The victory of Gustavo Petro, a former leftwing guerrilla fighter, in Colombia’s presidential election is a watershed moment in Latin America. Mr Petro will be the first leftwinger to lead the country, which is traditionally governed by rightwing, elitist parties. He won because voters, especially those in Colombia’s biggest cities, were tired of the corruption, poverty, inequality and violence – all exacerbated by Covid – that have plagued the country.
Mr Petro, who was previously Bogotá’s mayor, campaigned to expand social programmes, tax the rich and move away from an economy dependent on fossil fuels. He argued that since abandoning a coffee-based economy 30 years ago, Colombia had become too reliant on exports of oil, coal and cocaine – production of which has tripled since 2012. The first two are unsustainable because of the climate emergency, and the last is a canker lurking in trade statistics that has fuelled a deadly resurgence of armed gangs.
Human rights violations in Colombia are once again on the rise and, worryingly, Mr Petro has received death threats. The country’s next president is right to aim for a more peaceful and less unequal country. Like the writer John Bunyan, Mr Petro sees unemployment as the devil’s workshop. An economist by training, he points out that the drug trade flourished where urban industry disappeared and unprofitable farming allowed narco-trafficking groups to take over the countryside. By rebuilding agriculture and industry, Mr Petro aims to weaken Colombia’s criminal organisations and their political power.
This programme will not be easy to deliver as Mr Petro’s coalition, Historic Pact, has the support of only a quarter of lawmakers. He will have to win over like-minded politicians and ideological opponents. Until this election, no leftist candidate had managed to get a tenth of the popular vote, due to the shadow of the rural war between the Colombian state and the Farc’s Marxist guerrillas. That conflict ended in 2016, though the peace process is unfinished business. Mr Petro’s policy to implement the peace deal with the Farc that the last government abandoned has already yielded results – rebel groups still active responded positively to his call for talks.
Mr Petro’s roots are not in the feminist, indigenous and anti-racist social movements that rose in the last decade. He was not a leader of the street demonstrations and strikes that Colombia has experienced since 2019. It was Mr Petro’s running mate – Francia Márquez, an Afro-Colombian woman – who joined the protests, appealing to the young people with whom she marched. The region’s third most populous nation will now have its first black vice-president. Ms Márquez has a remarkable story: a former domestic worker who became a land rights campaigner in a country with the highest number of deaths of environmental activists.
The US has welcomed Mr Petro’s win. The Biden administration has taken a pragmatic view of relations with Venezuela. It can hardly fault Mr Petro for doing the same. Leftwingers have won elections in Peru, Chile and Mexico. Brazil could go the same way. The Center for Economic Policy and Research wrote this month that the “combination of Colombia’s sophisticated constitutionalism and checks and balances, and the reality of decades of war and terrible human rights abuses … have created an enduring paradox in urgent need of being corrected”. If Mr Petro can resolve such contradictions by democratic means, the effects will be felt far beyond the shores of his own country.