The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Former guerrilla member running for president of Colombia envisions new Latin American left

Colombia presidential candidate Gustavo Petro addresses supporters in Bogotá after winning a primary vote March 13. (Mauricio Duenas Castaneda/EPE-EFE/Shutterstock)

MEDELLÍN, Colombia — Even before the pandemic, Jimy Alejandro Carmona was going hungry.

Having left school after the sixth grade, the young man found occasional work cleaning up trash on the streets of his neighborhood overlooking Colombia’s second-biggest city. But it was barely enough to feed his mother, his sister and himself and pay their $117 rent. Some days — many days, during the peak of the country’s coronavirus crisis — they hardly ate anything.

His desperation led him to join the thousands of Colombians last year who protested a government they said had made life even harder for the poor in one of the most unequal countries in the world. That desperation had now led him to a metro station in Medellín to hand out campaign newspapers for a man he says could lift him out of hopelessness: Gustavo Petro, a former guerrilla member-turned-politician who has his best chance yet of becoming the first leftist president in Colombia’s history.

At the very least, Carmona would make $9 a day in the process.

As Colombians prepare to vote in the presidential election in May, scores of young, struggling people are backing Petro, a former mayor of Bogotá and third-time presidential candidate. The 61-year-old senator, who was a member of the 19th of April Movement, or M-19, in the 1980s, gained more than twice as many votes in this month’s primary elections as the leader of the right-wing coalition and six times as many as the leading centrist candidate.

Governments are shifting to the left across Latin America, a region hit hard by the pandemic’s economic assault, where widening inequality is fueling discontent. Chile this month swore in 36-year-old former student activist Gabriel Boric as president, following wins by leftist candidates in Bolivia, Peru and Honduras. Former Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva is the favorite to win the October election in Latin America’s largest country.

Petro told The Washington Post he envisions a progressive “axis” between Chile, Colombia and Brazil. He said he aims to usher in a new Latin American left, built not on extracting natural resources like governments past but on protecting the environment and advancing industrialization.

“We will propose to Latin America a new path,” Petro said.

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That path, if Petro were to win, would include ending new oil exploration to move the country toward renewable energy. It would mean boosting the local agriculture industry by renegotiating trade agreements with the United States. It would mean taxing the 4,000 wealthiest Colombians. On Wednesday, he announced that Francia Márquez, an Afro Colombian human rights and environmental activist, would be his running mate.

In a country that has never been led by a true leftist, Petro’s lead in the polls is generating panic elsewhere on the political spectrum. A phenomenon known as the “Petro clause” has appeared in contracts, stating they’ll take effect only if he loses.

Petro has been careful to distance himself from the socialist governments of Cuba and Venezuela, but conservatives fear the relationships he might build with their leaders. He told The Post that better relations with the government of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro would help the countries revive trade and regain control of a border taken over by drug trafficking groups.

In the May vote, he’ll probably face the most opposition here, in the traditionally conservative department of Antioquia, the cradle of the country’s right-wing parties and the birthplace of former president Álvaro Uribe, one of the country’s most powerful and polarizing politicians. The two key candidates competing against Petro are both former mayors of Medellín: the conservative Federico Gutiérrez, 47, and the centrist Sergio Fajardo, 65. Petro won twice as many primary votes as Fajardo in his own department, but Gutiérrez was the clear winner in Antioquia, bringing in three times as many votes as Petro.

Still, Petro’s young campaign volunteers here are convinced the city is changing. Four years ago, the second time Petro ran for president, he hardly campaigned in Antioquia. This time, his rallies have packed public plazas across the department.

Carmona, at the metro station, wrapped the Colombian flag around his back as he handed a woman a campaign newspaper with Petro’s face on the cover.

“If Antioquia changes,” the headline read, “Colombia changes.”

Changing the system

Each time Petro has run for president, his candidacy has galvanized an opposition fearful he’d turn Colombia into Venezuela. But the prospect of “Castro-Chavismo” is no longer as powerful a boogeyman for Colombians, Sergio Guzmán said.

“People are so fed up with the status quo that becoming Venezuela is not what frightens them the most,” said Guzmán, director of the consulting firm Colombia Risk Analysis. “What frightens them the most is staying the way we are.”

For the first time in nearly two decades, Uribe is no longer seen as strong enough to sway an election. The security hard-liner is celebrated for his hardhanded approach against armed rebel groups and despised for presiding over repeated alleged human rights violations. But he is now best-known for handpicking the deeply unpopular current president, Iván Duque, who critics say has done little to improve the country’s security or economic well-being.

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About 1.6 million Colombians fell out of the middle class during the pandemic. Violence in many parts of the country has increased, as have the killings of social leaders and environmental activists. Frustration over a proposed tax revision and broader discontent over inequality fueled months of protests last year. In a recent Ipsos survey, 84 percent of Colombians said their country was moving in the wrong direction, the second-highest rate among 28 countries surveyed.

Petro’s crowd-rousing speeches have often focused on what he says many of these problems come down to: hunger.

“Decreasing hunger requires change, change to an economic system that has reached its end,” Petro told a large crowd in Medellín this month. “Change to a social system that has produced a society that is profoundly unjust.”

What would it take to change the system? The primaries brought big wins for Petro’s leftist coalition in Congress, but not enough to win a majority. Petro would have to work with a divided legislature to pass his agenda. But he’s already announced he would declare an economic state of emergency to combat hunger if elected, a proposal criticized by some constitutional law experts.

“This proposal is part of a tendency of a certain Latin American left that the only way to make profound social changes is through a strong president who does not agree or seek consensus with political forces through Congress, but uses mechanisms of executive orders instead,” said law professor Rodrigo Uprimny, who sat temporarily on the country’s constitutional court.

Some U.S. critics worry a Petro presidency would strain relations with Washington. The candidate has suggested changing the extradition treaty between the two countries. A former U.S. official in Colombia said a Petro victory could complicate the long-running partnership in combating drug trafficking.

Petro argues that counterdrug policies over the last several decades have been a failure and that aerial eradication of coca has done nothing to reduce the flow of cocaine to the United States. He would focus instead on crop substitution.

“The main concern is whether he’s committed to work within the system to promote change,” said Michael Shifter, president of the D.C.-based Inter-American Dialogue, “or whether he’s willing to destroy the system.”

If no candidate wins a majority in May, the two top will go to a runoff in June. Petro and his rivals have alleged voting fraud in the country’s electoral system. On Monday, Petro announced he would no longer participate in debates until “voting transparency” is guaranteed.

Resistance builds

Carmona was agitated as he arrived at the metro station. He had been passing out Petro’s newspapers on a street nearby, he said, when a police officer called him a “guerrilla fighter.”

Fellow campaign worker Valentina Álvarez saw just how much opposition Petro would have to overcome to win over Medellín voters. She’d been insulted, sworn at, approached by a man who yelled in her ear: “I’m not voting for him.”

A man to whom she tried to pass a newspaper made the sign of the cross and kept walking. One woman said, “I’ll take one because it’s your job” and then tossed it in the trash.

Across Medellín and Colombia, an anti-Petro resistance is once again gaining force. Conservative politicians and the traditional establishment are rallying behind Gutiérrez. Several civic groups in Antioquia have organized “to help citizens understand the importance of Colombia’s economic model,” according to a Medellín business executive who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss political matters.

“If Petro comes to power, he’s going to install communism in the country,” the executive said.

Petro called such claims “unfounded.”

“It’s logical, because Colombia has had such a democratic deficit that only a few families have governed for two centuries,” he said. “When the possibility arises that this history will change … it scares them because they see it as abnormal, when it should be normal in any democratic country on earth.”

He added: “Any entrepreneur should not be afraid of a government program that seeks to increase national production.”

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Gutiérrez has frequently criticized Petro’s “populist projects.” He recently blasted a Petro proposal to use pensions to fund social programs, calling it “dangerous.”

“He wants to spend money that does not belong to him and wants to expropriate it, just as he wants to do with lands and private property,” Gutiérrez said. Petro has denied the accusation.

Petro has begun creating alliances with people who might seem counterintuitive, such as a Christian leader with thousands of followers on the Caribbean coast. But he’s drawn criticism from liberals for ties to a conservative former Medellín mayor and a local politician accused of domestic violence.

Aides from his time as mayor of Bogotá have accused him of refusing to listen to advisers and displaying authoritarian tendencies.

“The way he does politics, his alliances, his decisions, not opposing gender-based violence … those types of things lose him points,” said Sara Tufano, a feminist and sociologist who once campaigned for him. “He’s not an easy person to work with. He’s not a conciliatory person.”

Petro called such criticism “fake news.”

Carmona has a tattoo on his right arm of a crown. Below it is the name “Sandra,” his mother.

The day before, he said, “she didn’t have a bite to eat all day long.” He wept.

“We’re tired of being robbed. We’re tired of putting up with hunger. We’re tired of walking around looking for jobs and not finding any,” Carmona said. “Where are the opportunities? I don’t see any.”

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