Home WorldAmericas Gustavo Petro wins the elections and becomes the first leftist leader of Colombia

Gustavo Petro wins the elections and becomes the first leftist leader of Colombia

by YAR

BOGOTÁ, Colombia — For the first time, Colombia will have a leftist president.

Gustavo Petro, a former rebel and longtime lawmaker, won Colombia’s presidential election on Sunday, galvanizing voters frustrated by decades of poverty and inequality under conservative leaders, with promises to expand social programs, tax the rich and move away from an economy he has called excessively dependent on fossil fuels.

His victory puts Latin America’s third-largest nation on a highly uncertain path, just as it faces rising poverty and violence that have sent a record number of Colombians to the US border; high levels of deforestation in the Colombian Amazon, a key buffer against climate change; and a growing distrust in key democratic institutions, which has become a trend in the region.

Petro, 62, received more than 50 percent of the vote, with more than 99 percent counted on Sunday night. His opponent, Rodolfo Hernández, a construction magnate who had energized the country with a scorched-earth anti-corruption platform, won just over 47 percent.

Shortly after the vote, Mr. Hernández yielded to Mr. Petro.

“Colombians, today the majority of citizens have opted for the other candidate,” he said. “As I said during the campaign, I accept the results of this election.”

Mr. Petro took the stage Sunday night flanked by his vice-presidential choice, Francia Márquez, and three of his children. The packed stadium went wild, with people standing on chairs and holding up phones.

“This story that we are writing today is a new story for Colombia, for Latin America, for the world,” he said. “We are not going to betray this electorate.”

He promised to govern with what he has called “the politics of love”, based on hope, dialogue and understanding.

Just over 58 percent of Colombia’s 39 million voters turned out to vote, according to official figures.

The victory means that Ms. Marquez, an environmental activist who rose from poverty to become a prominent advocate for social justice, will become the country’s first black vice president.

The victory of Mr. Petro and Ms. Márquez reflects an anti-establishment fervor that has spread across Latin America, exacerbated by the pandemic and other longstanding problems, including a lack of opportunity.

“The whole country is begging for change,” said Fernando Posada, a Colombian political scientist, “and that is absolutely clear.”

In April, Costa Ricans elected Rodrigo Chaves, a former World Bank official and political outsider, to the presidency, who took advantage of widespread discontent with the party in power. Last year, Chile, Peru and Honduras voted for leftist leaders who faced right-wing candidates, extending a significant multi-year turnaround in Latin America.

As a candidate, Petro had energized a generation that is the most educated in Colombia’s history, but also faces 10 percent annual inflation, a 20 percent youth unemployment rate, and a 40 percent poverty rate. . His rallies were often packed with young people, many of whom said they felt betrayed by decades of leaders who had made big promises but delivered little.

“We are not satisfied with the mediocrity of past generations,” said Larry Rico, 23, a Petro voter at a polling station in Ciudad Bolívar, a poor neighborhood in Bogotá, the capital.

Mr. Petro’s victory is all the more significant given the country’s history. For decades, the government fought a brutal leftist insurgency known as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, with the stigma of the conflict making it difficult for a legitimate left to flourish.

But the FARC signed a peace agreement with the government in 2016, laying down its arms and opening space for a broader political discourse.

Petro had been part of a different rebel group, called M-19, which demobilized in 1990 and became a political party that helped rewrite the country’s constitution. Mr. Petro eventually became a forceful leader in the country’s opposition, known for denouncing human rights abuses and corruption.

On Sunday, in a wealthy area of ​​Bogotá, Francisco Ortiz, 67, a television director, said he had also voted for Petro.

“It’s been a long time since we’ve had an opportunity like this for change,” he said. “Whether things will get better, I don’t know. But if we stay the same, we already know what is going to happen to us”.

Victory could also test the US relationship with its strongest ally in Latin America. Colombia has traditionally been the cornerstone of Washington’s policy in the region.

But Petro has criticized what he calls the failed US approach to the drug war, saying it has focused too much on eradicating coca crops, the base product of cocaine, and not enough on rural development. and other measures.

Mr. Petro has said that he accepts some form of drug legalization, that he will renegotiate an existing trade agreement with the United States to better benefit Colombians, and that he will restore relations with the authoritarian government of President Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela, all which could create a conflict with the United States.

Close to two million Venezuelans have fled to Colombia in recent years amid an economic, political and humanitarian crisis.

Mr. Petro, in an interview earlier this year, said he believed he could work well with the Biden administration, adding that his relationship with the United States would focus on working together to address climate change, specifically stopping the rapid erosion of the Amazon.

“There is a point of dialogue there,” he said. “Because saving the Amazon rainforest implies some instruments, some programs, that do not exist today, at least not with respect to the United States. It is, in my opinion, the priority.”

Both Petro and Hernández had beaten Federico Gutiérrez, a former mayor of a big city backed by the conservative elite, in a first round of voting on May 29, sending them to a second round.

Both men had advertised themselves as anti-establishment candidates, saying they were running against a political class that had controlled the country for generations.

Among the factors that most distinguished them was how they saw the root of the country’s problems.

Petro believes the economic system is broken, reliant too heavily on oil exports and a flourishing illegal cocaine business that he says has made the rich richer and the poor poorer. He is calling for a stop to all new oil exploration and a shift to developing other industries.

He has also said he will introduce guaranteed work with a basic income, move the country to a publicly controlled healthcare system and increase access to higher education, in part by raising taxes on the wealthy.

“What we have today is the result of what I call ‘the exhaustion of the model,’” Petro said in the interview earlier this year, referring to the current economic system. “The end result is brutal poverty.”

However, his ambitious economic plan has raised concerns. A former finance minister I call his energy plan “economic suicide”.

Hernández did not want to reform the economic framework, but said it was inefficient because it is riddled with corruption and frivolous spending. He had called for combining ministries, eliminating some embassies and laying off inefficient government employees, while using the savings to help the poor.

One Hernández supporter, Nilia Mesa de Reyes, 70, a retired ethics professor who voted in an affluent section of Bogotá, said Petro’s leftist policies and his past with M-19 terrified her. “We are thinking of leaving the country,” she said.

Petro’s critics, including former allies, have accused him of arrogance that leads him to ignore advisers and struggle to build consensus. When he takes office in August, he will face a deeply polarized society where polls show growing distrust of nearly every major institution.

He has promised to serve as president of all Colombians, not just those who voted for him.

On Sunday, at a high school converted into a polling station in Bogotá, Ingrid Forrero, 31, said she saw a generational divide in her community, with younger generations supporting Petro and older generations favoring Hernández.

Her own family calls her the “little rebel” for her support of Petro, whom she says she favors for his policies on education and income inequality.

“Youth is more inclined towards revolution,” he said, “towards the left, towards change.”

Megan Janetsky contributed reporting from Bucaramanga, Colombia, and Sofía Villamil and Genevieve Glatsky contributed reporting from Bogotá.

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