Colombia’s Petro wants to lead Latin America’s Left. Will anyone follow?

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Colombia's Gustavo Petro attends the VII Summit of CELAC in Buenos Aires. Photo: Nelson Cárdenas/Presidencia.
Colombia's Gustavo Petro attends the VII Summit of CELAC in Buenos Aires. Photo: Nelson Cárdenas/Presidencia.

Colombia’s Gustavo Petro spared no words to shift the blame of a recent collapse of 500 meters of the Pan American Highway on a previous administration, one responsible for “building roads on tectonic plates.” What Mr. Petro may not be aware of, is that the entire world is essentially one shifting, fractured, unpredictable plate. Under President Petro’s reasoning, no highway crossing the Dolomites, Grand Canyon, or Thames River valley could withstand a seismic bump. What is clear, however, is that Petro’s blame game now transcends geographical boundaries.

From his jet-setting climate change agenda in exclusive Davos, to a lackluster hotel conference room in Buenos Aires, Argentina, where he was joined by his Latin American cohorts, Colombia’s first leftist leader called for “zero carbon capitalism,” an economic model for all to follow. Brazil’s Luis Inacio “Lula” da Silva looked on in dismay, navigating in his mind invisible ideological rifts from those who profess to be the spokesmen of Latin American integration.

During a meeting of the heads of state of CELAC ( VII Summit of Latin American and Caribbean countries), the Latin American Left was riddled with niceties and anachronic narratives. Peru’s President Dina Boluarte had just issued a formal letter of protest against the Colombian leader, stating in no uncertain terms “not to meddle in the internal affairs of Peru.” Petro shunned the contents of the letter, stating that “nobody can keep me quiet on my opinions when human rights are being violated under the Inter-American Charter.” The latest riff-raff with Peru follows Petro’s near breaking diplomatic relations with Guatemala over an investigation into a corruption case involving Colombia’s Minister of Defense Iván Velásquez and Brazilian construction giant Odebrecht.

Petro’s remarks stem from the same leader who justified mass mobilizations against the government of President Iván Duque (responsible for building roads on tectonic plates). The 2021 National Strike across Colombia stunted the country’s economy and legitimized vandalism as “social protest”. With roads barricaded to impede the movement of essential food and medical missions – resulting in the deaths of several infants – Colombia’s leftist leader does not have seismic-resistant footing when it comes to condemning human rights abuses at home, or in someone else’s backyard.

On the same day Colombia’s opposition parties, and civic movements announced a nationwide strike – February 14 – Petro has determined that on that day, pro-government supporters should turn out to support reforms that haven’t even been presented – or explained – to Colombians. Instead of accepting legitimate political opposition and the right of citizens to protest peacefully – which many on the political right have proven to do so – Petro’s urgency to rally his bases on the same day as Colombians are marching against widespread reforms could incite violence.

Petro’s need for constant affirmation, controlled by a “Twitter finger” (as a JP Morgan report cites), threatens the stability of a nation that has accepted his legitimate victory at the ballot, even though half of the electorate did not vote for him. Petro’s decision to mobilize on the same day in which two polarized groups of the population will meet on the streets is a far cry from the “consensus” and “governance for all” speech he gave at his inauguration.

Petro’s call on Latin America’s leftist leaders to halt oil and gas explorations did not resonate with Lula, nor the Mexican delegation. These oil-rich economies are hardly going to cut back on production at a time in which many Western economies are scrambling to boost reserves, especially at a momentous time when Germany and US are committed to sending tanks to Ukraine to push back the Russian lines. The arrival of state-of-the-art tanks for Zelensky anticipates a major offensive toward Crimea, and it is anyone’s guess, how a cornered Putin will respond.

As Latin America’s “progressives” look to Petro with tight-lipped skepticism, among the regional “objectives,” on the table is the creation of a single economic “unit” – or common currency – spearheaded by Argentina’s Alberto Hernández. Argentina faced 95% inflation in 2022, the highest in three years. As Latin America’s left celebrates a pink tide, they may not be in the same mood when their central bank reserves start dwindling. And Petro appears to be on a spending spree that could accelerate the country towards fiscal default – in US dollars.

Petro’s misreading of geology could be forgiven if he assumed responsibility for backing the indigenous roadblocks that shut down for months the Pan American highway during Paro Nacional. Blockades that impeded vulnerable indigenous populations from reaching medical centers or markets to sell agricultural products. The blockades also contributed to an overriding sense of chaos, and despair, in one of Colombia’s most important industrial cities – Cali.

The question is where was Petro in condemning besieged cities by so-called First Line defenders, the torching of police infrastructure, kidnappings of members of the Army, and mass rioting? Where was Petro in condemning the social protests, from Chile to Ecuador, as the deadly third wave of the coronavirus pandemic swept across the region?

As an economist with a seasoned trajectory in public administration, Petro is the construct of a social media dystopia, and now, the Latin American anti-corruption standard-bearer. In Buenos Aires, he regretted that the ousted President of Peru, Pedro Castillo, could not be sitting “at this table”, despite the fact, that Castillo attempted to dissolve his country’s Congress to avoid an impeachment trial for corruption.

Petro’s altruistic vision of a “united Latin America” overshadows the tectonic gaffes from his Minister of Mines, Irene Vélez, who, shortly after assuming the portfolio, announced it was time to end Colombia’s dependency on “carbohydrates”. What Vélez meant to say were “hydrocarbons.” Spoken by a psychologist with one of the key portfolios in Petro’s inner circle, Vélez is now embroiled in another meltdown after she compiled half-baked truths and manufactured data for a report to justify the end of new oil and gas contracts. Vélez’s “balance sheet” essentially claims Colombia won’t run on empty when it comes to oil reserves until 2037. Hence, no need for further drilling.

Her report was presented to Congressional lawmakers during a Motion of Censure and worked its way into her presentation at Davos. Her subsequent declarations at the Swiss ski resort were followed by unrest in financial markets. But this tale of half-fact and half-fiction does not appear to shake Petro’s unwavering trust in a public official.

It was Finance Minister José Antonio Ocampo who put an end to the pantomine, quickly assuring international investors that Colombia’s transition to renewable energies will be gradual. Paraguay’s Mario Abdo Benítez, and Uruguay’s Luis Lacalle Pou, also gave erudite interventions at CELAC warning their “pink tide” counterparts that such an important meeting cannot be used as their “ideological club”.

Petro’s pushing the human rights envelope with Peru, and not that of Colombia (despite 215 social activists killed in 2022), was followed by an unnerving statement in which he claimed that the US administration of President Joe Biden requested that his administration should hand over Russian armaments in the country as a donation to Ukraine. Petro confirmed on Twitter that he dismissed the request, stating: “Even if the weapons are used a scrap, we will not hand over these weapons to continue a war.” The Russian Embassy issued a statement praising Petro’s “very realistic” decision.

The Colombian President’s pro-Putin stance, and lack of condemnation of the war in Ukraine, shows a clear intent to draw Colombia closer to a regime denounced internationally for war crimes.

What Colombia needs seven months into a new government is a cap on political philandering, fake narratives, and Ill-informed facts. Petro’s call for mobilizations on the very same day as millions are expected to rally against key reforms, including one to the nation’s health system, is dangerous and worrisome. Petro is not content leading Colombia’s left. He wants to lead the Latin American left. But who will follow?  Maduro, of course. And a fleet of social media trolls, hacks, and “influencers” on the government payroll.