By Mikael Wolfe Christian Robles-Baez
On June 19, Colombian voters elected left-wing candidate Gustavo Petro as president of their country. It was a historic breakthrough in Colombia’s political history since it first gained independence from Spain in 1819. For many years, Colombian politics seemed immune to the left-wing currents elsewhere in Latin America.
Petro’s victory is even more remarkable because the vice president–elect, Francia Márquez, will be the first Afro-Colombian woman to serve in that position. Unthinkable just a few years ago, the democratic election of a left-wing presidency means that for the first time, issues like persistent inequality and poverty, human rights, and environmental protection will be priorities for the Colombian government.
What are the prospects for success of the incoming Petro-Márquez presidency’s agenda? A brief look at the short- and long-term factors that culminated in this historic victory can help provide answers for the near future.
The Petro-Márquez victory follows the Pacto Histórico’s election to a plurality of Congressional seats in March this year. It constitutes the first time that Colombia’s diverse ethnic and racial minorities, including Afro-Colombians and Indigenous peoples, will have real representation in the presidency. It is also the first time in decades that a presidential candidate has been elected in part for his promise to raise taxes on higher incomes.
While Uribe did implement a wealth tax, he earmarked it specifically to strengthen the army and called it a “war tax.” Former presidents Juan Manuel Santos and Duque were elected after pledging not to raise taxes. In 2010, Santos even said that he would set his promise in stone. Duque’s campaign slogan was “higher wages, fewer taxes.” Petro’s inverse commitment reflects a growing popular sentiment that deep socioeconomic inequality is unacceptable and that a robust fiscal policy using higher taxes to fund social spending can reduce it.
Petro’s fiscal policy is well-designed and appears to have sufficient political support to be implemented. His other proposals will be harder to pull off. An ambitious plan to rapidly transition away from an oil-based economy depends on factors that are not fully within the government’s control, such as the large-scale deployment of new renewable energy sources. Ironically, the Colombian right claimed that Petro would import the “Venezuelan model” to Colombia, ignoring the fact that Venezuela’s economic collapse over the past decade is in no small part due to overreliance on oil production.
Petro’s proposal to base his country’s foreign relations on social and environmental justice is certainly laudable — and very unusual for a middle-income developing country like Colombia. However, it will be very difficult to put into effect. This is especially so when it comes to the key relationship with the United States, which has become heavily militarized since the advent of Plan Colombia twenty years ago.
While the Biden administration congratulated Petro for his victory and promised to cooperate with his government, it had been wary of a left-wing victory in a country that has long been a steadfast conservative ally of the United States. Moreover, the Republican Party is likely to sweep the midterm Congressional elections this November. One GOP rising star, Florida governor Ron DeSantis, has branded Petro as a “former narco-terrorist” whose victory was “very, very troubling.”
Biden may be too preoccupied with domestic affairs and the war in Ukraine to actively undermine the first democratically elected left-wing president of Latin America’s third-largest country. Yet his Republican opponents will surely pressure him to make things difficult for Petro by criticizing the new president for real and perceived failures in a way that never happened when Duque was in office. This double standard reflects a long-standing structural bias against the Latin American left in US corporate media and its system of government.
On the home front, Petro’s administration will have to confront strident right-wing opposition in Congress and the mainstream media. One of the new president’s first challenges will be to form a solid, competent presidential cabinet that can navigate Colombia’s historically violent political waters effectively. When he served as mayor of Bogotá, there was a high turnover rate among Petro’s cabinet members, which is something that he must avoid as president.
The Pacto Histórico does not have a majority in Congress, so Petro’s government will have to deftly negotiate and compromise with independent or even hostile congressmen and senators to pass his most important reforms. Recent agreements with different political parties, even from the Right, prove that Petro is well aware of the need to gather broad political support to guarantee some political stability. In addition, he will inherit a very difficult domestic and international economic situation of high inflation and fiscal deficits.
Unfortunately, even if Petro can get some of his proposals through the legislature, they have the potential to aggravate an already high inflation rate in the short term. For example, he has proposed a 50 percent increase in tariffs on imported food, textiles, and leather, which could further raise prices for consumers. Increased spending on various social programs could also have inflationary effects if those programs are not carefully budgeted and implemented.
Petro and Márquez will have to manage the very high expectations that many Colombians now have of their government after a historic election victory. Voters who expect immediate solutions to their most pressing problems can easily get frustrated and withdraw their support, as we have already seen in countries like Chile, Peru, and Honduras.
In his victory speech, Petro acknowledged this conundrum faced by left-wing politicians elected to government office who are hoping to build democratic socialism in the long term:
We will develop capitalism in Colombia, not because we worship it, but because we first must overcome premodernity in Colombia, feudalism in Colombia and the new slavery. We must overcome the past mentalities and behaviors linked to that world of slavery.
Since Colombian presidents can only serve one four-year term, Petro will be under even greater popular pressure to lay the foundations of victory for future left-wing candidates. To do so, the Petro-Márquez administration will need to mobilize popular support for their agenda while demonstrating that their government has the will and capacity to address the country’s most pressing problems — if they can prevent the far right from placing insurmountable obstacles, including violence, in the way of their solutions. (IPA Service)