave the United States on the sidelines.
“This may be one of those times where Latin America is taking the lead,” said Bernard Aronson, who served as the top US diplomat for Latin America under Presidents George HW Bush and Bill Clinton. Aronson, who was also a special envoy to the Colombian peace process, described Petro’s victory as “a kind of earthquake in Colombia.”
On Sunday night, Petro called for a “dialogue in the Americas without exclusions… with all the diversity that is America”, a clear reference to the Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles earlier this month. Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador skipped the summit after President Biden refused to invite three authoritarian countries: Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua. While Boric attended, he also criticized Biden, telling The Post that the United States is missing opportunities to advance its democratic goals for Latin America by refusing to engage with its adversaries.
In a sign of how widely accepted that view has become in the region, both Petro and his rival in the final round of Colombian elections, construction tycoon Rodolfo Hernández, supported normalizing relations with Venezuela, a country invoked for a long time on the right as a warning. story about the dangers of the leftist government.
Former guerrilla candidate for president of Colombia foresees a new Latin American left
In his acceptance speech, Petro said his foreign policy would put Colombia at the forefront of the global fight against climate change. He said the time had come to sit down with the United States and talk about its greenhouse gas emissions, which are being absorbed by “one of the largest sponges,” Latin America’s Amazon rainforest.
“If they are broadcasting there and we are absorbing here, why don’t we talk?” Petro told a packed stadium in Bogotá. “Why don’t we find another way to understand each other?”
With the United States preoccupied with Ukraine, Iran and North Korea, it could see its influence continue to wane in Latin America, said Cynthia J. Arnson, a distinguished fellow and former director of the DC-based Wilson Center’s Latin American Program.
“The United States is less and less a part of the conversation,” Arnson said.
The United States has long viewed relations with the region through a lens of competition with Russia and China, said Adam Isacson of the Washington Office on Latin America.
“If they have this Cold War 2.0 view of great power competition in the region,” Isacson said, “they just lost control of their cornerstone.”
The United States has sent billions of dollars in aid to Colombia over the years, much of it to combat transnational crime and drug trafficking. Some worry that a Petro presidency could put that longstanding partnership to the test.
Petro argues that anti-narcotics policies in recent decades have been a failure and that aerial coca eradication has done nothing to reduce the flow of cocaine into the United States. He has promised to focus instead on crop substitution. He has also suggested changing the extradition treaty and the foreign trade agreement between the two countries.
But in his acceptance speech, Petro made no comment suggesting he would take a hostile approach toward the United States, and experts doubt he would.
The United States has a history of successful relations with some leftist presidents in South America, such as José Mujica of Uruguay and Lula of Brazil, Aronson said. But “very few countries in the world have enjoyed the longstanding bipartisan relationship that Colombia has built with the United States.” If Petro is wise, he added, “he will try to preserve that.”
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US Secretary of State Antony Blinken was quick to congratulate Petro on Sunday night, while Brian Nichols, Under Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, said in a radio interview Monday that the Biden administration has “ many points of agreement with the leftist government that is coming in Colombia”, including a shared commitment to confront climate change.
Petro’s critics fear that his ambitious plans, including his redistributive policies and his proposal to ban new oil exploration, could ruin Colombia’s economy. Others worry about his willingness to work around democratic institutions to push his agenda; has proposed a state of economic emergency to combat hunger.
Like many populist presidents before him, Petro’s biggest challenge will be delivering on his promises to the poor, especially with a divided legislature. Nearly half of Colombians are experiencing some form of poverty and are struggling to find enough to eat.
Among them is student Erika Andrea Núñez, 22, who can barely afford the tuition for childcare classes. While she lives with her partner and her 2-year-old daughter in a working-class neighborhood of Bogotá, she often stays with her parents to keep food costs down.
She does not consider herself a supporter of Petro, but chose to vote for him because of “what he says he will do for young people”, especially for his proposal for universal and free higher education.
“I don’t know if it really will,” he said. “But it’s the only thing that made me give him a chance. … I am hopeful that he will at least do something different.”
Diana Durán contributed to this report.
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