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Post Petro Victorious in Colombia: What Does This Mean?
Created by John Eipper on 06/22/22 4:07 AM

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Petro Victorious in Colombia: What Does This Mean? (José Ignacio Soler, Venezuela, 06/22/22 4:07 am)

On Sunday June 19th, Gustavo Petro was elected president of Colombia. It was no surprise. He won the elections in the second round, with 50.4% of the vote, against 47.3% for his opponent, a wealthy businessman. The result would not be very significant in a country convulsed by violence for many years, and with well-established democratic traditions and institutions, if it were not for the fact that Petro is a communist, a former guerrilla member of the M19 terrorist movement which transformed into a political grouping within the framework of Colombian democratic life.

Petro will be the first Colombian president of the left.  He had run twice before for president and is an experienced politician. He governed as mayor of Bogotá and his populist management was controversial to say the least. His current government program is no less populist and ambitious. It involves changing the energy model through a "productive economy," without saying how to do this. He also proposes reforming the army and "demilitarizing the country," without clarifying how to consolidate peace with the terrorist groups still active in the country. He calls for an agrarian reform to "democratize property," without specifying how it can be democratized. Add to this his promise to expand public health benefits, impose tax increases on the rich, de-privatize the pension system, end corruption (again without saying how it will be done), impose gender equality, and promote public employment to combat unemployment, without knowing where the funds for that measure will come from. What is even more threatening, he promises to reform the Colombian constitution, possibly with the intention of accommodating it to their own political interests of perpetuating themselves in power, just as other countries have done, Venezuela and Bolivia for example--with great success, in the first case.

Petro is also a supporter of the integration of Latin America, just as Chávez was at the time, although in his case it will possibly be a weak leadership because he does not have the immense oil resources that his predecessor had to promote this idea.

As in Chile and Peru, the success of Petro is surely more than ideological, due to discontent and frustration of the people with the regimes in power, as shown by recent protests and public demonstrations, and attacks against institutions. Petro's proposals are not very surprising, because they are the most representative and common of the left in Latin America in recent years--beginning with Chávez in Venezuela, and followed more recently by Boric in Chile, López Obrador in Mexico, as well as leftist governments in Bolivia, Argentina, Nicaragua, etc.

This electoral result currently represents an updated wave of recurrent political radicalism, which threatens the incipient democracies in the region. These are responses to the immaturity of democracies, their ineffectiveness in solving endemic social problems and, above all, due to the problem of corruption in their institutions and public officials, which in the case of Colombia is a serious endemic evil. According to polls, 81% of Colombians see corruption as one of the country's main problems, ahead of inequality (58%) and insecurity (57%). Only 5% have a favorable opinion of the country's political parties.

Petro will probably not be a moderate leftist president. He has a reputation for authoritarianism and has never criticized, nor will he criticize, the regimes of Cuba, Nicaragua or Venezuela, as another leftist president, Boric of Chile, has done. Nor it is yet known how relations between the United States and Colombia will turn out. The US has long been a firm ally, traditionally a collaborator and friend. What is known is that diplomatic and commercial relations will be reopened with Venezuela, being Petro an unconditional admirer of the late president of that country. In addition, the current regimes in Venezuela and Cuba have never been referred to as autocratic, let alone dictatorial, and it is assumed that these relations will be one of solidarity and friendship.

The only counterweight that can reduce the negative impact of Petro's policies, which like almost all leftist regimes is estimated to widen the fiscal deficit, reduce investment and reduce GDP growth, will on the one hand be the scant support it will have in congress, with barely 15% of representatives, and the apparent solidity and maturity of Colombia's institutions, as well as social polarization, since almost 50% of Colombians voted against the president-elect.

It is difficult to oppose Petro's promises, unless one wants to be accused of reactionary or political incorrectness. The problem with these populist and demagogic proposals (forgive the redundancy), is their lack of proven credibility, the proven failures of similar programs that frequently lead to the ruin of a country and contribute to creating privileged emerging elites and, consequently, to perpetuate poverty, social inequalities and corruption.

JE comments: Will Colombia's new leftist leader follow the Chilean model, or the Venezuelan? Time will tell. I was in Colombia during the last presidential vote (2018).  Petro was soundly defeated by Iván Duque, 54%-41%, but Petro's supporters seemed to be more vocal.

Colombia's democratic institutions are probably the most "mature" on the continent, but Petro has a difficult road ahead of him.  Foremost, how do you stamp out corruption?  It's a familiar narrative, and every new Colombian president has promised to do exactly that.  So far, not much progress.  Also, Petro will likely transform Colombia from a "lackey of the Empire" (Eugenio Battaglia's phrasing) into a more independent partner.  I doubt he will antagonize the US as Chávez et al. have done.  Washington will also be very reluctant to make a new enemy, as it has very few "lackeys" left in the region.


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