In the historic final round of Colombia’s June 19 presidential election, voters elected Gustavo Petro to be the South American nation’s first leftist head of state. Petro is a former militant in the now demobilized M-19 guerilla army, who went on to serve as the mayor of Bogotá and as a senator. In another breakthrough, Petro’s running mate, human rights and environmental activist Francia Marquez, was elected to be the nation’s first Afro-Colombian vice president. Petro and Marquez defeated millionaire Rodolfo Hernandez, an independent candidate who campaigned against corruption.
After decades of civil conflict, a violent drug war and suffocating poverty and inequality, Petro has pledged to radically reprioritize Colombia’s economy. His agenda includes taxing unproductive land, providing free university education, demilitarizing the drug war and freezing new oil and gas projects to address the climate crisis.
Between The Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with Alexander Main, director of international policy at the Center for Economic and Policy Research, who talks about the dangers threatening Petro when he takes office on Aug. 7 and obstacles standing in the way of his effort to enact his ambitious agenda.
ALEX MAIN: We can’t be sure of anything, frankly, until the inauguration takes place on Aug. 7, because there is a history of candidates being assassinated, including candidates that won the presidential election, which took place in the 1950s and in Colombia you had Jorge Gaitan, who was assassinated shortly after being elected. And then you’ve had popular candidates that have been assassinated since then.
So needless to say, they’ve had a very significant security detail — both Gustavo Petro and the vice presidential candidate, Francia Marquez, both of whom have received numerous death threats, including from paramilitary groups in Colombia that are still quite active. You know, Petro is really a very significant symbol in that he comes from the insurgency in Colombia. You had a good part of the left that went underground and decided to take up arms — feeling that the political system essentially locked them out and also maintained a system of oppression against a broad swath of the Colombian population, particularly the marginalized communities of indigenous and Afro-Colombians in the west of the country, in the south of the country.
Yes, Petro was someone who was demonized by the media, by of course, the conservative politicians that ran the country for years, seen as someone who was dangerous, who was going to try to impose a strict form of communism in the country.
All sorts of scare tactics were applied, and in previous elections I think they had had an impact. But in this election, interestingly, really, the electorate turned against the political class almost in its entirety by voting in the first round for Petro. And then the runner up was Rodolfo Hernandez, both of them sort of outsiders, people that were very critical of the political establishment in Colombia.
But they got a huge percentage of the vote and they went to the runoff election. And ultimately, Gustavo Petro and Francia Marquez won by three points. So not a huge margin, but significant nonetheless. And it looks like, you know, they really won thanks to the massive mobilization of the sort of peripheries of Colombia, the parts of Colombia where you have the Afro-Colombians and indigenous and people that have sort of been disenfranchised traditionally in the politics of the country and the economics of the country. They turned out in unprecedented numbers.
And I think that’s really what ensured the victory of Gustavo Petro.
SCOTT HARRIS: In addition to hostility from the military and the threat of right-wing death squads, Gustavo Petro does not have a majority in Colombia’s legislative branch, so he’s facing many challenges ahead. Is there a popular movement supporting Petro’s agenda that can be mobilized to to really push the country in a new direction?
ALEX MAIN: Well, I think he’s counting on that, because indeed, his coalition the Pacto Histórico (Historical Pact) has about a third of the seats in the Colombian Congress. And that’s not enough, obviously, to pass legislation. He would need to have the support of the centrists and perhaps even some of the right-wing legislators.
Based on the speech that he gave last night, I think he really wants to mobilize the public in support of his agenda. You know, one that’s focused on diminishing the enormous poverty that exists in Colombia, the very high level of inequality. It’s one of the countries with the highest levels of inequality in the world. You know, in order to do that, he needs to carry out very significant reforms.
Yes, he’s made an appeal to the public. He wants to dialog with everyone in order to support this agenda. There’s clearly enormous dissatisfaction within the population in Colombia with the status quo. And he’s made it clear that, you know, he wants to carry out significant change, but he’ll need, you know, public support for that. That’s the only way he’s going to be able to move some of these other parties into forming alliances with him behind the essential legislation that he’ll need to carry through with his agenda.