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Colombians are upset. A cab driver on the Colombian coast told me: “What matters here is that the same old people don’t win”. In much of Colombia, that is the mood. It looks like Venezuela in the nineties: everyone was fed up with their political class and, consequently, bet on a military coup that ended up plunging the country into the worst crisis the western hemisphere has ever seen. In Venezuela, in the 1998 elections, it was Hugo Chávez. In Colombia, in the 2022 presidential elections, it is Gustavo Petro.
The fear that Colombia will end up like Venezuela is not unfounded. The stars are aligned. You have an economic crisis, mainly as a consequence of the pandemic. You have the accumulated mistakes of the last two governments and the rejection of traditional political parties. A new generation does not remember what Colombia was like before the government of Álvaro Uribe, who subdued the communist guerrillas and allowed the country to revive.
That same generation is convinced that all of today’s problems are the fault of the right. And you have an extreme leftist candidate, with a blood-stained past, disguised as a lamb but whose true ideas could mean the importation of the Chavista model to Colombia, a country that had been able to elude the socialist lure presented by Hugo Chavez in Venezuela.
“I like Gustavo Petro. I don’t know if he is left or right, that doesn’t matter to me. That does not feed the people. What matters to me is that he speaks the truth,” the cab driver told me. He knows that in Venezuela there is a dictatorship. That this dictatorship is communist and that Gustavo Petro shares many (if not all) of its ideas. But he does not care. The cab driver only wants what he calls “the political class” to lose.
It is paradoxical because Petro also belongs to that political class. In fact, he is one of the candidates for the May 2022 presidential elections who is more political. Gustavo Petro, the standard-bearer of the far left for the next elections, has only been a politician in his life. Nothing more. He was a member of the House of Representatives, Colombia’s secretary to European countries, senator, and mayor of Bogota, the country’s capital. As the pre-candidate of the pro-Uribe party, María Fernanda Cabal ironically said recently in a debate: “Gustavo Petro has not even sold a stick of gum in a kiosk”.
But, I must clarify, before his political career, Petro was something else: a guerrilla fighter. He was a member of the communist armed group M-19, very active in the armed struggle in the eighties, and author of one of the worst terrorist attacks that Colombia has suffered: the seizure of the Palace of Justice, in which the M-19 assassinated 11 magistrates of the Supreme Court of Justice. An attack that, by the way, Gustavo Petro continues to justify.
With an incendiary speech and in spite of different corruption scandals, Gustavo Petro seems immovable. His rhetoric does not differ either from that of Hugo Chávez before winning the elections in 1998. He, as Chávez then tried to distance himself from Fidel Castro, says he has nothing to do with the Bolivarian Revolution project. Retaliation, vendetta, control of the press, class struggle, expropriations, inequality, and redistribution of wealth. It is all part of Petro’s discourse.
Petro looks immutable and has a great advantage over the rest of the candidates. The next elections will be held on May 29 and only seven months before the date, Gustavo Petro keeps a significant lead in the polls with respect to his opponents. In the most recent poll of SEMANA magazine, Petro has 19.7% of Colombians’ voting intention. The next candidate, Sergio Fajardo, has 5.8% of voting intention. The gap is both wide and worrisome, even though the elections are still several months away.
It is especially worrisome because Colombia is going through a major political depression. There is an important leadership crisis. A well-known business leader from the Antioquia region recently told me: “This century was dominated by Álvaro Uribe. There is no doubt that he has been the most influential politician in Colombia’s contemporary history, mainly as a consequence of his success in security matters. Uribe then had the power to choose his successors. First, he proposed Juan Manuel Santos, and the people listened to him. Then Santos betrayed him and people wanted to flirt with his peace accords. But then people listened to Uribe again and voted for Iván Duque. Now people are disappointed because neither Santos’ government was good nor Duque’s has been good”.
The Democratic Center (Centro Democrático), Álvaro Uribe’s party, has been a central tenant of Colombian politics and almost total control for long periods of time. It currently holds a majority in the Senate; but, many of its critics argue, it has faded. The same businessman told me that people regret that Uribe’s project and his party have softened in the face of the advance of the far left in Colombia. Under the government of Juan Manuel Santos, the then president managed to infiltrate his peace accords against the will of Colombians, who rejected them in a plebiscite. The most tangible consequence of these peace agreements has been the presence of members of the communist guerrilla group FARC in Congress and the Senate. This reality has not been altered by the Duque government, which has tried to remain stable without dismantling the entire left-wing network.
The most interesting pre-candidate of Álvaro Uribe’s party has made use of this frustration with the Democratic Center and Uribism: the senator and businesswoman from Cali, María Fernanda Cabal. She, astutely, even being from the Government party, has distanced herself sharply from the administration of Iván Duque and from some of the proposals and positions of Álvaro Uribe himself. She appeals to her freedom of expression and the value of criticism within a democratic ecosystem, such as the one Uribe’s party aspires to be. This distance and autonomy has allowed her to position herself as the discordant and strong voice within the ruling party.
In the end, Cabal is betting on reviving Uribe’s legacy. She, a faithful admirer of former president Uribe, proposes to retake the firm and tough nature of Uribism. Although she has very little experience in presidential campaigns and it is the first time she is running, she already appears in the polls: in the SEMANA poll, she obtained 3.2% of the voting intention, above former presidential candidate Óscar Iván Zuluaga, who seems to be Álvaro Uribe’s main bet for these May elections.
Now, the most pressing issue is that there is no definitive candidate to face Gustavo Petro, who for years has been amassing support and positioning himself as the only alternative of the Colombian far left. Petro is not fighting or trying to elbow his way to represent the left. He is the preferred and tacit candidate. In the meantime, his opponents are debating who will jump to the ring. The risk is that on the way the rest of the candidates wear out and Petro, on the other hand, continues to accumulate capital.
One element plays against him, however: the demonstrations at the beginning of this year in Colombia ended up being a blessing in disguise for the Duque government and Petro’s opponents. The brutality of the protesters, the rawness of the riots, and the devastation prompted much of Colombian society to denounce the excesses of the protests. And the main leader most linked to the protesters is Gustavo Petro. This relationship, plus the scandals he has piled up for several years, make Petro the most hated candidate, even though he has the highest voting intentions. That is to say: although many would vote for him, there are more who despise him and would probably vote for whoever is against him. All that is needed is an opponent who does not arouse so much hatred.
Spanish economist and writer Daniel Lacalle told El American this week that the Colombian society’s rejection of the traditional political class is legitimate. That it is understandable, but that it can never drive a country to commit suicide. Many analysts and renowned personalities have pointed out that Gustavo Petro is a threat to Colombia’s democracy. Even former President Donald Trump himself called him a “socialist, a big loser and a former guerrilla leader of the M-19”.
In a recent revelation before the Spanish justice, the former Venezuelan spy chief, Hugo Carvajal, said that the Venezuelan regime had financed several Latin American politicians, among them Gustavo Petro. For years, Petro has maintained a prickly relationship with Chavismo; however, he has had a hard time distancing himself definitively. Petro has advocated re-establishing relations with the Caracas regime, has denounced a “blockade” by the United States or Colombia, and supports dialogue with Chavismo.
If it is true that Petro has been financed by Chavismo, that he will reestablish relations with Maduro if he is president, and that he is a true socialist, it is not an exaggeration to state that his triumph would imply the suicide of Colombia. His populist proposal is supported by the leaders of the Colombian extreme left, by communists, and by FARC guerrillas. If the presidential elections in Colombia were held, according to the polls, Petro would win. This is very serious and alarming. It will require an enormous challenge from the entire opposition to work together to prevent a liberticidal project that directly threatens, through expropriations, taxes, and aggressions to private property, both the prosperity and stability of this great nation.
Orlando Avendaño is the co-editor-in-chief of El American. He is a Venezuelan journalist and has studies in the History of Venezuela. He is the author of the book Days of submission // Orlando Avendaño es el co-editor en Jefe de El American. Es periodista venezolano y cuenta con estudios en Historia de Venezuela. Es autor del libro Días de sumisión.