In 1980, the M-19 guerrilla movement stormed a diplomatic reception in Bogotá and kidnapped US envoy Diego Asencio, holding him and several other ambassadors hostage for two months before flying them to Cuba and releasing them. It was one of a number of audacious stunts pulled by the guerrillas in a crusade against the Colombian establishment and the “Yankee imperialists” they claimed were propping it up.
Small wonder that four decades on, the US government is one of many actors viewing the May 29 presidential election in Colombia, its closest ally in South America, with trepidation.
Part of the reason is that Gustavo Petro — who is on track to win according to recent polls — is a former member of the M-19. Petro was not involved in the kidnap of the US ambassador — he was a 19-year-old new recruit at the time — but some of his ideas still reflect his youthful radicalism.
He has vowed not only to upend the country’s investor-friendly economic model but also to rethink key tenets of Washington’s most important strategic alliance in South America, such as the “war on drugs”, a free trade deal and a US-led push to unseat the revolutionary socialist government in next-door Venezuela.
Petro and his vice-presidential candidate, Francia Márquez, a social activist who is a rare black candidate for high office, both say they have received death threats. Amid pledges by their supporters to take to the streets if the left is denied victory and even rumours of a possible military coup or an election postponement, the country is on edge.
“Never before have Colombians been this open to giving the far left an opportunity to govern,” says Sergio Guzmán, director of Colombia Risk Analysis. “The left has been working towards this moment for decades. This is their clearest opportunity.”
The latest voting intentions poll compiled by Guzmán’s consultancy shows Petro leading with 35 per cent after a steady rise during the campaign, while his main challenger, centre-right former Medellín mayor Federico Gutiérrez, is stuck on 23 per cent. A “third way” populist, Rodolfo Hernández, has 16 per cent and no other candidate approaches double digits.
If the former guerrilla wins, Washington’s warm relations with Bogotá, which date back decades and include $10bn of military assistance since 2000, could be jeopardised. Five years ago, Colombia became the first country in Latin America to be granted “global partner” status by Nato, and in March US President Joe Biden designated Colombia a major non-Nato ally, giving it extra defence and security benefits.
Throughout the cold war, when Latin America was a key US-Soviet battleground, Colombia remained firmly pro-American, despite homegrown Marxist insurgencies. The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc) and the National Liberation Army (ELN) — groups that sprang up in the Colombian countryside in the 1960s — vowed to overthrow the state by force. Their aim, like the M-19 in the 1980s, was to break open a closed political system in which power alternated between two traditional parties drawn from the same elite, the Liberals and Conservatives.
That system ensured political and economic stability despite the country’s 50-year civil conflict and widely publicised drug-related violence, but it also kept the left from power and excluded the country’s indigenous and black populations, as well as the poor. Unusually in the region, Colombia has never had a socialist government.
“The political system didn’t understand dialogue, so we used force,” says Jhon Jairo, a former guerrilla, recalling why he joined the Farc at the age of 18 after witnessing hunger and poverty in Cali, his native city. “I could not bear seeing someone waiting at the gate of the hospital begging to be seen, only to be ignored.”
Despite relatively strong economic growth figures over the past two decades, Colombia is one of the most unequal countries in Latin America, a continent notorious for inequality. More than half the population works outside the formal economy and access to good quality higher education or healthcare is limited.
Investors, meanwhile, loved Colombia’s economic stability, anchored by a conservative central bank and fiscally prudent governments, which avoided the debt binges and defaults common elsewhere in Latin America. It became one of the most favoured investment destinations in Latin America along with Chile and Peru. Multinationals poured billions of dollars into oil, coal, utility projects and toll roads, despite the long conflict with the Farc, which effectively ended with a peace deal in 2016.
Iván Duque, the current president, personifies that investor-friendly stance. With a masters degree from Georgetown university, he worked for 12 years at the Inter-American Development Bank in Washington.
“Colombians are hungry, perhaps even desperate, for a change that has long been promised to them but that hasn’t come,” Guzmán says. “It didn’t come with Duque’s election even though he promised it would. So, there’s a feeling of being fed up, of wanting change, come what may.”
A hunger for change
Among the catalysts for Petro’s rise to the verge of presidential power were the protests that swept the country between 2019 and 2021, when tens of thousands took to the streets to demand a fairer society. He was among the leaders of the protests, and experts say his long record as a social activist and bold policies make him the presidential candidate best placed to capitalise on the hunger for change.
At the Paloquemao fresh food market in Bogotá, soaring food prices are the latest blow to those on lower incomes. Papas criollas, the small yellow potatoes used in local staple dishes, have doubled in price this year to 6,000 pesos ($1.50) a kilo. “I’m voting Petro,” says José Antonio Gómez, who sells fruit and vegetables. “The last few presidents have done nothing for rural areas, nothing for the poor and nothing about inequality. Petro has some good policies for the poor.”
Petro has evolved considerably from the student militant of the 1980s who led a shortlived invasion of church land in his home town of Zipaquirá and was later captured and convicted by a military tribunal of illegal weapons possession. He says in his memoirs that he was tortured by the army after his arrest. Now a bespectacled 62-year-old economist, he is a seasoned politician — a former congressman and ex-mayor of the capital Bogotá. He has twice served as senator and this is his third bid for the presidency.
Like the now-defunct M-19, he has long since renounced the armed struggle and when he lost the last presidential election in 2018, he acknowledged defeat swiftly. Now, he believes his time has come.
“The other candidates are proposing to maintain the status quo,” Petro says. “But a majority of society wants change . . . because it is sick of violence and of a lack of democracy. It is sick of the lack of opportunities in this economic system. And it sees in me the option for change.”
His close colleague, fellow senator Iván Cepeda, says Petro’s ideas transcend traditional left-right boundaries. “He has been inspired by many sources . . . he has a solid Marxist foundation but has also read a lot of French post-structuralism and other political traditions. He is also a serious economist . . . who has read thinkers like Naomi Klein and is in dialogue with [French economist Thomas] Piketty”.
Taxes, drugs and ties with Venezuela
Petro’s proposals involve bold steps such as free higher education, guaranteed state jobs for the unemployed, ending new oil and gas exploration in a country where hydrocarbons make up half of all exports and fiscal reform — more than just tax rises, he says — worth more than 5 percentage points of gross domestic product to pay for better public health and welfare. He vows to make companies pay 70 per cent of their profits in dividends, bolster state pensions and reform the independent central bank.
His foreign policy is no less radical. He wants to renegotiate Colombia’s free trade agreement with Washington. He favours legalising the drug trade — although he says this is out of Colombia’s hands and will depend on consumer nations — and would restore diplomatic ties with Venezuela, where the US does not recognise President Nicolás Maduro and maintains a Venezuela embassy in exile in Bogotá.
The decade-old trade agreement has seen Colombia’s non-oil-and-mining exports to the US grow 53 per cent. But Petro argues that the trade pact has crippled Colombia’s agricultural sector and forced farmers to turn to coca production to make ends meet. “The free trade agreement signed with the United States handed rural Colombia to the drug traffickers,” he says. “Agricultural production cannot be increased if we do not renegotiate the FTA.”
The US, says one senior American official, “will not renegotiate the trade deal, it’s not going to happen”.
Petro lambasts Washington’s “war on drugs”, saying Colombia’s soaring cocaine output is proof of policy failure. Despite the billions that successive US governments have poured into the fight against trafficking, the country is producing an estimated four times more cocaine than in the early 1990s when Pablo Escobar was at the height of his infamy. “We are making an enormous mistake which can be measured in tens of thousands of lives,” Petro says of the decades-long US drive.
Another potential source of friction is Venezuela. Bogotá and Caracas broke off diplomatic relations in 2019 when then president Donald Trump, with the support of his Colombian counterpart, Duque, tried to force President Maduro from power by recognising Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó as the legitimate president. Trump’s policy failed and Petro is among many who feel it is now time to restore diplomatic ties with Caracas.
Colombia’s business community and landowners are alarmed by Petro’s economic proposals, though as the election draws nearer and his victory looks more likely, fewer are willing to speak out.
In one public intervention, José Félix Lafaurie, executive president of the Colombian cattle ranchers association Fedegán, sent an open letter to members saying some of Petro’s agricultural policies “would bankrupt thousands of ranching families throughout the country” and telling them: “Ranchers cannot allow these threats to become a reality.”
Bruce Mac Master, president of the National Business Association of Colombia, says Petro’s controversial spell as mayor of Bogotá from 2012 to 2015 still weighs on some minds. It ended when he was removed from his post after an attempt to return rubbish collection to the public sector went wrong, leading to piles of refuse in the streets. He was later reinstated by a court.
“It didn’t go well for Petro during his mayorship of Bogotá and that generates certain doubts,” Mac Master says. “The question is whether he would be capable of putting together a government that was a bit more serious than the one he had as mayor of Bogotá.”
Racing toward a run-off
Banco de la República, the Colombian central bank, says it has seen evidence of capital flight from the country in the run-up to the election but claims the amounts are “not macroeconomically important”. It did not give detailed numbers.
The boldness of Petro’s ideas has excited many of Colombia’s youth, especially those from marginalised groups. “Petro has been demonised by the Colombian right, which has been in power for so many years, not just for his militant past but for his systematic exposure of corruption,” says Vanessa Vivero Martínez, an economist from the coffee-growing region of Caldas. “But for me, his proposals are totally liberal and democratic, just like what you would hear in Europe from any social democrat.”
Petro has moderated his tone during the campaign. He recently made a very public legally binding pledge not to expropriate private assets and has insisted that he has no intention of staying on once his single four-year term is up — Colombia’s constitution bans re-election.
He would also be constrained by a highly fragmented congress, where his coalition, the Historic Pact, is the biggest group but has only 18 per cent of the seats in the Senate and 15 per cent in the lower house.
“Petro might say his policies are A, B and C but that doesn’t mean he can deliver on them,” says Luis Fernando Mejía, director of economic think-tank Fedesarrollo. Mejía says that in a worst-case scenario, Petro would preside over “a highly conflictive government that doesn’t get anything done” rather than a government that dismantles Colombia’s institutions.
He still has to get elected and faces a challenge from six other candidates, although they are well behind in the polls. His margin of victory next week is unlikely to be enough to avoid a second round run-off in June — though projections show he is likely to beat Gutiérrez easily in such a contest.
He also needs to make it alive to election day — not a given in a country where four presidential candidates have been assassinated since the 1980s. Security in his campaign has been tightened after the death threats and his appearances are often changed or cancelled at the last minute.
Petro’s only serious political rival appears to be Gutiérrez, the former mayor of Medellín, who has emerged as the main “stop Petro” candidate. The 47-year-old has a down-to-earth, approachable charm and stresses his centrist credentials but has struggled to persuade voters that he represents a change.
If Petro wins in Colombia and if, as recent polls suggest, former Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva pulls off what would be a momentous comeback victory in October, the seven most populous nations in Latin America — Brazil, Mexico, Colombia, Argentina, Peru, Venezuela and Chile — will all be under leftwing rule.
In Colombia, it would mean the most radical government in the country’s modern history. Yet for some, even with the risks that implies, a Petro victory could be preferable to continuing with the status quo.
“We are sleeping on top of a volcano,” says Alejandro Gaviria, former rector of the Universidad de Los Andes in Bogotá who stood as a progressive candidate for the presidency but lost in a primary. “There is a lot of dissatisfaction. It could be better to have a controlled explosion with Petro than to bottle up the volcano. The country is demanding change.”