As featured in Edition 41, available here.
By LOUIS SAMARASINGHE (3rd year - History and Politics - Surrey, United Kingdom)
On 19th June, the Colombian people elected Gustavo Petro to the highest office in the land, succeeding his fellow anti-establishment rival, Rodolfo Hernandez, with 50.42% of the vote. With strict term limits of a single 4-year premiership, there has been no shortage of Colombian presidents. Yet Petro stands alone from those that held his seat before him. He is the first left-wing Head of State the South American nation has had.
Petro has had a colourful history, ranging from being a guerrilla fighter in his youth, to an extensive European education, and a more than commendable tenure as mayor of Bogota. His credentials evidently speak for themselves. The question then remains: can Colombia’s radical new President bring an end to the historical issues that the divided country has faced?
A popular candidate throughout the election –being his 3rd attempt at the presidency –did not stop numerous death threats and attempted murders on him and his running-mate Francia Marquez – who himself is the first black vice-president. The violence during the election was so much so that an open letter, containing the signatories of 20 countries, was written condemning the violence against them.
Petro’s desire and conviction have certainly rubbed off on Colombians. While Petro was always a strong candidate going into the election, it was his ability to connect to the ‘left behind’ (a term we are all too familiar with in England) that gave him the final push to best Hernandez by the slightest of margins. Colombia’s rural jungle interior has long been underdeveloped, struggling with the problems of the Narcos as well as exploitative, commercial oil extraction. With Colombians in these areas feeling excluded from politics, many came out for the first time to vote for Petro; as represented by the 5% increase in turnout from 2018.
Petro is not only popular with the Indigenous population and farmers but also much of the youth, who view him as an anti-establishment hero dismantling the traditional conservatives. Colombia has gone through its fair share of political troubles: with a civil war (that still continues in some capacity today) since 1964 with left-wing rebel group FARC; the infamous drug trade and its consequences; and successive Governments each as corrupt as the predecessor. The former president, Ivan Duque Marquez, had a lawsuit filed against him by his own citizens alleging bribery and fraud. This, alongside his permittance of what the Humans Right Watch called ‘egregious abuses against mostly peaceful demonstrators’ by the Colombian National Police, proved to be the final straw for the electorate, paving the way for Petro to take over.
So what can be expected of Petro? Whilst a youth career as a politically charged Guerilla rebel – having been a high ranking member of left-wing group M-19 – may raise some eyebrows, after an 18-month incarceration period in 1985, Petro denounced the use of violence as a political tool. It was Petro, a senator at the time, who in 2006, exposed the ‘parapolitics scandal’; a multi-level governmental attempt to utilise paramilitary groups for their own gain.
However, his tenure as mayor of Bogota is most telling of the kind of politician Petro is. One of the more influential positions in Colombian politics, Petro’s single term as mayor of the capital was certainly eventful. In attempts to limit the violence on the streets, firearm prohibition was brought forward; while raids on Narcos-related groups were carried out, delivering crime-figures unseen for decades in the capital.
Although Petro has certainly set a strong agenda in tackling corruption and the Narcos, it is his version of social democracy which has resonated most with the women, youth, and interior across Colombia. His commitment to public investment can be seen with the expansion of Bogota’s public transport, which was heavily subsidised by the mayoralty. His presidential plans only expand upon this as he promises to fix the privatised healthcare of Colombia and oversee large agrarian reforms, including what is essentially a wealth tax.
Such left-wing measures may strike fear into the neoliberals of the West, all too familiar with the situation in Venezuela. However, despite Petro’s desire to reopen diplomatic channels with Moros, to see Colombia heading into that direction would be of huge discredit to Petro. His desire to reduce Colombia’s reliance on fossil fuels, both to provide greater economic security and tackle climate change, show a marked change from that of their troublesome neighbour. Venezuela’s over-reliance on oil created levels of hyper-inflation not seen since pre-war Germany.
While Petro may simply be seen as part of the Latin American Pink Tide, a political phenomenon which has been taking place since the advent of the millennium, his position as the first left-wing President of Colombia represents a unique challenge. Will he be able to tackle the systemic corruption still present across the other offices? Are his brave new ideas the solution to the growing inequality in Colombia? And most importantly, with just 1 term in office, will Petro be able to push through his radical proposals, against the ingrained conservatives, who have long held the keys to power? The next four years in Colombia will prove an interesting watch.
Image: Flickr/ Grand Kamarade