Gustavo Petro: Symbol of the New Left in Columbia

Like the other emerging leftist leaders in Latin America, Petro sees crony capitalism and ecological destruction as immediate issues

Gustavo Petro

In mid-March 2022, Opposition Senator, Gustavo Petro, won the Colombian Presidential primaries for the Historic Pact Coalition with nearly 80% of the votes. The selection has been noteworthy as Petro for 45 lakh votes, which is higher than the number of votes cast in the primaries of the rival collation. Analysts see this as a strong signal that Petro will do very well in the upcoming Presidential election.

Petro is making international news as a former Guerilla Leftist who came overground to become successful in electoral politics. With the cap on terms, the current President of Colombia, Ivan Duque, will not be able to contest, so Petro’s win could signal a strong shift in the Electoral ethos of Colombia.

To call Petro a hard leftist candidate is an exaggeration. His proposals are mainstream and liberal. Wealth redistribution and demanding stronger actions against climate change are no longer political positions, but necessary actions for the future in Colombia. Those who are concerned about Petro becoming President for being an extreme leftist cites his history in M19 and his stances on the fossil fuel and mining industries, but his proposals are very mainstream and reasonable. He has long given up on demanding that American politicians and business owners be accountable for their crimes against humanity in Colombia. The so-called new left candidates coming up in Latin America are very aware of the Global opposition to a radical leftist coming to power. They are also looking to the issues of crony capitalism and ecological destruction as immediate issues that need to be addressed.
Petro is a sign of a new form of the left in Latin America. He is not a radical. He is a nationalist and his positions prioritise the future of Colombia. He is left in the sense that he has seen the destructive aspects of capitalism, for his country and the world. He does not stand for any international alliance. He said he will work with the USA, Russia or China, provided they are willing to work against Climate Change. He understands that American governments and corporations are responsible for decades of civil war, violence to the land and people of Colombia, and support for the corruption of the Colombian government.

From the 1960s, Colombian society has seen growing armed conflict. This began when the American government, and various corporations like Coca Cola and Chiquita (formerly American Fruit Corporation), worked with the Colombian government and Right-wing paramilitary organizations to destroy leftist resistance groups in the rural areas. This escalated in the 1970s when America began cracking down on narcotics, like Cocaine and Cannabis. These crackdowns drove up the price and violence of the drug trade, leading to the development of elaborate drug cartels across the country. These cartels would work with Multinational corporations, and the government would work with the American government to crush any rebellions, leading to a very violent conflict that grew through the 1990s.

Gustavo Petro joined the 19th of April Movement, or M-19, a Guerrilla movement that came up against the corrupt elections of 19 April 1970, the first elections in Colombia after 5 years of military rule. M-19 was the second-largest guerrilla group in Colombia after the Armed Revolutionary Forces of Colombia – People’s Army (FARC).

Petro was captured in 1980 for his work in M-19. M-19 was active, but in the 1990s, they transitioned towards mainstream politics. Starting with local elections, they started shifting to mainstream politics in the 2000s.

Petro’s political positions also shifted at that time. He is still vocal about the horrendous violence wrought on Colombia by America and the various Multinational corporations, but his concerns started shifting more towards the environment and inequality. He feels that the older conflict of right and left do not make sense anymore. He has even taken stances against leftists who do not take the concerns of climate change seriously.

In terms of ideology, M-19 has followed the Latin American form of nationalism. They did not subscribe to a socialist revolution but believed that the running of the country should be open to the people of the country. Authoritarian rulers and pro-market policies are anti-national. They are pushed by cowards who serve the invading imperialist interests.
Petro began running on a platform of welfare, wealth redistribution and environment. He supports Universal Healthcare and wants to bring banking into the public sector. He is against fracking and the mining industry. He condemns deforestation and holds the American companies responsible for the loss of forest areas in Colombia.

If Petro succeeds in his Presidential bid, he might face opposition on the same level Lula faced in Brazil. Beyond his political and international opponents, the cartels are a very real threat to his life. His policies will face violent opposition in the State, from overseas and in the forests. Many of the groups against him have a lot of money invested in seeing him fail, but these policies are essential for Colombia in the long run. Many of Petro’s old enemies from the various Right-wing militias still send him and his family death threats. With the de-escalation of the conflict, the old drug cartels have been making way for right-wing cartels that are still very powerful. These new cartels are called BACRIM cartels (bandas criminales emergentes).

Petro’s work as mayor made him world-famous as someone who can see pro-people policies work for everyone. He was famous for implementing a very effective public transport system and is often quoted saying that a rich country is not one where the poor drive cars but where the rich ride the bus. The Integrated Public Transport System he developed in Bogota is world-famous and has been a model for urban-based public transport.

In 2008, Petro announced his desire to run for the 2010 Presidential elections and came in fourth. In 2014, he became the mayor of Bogota. In 2018, Petro ran a second time for President and came in second. The coming election marks his third attempt, and the situation looks very hopeful for Petro.

Author is a mathematician and political observer based in Bangalore, Karnataka.

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