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Colombia began a new stage in its political history. Economist Gustavo Petro took office as the first leftist president.
I clarify that in my opinion “left” and “right” say little and nothing. The real difference is between those who defend democracy and those who support dictatorships. Hitler, Stalin, and Mao had much in common, with their totalitarian and criminal regimes, despite being defined as extreme opposites. In practice, the extremes touch. Latin America experienced in past decades terrorist violence, military dictatorships, and a democratic resurgence in the 1980s. Today, freedom is at risk again. Tyrannies like Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua are headed for more protests and repression. This happens when the system does not offer citizens the possibility to express themselves, vote, and decide their future. Nations such as Peru, Chile, El Salvador and Colombia are governed by presidents who give no guarantees as to whether they will respect freedom or want to perpetuate themselves in power. The situation is complex and dangerous.
In the case of Colombia, will Petro respect democracy, or will he follow the tragic Venezuelan path? It is not clear. In his inaugural speech, he pledged to achieve peace, in dialogue with the armed groups that challenge the state monopoly of force. In addition, he sought to position himself as a regional leader in environmentally friendly development. Further, the Minister of Economy presented to the House of Representatives a tax reform that taxes the wealthiest sectors to finance social policies.
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What margin of action does Petro have to carry out his agenda?
In the beginning, there may be a favorable environment for some reforms to have a quick legislative process. This is due to the support he achieved in Parliament, but also because the business sector —which will have to pay much more taxes— is willing to dialogue with the government. Moreover, Petro is interested in entering —at least at this stage— into agreements with these actors. He will have to clearly explain the terms of the reform: which individuals and companies will have to pay more taxes and how it will be invested.
Petro put together a majority coalition. Only the party that handed over power declared itself an opponent. The ministerial cabinet was negotiated with other political parties that now make up the official coalition. The former terrorist played his cards right after winning the presidency. During the weeks prior to the inauguration, he managed to add political parties to his coalition and handed over ministries to them. He tries to present himself as a politician willing to negotiate, and he was very skillful.
What will be the political model?
The danger of Gustavo Petro as president of Colombia is his anti-democratic personality. He showed it when he was mayor of Bogotá. Now he presents himself as a modern leader, close to European social democratic parties such as the German SPD, the French PS or British Labour. Petro tries to differentiate himself —for now— from brutal dictators like Nicolás Maduro and Daniel Ortega. However, the risk is not only his true ideology, but also the despotic personality that characterizes him. During his term as mayor of Bogotá, he applied a model close to regional dictatorships.
Those who see Petro as a conciliator should know that nobody put up with his arrogance when he was mayor. One by one, respected politicians in their parties, such as Guillermo Asprilla, Antonio Navarro and Guillermo Jaramillo, fed up with the tyrant, left him. They were not the only ones. Many officials left the mayor’s office for not having received respectful treatment in his administration. If this happened with his allies, what could he do with the opposition?
When he did not reach a democratic agreement to approve his Plan de Ordenamiento de Bogotá, he took it out through a decree. Will he try to apply this authoritarian system with the laws that are not approved? Will he impose a “state of exception” to govern as he wants? This is a real risk.
Petro has marginalized most of his supporters with their own profiles. His clashes with leaders such as Claudia López, Ángela Robledo, Antonio Navarro, and many others who could not stand his intolerance are famous. As a result, he is now surrounded by opportunists.
Chávez, Maduro, and Ortega devastated the economy to enrich themselves without limit, together with their relatives and friends. The same happened with Cristina Kirchner, who is cornered by the Argentinean justice system due to her enormous enrichment. Petro has already proposed that the State should forcibly buy unproductive lands. But he will not stop there. Probably, he will then continue with the companies that he does not consider productive, according to his opinion. He has already governed. He did it in Bogotá, and all his promises remained in words. Petro could not start the subway project, executed fewer social projects than his predecessors, and left the capital in a crisis. The reason for this chaos was clear: Petro feels he is a genius and launches all kinds of ideas that he tries to impose, and then they are impossible to execute. He has not known how to execute effectively.
The intention to shut down oil exploration in Colombia is illogical. The energy transition cannot be imposed hastily. Petro’s model was never social democracy, but populist tyrannies which later became a nightmare.
In short, a path full of uncertainty was set in motion for Colombia. Petro may fall into the abuse of power he always sought. He tried to achieve it by arms with the M-19, going down the violent path. Then, by the path of legality. Democracy allowed him to reach the presidency. Although difficult, hopefully he has evolved, and learned from his past and from the neighboring Chavista disaster. Otherwise, if his announced evolution towards the democratic ideal is false, Colombia will live through very hard times.
Eduardo Zalovich, Uruguayan-Israeli, is a history professor and journalist. He has written for several media, such as La Vanguardia, El Confidencial, Vozpopuli, Búsqueda and Correo de los Viernes. Zalovich analyzes, from the Middle East, the reality of the region and international politics. // Eduardo Zalovich, uruguayo-israelí, es profesor de Historia y periodista. Ha escrito para varios medios, como La Vanguardia, El Confidencial, Vozpopuli, Búsqueda y Correo de los Viernes. Analiza, desde el Medio Oriente, la realidad de la zona y la política internacional.