BOGOTÁ, Colombia — Gustavo Petro, a former left-wing guerrilla and the front-runner in Colombia’s presidential election next month, is promising to shake up Colombian society.
And to be sure, there’s a lot that needs changing. About 40% of Colombians live below the poverty line and the country has one of the world’s largest gaps between rich and poor, according to the World Bank.
“If we continue along this same path, the country will fall into the abyss,” Petro said in a recent interview with NPR. “People are disillusioned, which is why I am at the top of the polls.”
An opposition senator who is now in his third run for the presidency, Petro, 62, has spent his whole life challenging the status quo.
He grew up in Zipaquirá, a mining town just north of Bogotá, where he was dismayed by its poverty. But for decades, government repression as well as a power-sharing pact between traditional parties made it extremely difficult for leftists to break into politics.
That’s why in 1978, Petro joined the April 19 Movement, or M-19, one of several Colombian rebel groups that formed in the wake of Fidel Castro’s revolution in Cuba. His rebel nom de guerre, “Aureliano,” was inspired by a fictional military officer constantly fighting losing battles in the novel One Hundred Years of Solitude by Colombian writer Gabriel García Márquez.
The M-19 carried out kidnappings, bank robberies and a disastrous 1985 siege of the Supreme Court that led to more than 90 deaths. But initially, the M-19 cultivated a Robin Hood image by assaulting supermarket trucks and distributing stolen milk in city slums.
Petro’s main job was to stockpile stolen weapons and in 1985 was briefly imprisoned and tortured by the army. After his release, he also helped organize guerrilla cells in the cities and the impoverished countryside.
“I slept in the homes of poor farmers,” he said in the interview, speaking via Zoom. “I hiked across mountains and Indigenous reserves. I was in daily contact with poor people.”
Petro believes such close contact with average Colombians eventually made him a better politician. “I think a president should have these types of experiences,” he said.
He would soon focus on electoral politics. Disillusioned with the war, Petro took part in peace talks that paved the way for the M-19 to disarm and form a left-wing political party in 1990.
However, running for office remained risky. Carlos Pizarro, who had been the M-19’s top commander, ran for president in 1990 but was shot dead by an anti-communist gunman weeks before the vote. A month earlier, another leftist presidential candidate, Bernardo Jaramillo, was assassinated.
Petro surrounded himself with body guards and made his way into politics. He served nearly two decades in Colombia’s Congress, where he earned praise for denouncing close ties between politicians and right-wing death squads. He finished fourth in the 2010 presidential election, then was elected mayor of the capital, Bogotá, in 2011.
It was a chaotic four years in charge of the capital. Although crime and poverty fell, Petro went through nine chiefs of staff and, at one point, trash piled high in the streets during his bungled attempt to reform the city’s garbage pickup.
In 2018, Petro again ran for president, losing to conservative Iván Duque. But under President Duque, drug-related violence has increased in rural areas, a national strike shut down major cities last year, and poverty has swelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. (The Colombian Constitution bars the president from seeking a second consecutive term.)
“The government’s lack of capacity to deal with a national emergency just left a lot of people angry and upset. And I think that’s what gives Gustavo Petro a real chance,” says Sergio Guzmán, director of the consulting firm Colombia Risk Analysis.
Another factor opening the door for Petro is a more recent peace agreement, signed in 2016, that disarmed Colombia’s largest rebel group known as the FARC. As the country’s guerrilla conflicts have faded, Guzmán says, voters have become more willing to support leftist politicians who were previously viewed by some as rebels in disguise.
Should Petro win, he would become Colombia’s first-ever left-wing president.
Many of his proposals have alarmed the country’s business class.
Petro talks of raising taxes on the rich — and printing money — to pay for anti-poverty programs. To move toward a greener economy, he promises to stop all new oil exploration and to cut back on coal production, even though these are Colombia’s two top exports.
“The fiscal accounts of Colombia depend on oil. It’s as simple as that,” Alberto Bernal, a Colombian economist, said on a video panel this month sponsored by the Council of the Americas think tank in New York. “What is Colombia going to do if you can’t take oil out?”
Petro has outlined a 12-year transition period and says the country could replace the lost income from fossil fuels with a major boost to tourism, and improvements in agriculture and industry.
“I am proposing a path that is much better for Colombia,” Petro told NPR, adding that his plan adheres to guidelines from last year’s United Nations Climate Change Conference in Glasgow.
He also spoke in the interview of forging a new relationship with Washington. Petro is a strong critic of the U.S.-led war on illegal drugs in the Andean region — though he provided no specific alternatives — and he wants to renegotiate a 2006 bilateral trade deal that he claims has hurt Colombian farmers and manufacturers. He also wants more help from the U.S. to protect the Amazon rainforest, part of which lies in Colombia.
Since giving up on guerrilla warfare more than three decades ago, Petro has followed the democratic rules yet critics continue to question his commitment to liberal democracy. For example, Petro commented on the campaign trail that his first act as president would be to declare a state of economic emergency, allowing him to bypass Congress and enact laws by decree to tackle hunger and poverty.
Petro has also insulted journalists and recently called a Colombian TV commentator who questioned his plans a “neo-Nazi.”
Federico Gutiérrez, a conservative former Medellín mayor who is Petro’s main rival in the presidential race, did some name-calling of his own. In a March TV debate, he compared Petro to socialist leaders who have brought authoritarian rule and economic ruin to neighboring Venezuela.
“Petro: You are Chávez and Maduro,” Gutiérrez said, referring to the late Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez and his successor, Nicolás Maduro. He also said a Petro administration would expropriate private businesses, a claim Petro denied.
An April 21 poll gave Petro 38% of the vote — well ahead of the seven other candidates competing in the May 29 election. But that’s below the 50% plus one vote he would need to avoid a June runoff between the two top vote-getters from the first round.
Arlene Tickner, a professor of international relations at Rosario University in Bogotá, chalks up some of the criticism of Petro to a Colombian upper class that’s running scared.
“They stand to lose some of their privileges, as should be in a genuine democracy that values equality and participation,” Tickner says. “Remember that Colombia is one of most unequal countries in Latin America and in the world and it’s shameful that we have not yet had a more progressive president.”
Rather than threatening Colombia’s democracy, Petro says he would open it up to new voices. His running mate, Francia Márquez, is an Afro-Colombian human rights activist who, if elected, would make history by becoming the country’s first-ever Black vice president.
Indeed, Petro’s political movement is called the Historic Pact — which Guzmán, the consultant, calls “a brilliant bit of political communication, because: Who campaigns against history?”