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Explained: Who is Gustavo Petro, the former guerrilla fighter who will be Colombia’s first leftist President?

Petro's victory underlines an ongoing shift of South American politics to the left, which has seen leftist leaders secure victories in Peru last July, and in Chile and Honduras this year.

colombia, elections 2022, francia marquezColombian left-wing presidential candidate Gustavo Petro and his candidate for Vice-President Francia Marquez of the Historic Pact coalition celebrate after Petro's victory in the second round of the presidential election, in Bogota, Colombia. (File photo- REUTERS/ Representational)

Written by Jayati Tripathi

Former rebel fighter Gustavo Petro secured 50.5% of the vote in the second round of Colombia’s presidential election held on June 19, putting himself in line to become the first leftist President of the country. Petro’s victory underlines an ongoing shift of South American politics to the left, which has seen leftist leaders secure victories in Peru last July, and in Chile and Honduras this year.

Support of the ‘TikTok generation’

In April last year, Colombia saw a series of anti-establishment protests against corruption, stagnancy, increased taxation during the pandemic, and a new health care reform.

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President Iván Duque Márquez of the Democratic Centre Party was criticised for his taxation policy at a time of economic hardship, with jobs having been hit badly, and the fiscal deficit having widened. The attempt to hastily push through Bill 010, which aimed to privatise healthcare, fuelled anger. (The proposal was withdrawn after four days of massive street protests.)

A quarter of Colombia’s electorate is of age 28 or younger, and the empty promises of jobs, uncertain prospects for education, poverty and inequalities hit the younger sections of the population the hardest. Ahead of Petro’s historic victory, a poll by Invamer showed more than 68% support for him among voters aged 18-24.

Petro’s running mate and now Vice President elect Francia Márquez — the first black person in the post — is an environmental and human rights activist whose humble roots and social consciousness struck a chord with the younger generation. Prior to the election, a political analyst had predicted, “The TikTok generation that is very connected to Francia, that is very connected to Petro, is going to be decisive.”

Colombia’s history of revolutionary violence

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Decades earlier, Petro was a part of the urban guerrilla outfit known as M-19. Established in 1970, the M-19 sought to gain power through violence following claims of fraud in that year’s elections. Petro, who spent time in jail for illegal arms possession, joined the urban military group at the age of 17, and was among the many university students and artists who fought against the government.

The M-19 was demobilised in 1990 in what is considered a historic success in Colombia’s long history of conflict. The group metamorphosed into a political party, and aided in the rewriting of the constitution.

For almost a half century from 1964, a violent Marxist-Leninist insurgency led by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia — Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, or FARC in Spanish — raged in the country. The violence of groups like the FARC impacted Colombia’s relationship with leftist political ideology, and made it difficult for a legitimate political left to take shape and establish itself.

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Petro’s political career

Petro, who described his victory as one “for God and for the people”, wrote on Twitter: “May so much suffering be cushioned by the joy that today floods the heart of the homeland”.

Despite his early revolutionary actions, the President elect has spent many years in Colombia’s Parliament, having served in the lower house, the Chamber of Representatives, from 1991-94 and then from 1998-2006, before entering the Senate where he served until 2010, and then again from 2018 onward. In between, Petro was Mayor of the capital city of Bogota from 2012 to 2015.

The elections of 2022 marked Petro’s third attempt at winning the presidency. He had been defeated by Duque Márquez in 2018. This time, both presidential candidates, Petro and Rodolfo Hernández, had pegged themselves as anti-establishment fighters against the monopoly of the ruling political class.

Colombia’s relations with the US

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Colombia has been America’s most reliable ally and the largest beneficiary of US aid in Latin America. The new government under Petro could lead to significant changes in bilateral relations, especially if Petro follows through on his proposed policies on the war on drugs and the question of Venezuela.

The US has invested significantly to cease the production and export of cocaine in Colombia. Petro has been a critic of the current approach that focuses on eradicating the coca crop, and instead seeks to push developmental projects in rural Colombia and some form of drug legalisation. In addition, both presidential candidates called for a re-evaluation of trade agreements to ensure Colombia’s greater benefit.

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The US has attempted to cut off Venezuela, run by the authoritarian regime of President Nicolás Maduro, from the world economy. Colombia has been an enthusiastic supporter of America’s policy of “maximum pressure” on Caracas. But the sanctions, and the recognition by Washington of opposition leader Juan Guaidó as interim president following the disputed election of 2019, have not yielded the results the US was hoping for.

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Petro has stated that he will restore diplomatic relations with Venezuela and hold dialogue to address violence along the long border between the two countries. He has also said he would allow the restarting of trade across the border.

(Jayati Tripathi is an intern with The Indian Express)

First published on: 21-06-2022 at 04:00:30 am
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