Colombia’s leftist government is not what Washington expected  

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President Gustavo Petro, US secretary of State Antony Blinken and VP Francia Márquez / Presidencia.

A recent wave of leftist presidents in Latin America generated hope in Washington, erasing fears of diminishing Western power and rising Russian and Chinese influence. Since 2018, the extreme left has prevailed in elections in Mexico, Peru, Colombia, and Brazil. They professed liberal values of equality, climate action, and peace.

The presidency of Colombia’s Gustavo Petro is a case study in the contradictions inherent to this new wave of leftists. Allied closely with neighboring Venezuela – itself a failed state and repressive dictatorship – and extremist groups that include guerrillas and former FARC, Petro’s actions thus far show that his government isn’t anything like liberal democracies of Europe. Nor does his presidency in any way resemble the liberal leadership Petro promised.

The years leading up to Petro’s election coincided internationally with the rapid spread of wokeism, an anti-colonial social justice movement originating in the US, which demanded slavery reparations and morphed into a liberal-elite institution of mass affirmative action, anchored in white guilt.

Railing against inequality, as if it were the same thing as discrimination or corruption, Petro’s team embellished his discourse to align with woke values, adjusting his language for Colombian demographics that focused on “the corrupt elite”. Thanks to a highly coordinated propaganda campaign aided by foreign entities, which continually slandered the center-right establishment, Colombians fell directly into the trap of a Latin American propaganda-despot.

It’s time for Washington to sound the alarm. Fifteen months in, it’s safe to say the Petro presidency is the exact opposite of what the U.S had hoped it would be. It represents a much more dangerous trend than an anti-incumbent liberal shift following an economically crippling pandemic. Nor does it represent any true ideology.

Through the rhetoric of democracy, Petro and his allies use vague language to obfuscate what amounts to a step-by-step dismantling of Colombia’s institutions. Steered by what former Colombian president, Iván Duque, refers to as “pobrecistas” – those whose actual intent is to make Colombians poorer – the intended effect appears to be to increase the financial solvency of Colombian crime groups harbored by Nicolas Maduro, Venezuela’s corrupt dictator.

Far from social progress, the reality will be the degeneration into poverty of millions of Colombians, alongside the slow government expropriation of public goods, while distracting the world with exaggerations and confusing post-truths.

Let’s examine a small cross-section of Petro’s performance so far.

Inequality has increased and funds have disappeared. Petro’s tax reform, one of his first legislative achievements, apart from increasing taxes on businesses and removing incentives for solar and wind energy projects, drew attention to the government’s low budget execution of the revenue increase. So what happened to the rest of the budget money?

Another contradiction is the elimination of social programs implemented by former president Iván Duque and their transformation into less effective ones. Instead of increasing subsidies to low and middle-income families, the new system actually increased barriers and has led to a substantial diminishing of beneficiaries. In Bogotá alone, some 161,740 households were suddenly left without their subsidy payment.

Petro’s highly controversial health reform makes critics nervous. Having passed the first Senate debate, it languishes with an impressive show of filibustering prowess by the opposition. Colombia’s health system, already one of the best in the world, has parallel public/private financing and insurance intermediaries, the EPS (Health Promoting Enterprises). While stalled in Congress, the Petro government has been hijacking the release of government funds pertaining to the EPS, a tug-of-war whose victims will be Colombia’s most vulnerable.

Senator Miguel Uribe Turbay of the right-wing Centro Democrático party fears Petro will steal the money. “They are going to implement the reform like a kick in the pants. Petro wants to keep the money.” Ex-president Iván Duque also expressed concern that Petro would use the tactic of withholding the 40 billion pesos set aside for EPS – as a private cash register “with which to bribe and pressure congress into passing his reform”.

And so much for Colombia’s first “environmental president”. One example of the continual bludgeoning of existing environmental projects in Colombia includes the case of the French EDF Renewables company. Elodie Sangalli spoke of the obstacles that her renewable energy project had in terms of licenses in Colombia. After winning an auction in 2021 for a massive solar and wind project in Cundinamarca, the contract issued under the Duque administration stalled under Petro’s watch, who refused to respond to their communications, issuing instead a financial punishment for its own delay.

Similarly, the Italian company Enel, whose promising solar project in La Guajira, initiated by the Duque administration, created 187 MW of installed power. Enel regretfully withdrew from the project last May citing constant delays over licensing under Petro’s government – thus abandoning a US$250 million investment.

Petro’s promises of total peace look to experts more like promises of total impunity for active terrorist groups like ELN (National Liberation Army), and to criminals who have alliances with Venezuela. Under Gustavo Petro’s watch, kidnappings have increased by 80 percent, wrote The Economist, calling peace in Colombia, “more unstable than ever”.

Latin America’s established left-wing autocrats like Maduro and Ortega are well-understood. But the new brand of leftism portrayed by Gustavo Petro and his Mexican and Brazilian analogues are more confounding. They dance the same three-step dance: obfuscate, siphon, vilify the press, repeat – but with more covert and insidious tools. Swapping censorship for obfuscation, extrajudicial killings for online disinformation and threats, they feed on polarization. Sharing common enemies (the US, healthy capitalistic systems, and democracies), they answer to Russia, who in turn, finances their disinformation campaigns.

Understanding the new left for what it is, will be the first step towards helping Colombia move past this difficult chapter in its history and that it can reclaim a sophisticated democracy that took decades perfecting.

About the author: Kristina Foltz writes on Latin American affairs and her columns have appeared on CNN, Miami Herald among others. She is a regular contributor to The City Paper. Follow her on Twitter: @kristinafoltz1