BOGOTÁ, Colombia — For more than two centuries, Colombia was considered a conservative stalwart in Latin America. Even as leftist governments came and went across the region, a center-right political establishment remained in control — a continuity that cemented the country’s role as a key U.S. ally.
Gustavo Petro, a senator and former guerrilla, was elected the country’s first leftist president, galvanizing millions of poor, young, struggling Colombians desperate for someone different.
His victory, unthinkable just a generation ago, was the most stunning example yet of how the pandemic has transformed the politics of Latin America. The pandemic hit the economies of this region harder than almost anywhere else in the world, kicking 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 out of their misery. And the winner has been Latin America’s left, a diverse movement of leaders that could now take a leading role in the hemisphere.
“Election after election, the right tries to scare people into thinking the communist monster is coming,” said Alberto Vergara, a political scientist at the University of the Pacific in Peru. “And election after election, it has lost.”
It happened in Peru, where voters last year elected Marxist schoolteacher Pedro Castillo. It happened in Chile, the free-market model of the region, where 36-year-old former student activist Gabriel Boric brought the left back to power.
And now it has happened in Colombia, a country where the left has long been associated with guerrilla movements over decades of bloody internal conflict. Leftist candidates who dared to run for office in the past were often assassinated. This time around, the conservative establishment’s chosen candidate failed to even make it to the second round after his message about the dangers of a Petro presidency fell flat.
All eyes are now on Brazil, the largest country in Latin America, where former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva leads polls to unseat President Jair Bolsonaro in October. A Lula victory would mean all of the largest countries in the region, including Mexico and Argentina, are led by leftist presidents. From Bogotá to Santiago, many voters are no longer buying the argument that a swing to the left will mean a government run 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 oil-rich economy — the basis of neighboring Venezuela’s ruinous socialist revolution — they’re looking to build a unified front against climate change. They’ve tried to distance themselves from the machismo of previous leftist eras, winning power by promising to protect the rights of women, LGBTQ people and Afro-indigenous communities. And they’re backed by a young, politically engaged electorate that took to the streets in massive numbers in recent years to protest inequality.
Their success also reflects a social transformation in a predominantly Catholic region, where feminist movements have spurred 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 just one of those times where Latin America is taking the lead,” said Bernard Aronson, who served as the top U.S. diplomat for Latin America under presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton. Aronson, who was also a special envoy to Colombia’s peace process, described Petro’s win as “a kind of earthquake in Colombia.”
On Sunday night, Petro called for a “dialogue in the Americas without exclusions … with all of 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 declined to invite three authoritarian countries — Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua. While Boric attended, he also criticized Biden, telling The Post 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 the Colombian election, construction magnate Rodolfo Hernández, supported normalizing relations with Venezuela, a country long invoked by the right as a cautionary tale about the dangers of left-wing governance.
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 emissions of greenhouses gases, which are being absorbed by “one of the largest sponges,” Latin America’s Amazon rainforest.
“If they are emitting there and we’re absorbing here, why don’t we dialogue?” Petro said to a packed arena in Bogotá. “Why don’t we find another way to understand each other?”
With the United States preoccupied by Ukraine, Iran and North Korea, it could see its influence continue to decline in Latin America, said Cynthia J. Arnson, a distinguished fellow and former director of the D.C.-based Wilson Center’s Latin American Program.
“The U.S. is just less and less a part of the conversation,” Arnson said.
The United States has long seen 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 competition of the great powers in the region,” Isacson said, “they just lost a grip on their keystone.”
The United States has sent billions of dollars in aid to Colombia over the years, much of that to combat transnational crime and drug trafficking. Some worry a Petro presidency could strain that long-running partnership.
Petro argues that counternarcotics policies over the past 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 has vowed to focus instead on crop substitution. He has also suggested changing the extradition treaty and foreign trade agreement between the two countries.
But in his acceptance speech, Petro made no comments suggesting he would take a hostile approach toward the United States, and experts doubt he will.
The United States has a history of successful relationships with some leftist presidents in South America, such as Uruguay’s José Mujica and Brazil’s Lula, Aronson said. But “very few countries in the world have enjoyed the enduring bipartisan relationship Colombia has built with the United States.” If Petro is wise, he added “he’ll try to preserve that.”
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken was quick to congratulate Petro on Sunday night, while Brian Nichols, assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere Affairs, said in a radio interview on Monday that the Biden administration has “many points of agreement" with the leftist incoming government in Colombia, including a shared commitment to tackle 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 through his agenda; he has proposed an economic state of emergency to combat hunger.
Like many populist presidents before him, Petro’s greatest challenge will be following through on his promises to the poor — especially with a divided legislature. Nearly half of Colombians are experiencing some type of poverty and struggle to find enough to eat.
Among them is 22-year-old student Erika Andrea Nuñez, who can barely afford her tuition for child-care classes. While she lives with her partner and 2-year-old daughter in a working-class neighborhood of Bogotá, she often stays with her parents to cut costs on food.
She doesn’t consider herself a Petro supporter, but she chose to vote for him because of “what he claims he’ll do for young people,” especially his proposal for free universal higher education.
“I don’t know if he’ll really do it,” she said. “But it’s the one thing that made me give him the chance. … I have hope that he’ll at least do something different.”
Diana Durán contributed to this report.