Is Colombia ready for a hard-left Gustavo Petro presidency?

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Gustavo Petro campaigns in Fusagasuga/Colombia Humana

To start, it might help to consider the leading candidate, Gustavo Petro’s penchant for violence. As a young M-19 guerrilla in the 1980’s (the rebel group most infamous for the 1985 storming of the Colombian Palace of Justice ), Petro’s nom-de-guerre “Aureliano,” depicted his admiration of the lonely warrior figure of Gabriel García Márquez’ One Hundred Years of Solitude. Now, a self-described “Derridaist”, after the French deconstructionist intellectual, Jacques Derrida, the candidate’s violent leanings have transmuted to political ambition.

Deconstructionism as a political concept was linked to neofascism when Trump strategist Steve Bannon expressed it as “deconstructing the administrative state”.  It’s an apt description – Petro proposes immediately deconstructing many of Colombia’s well-established and high-functioning institutions- from the national pension program, the Colombian oil industry, to redistribution of social security funds and dismantling the health system.

If Petro’s adherence to elements of the neofascist playbook, like repression of critics, his declared intention to seize control of private assets, befriending of dictators, and openly lying are any clue, Colombia is about to elect an anti-establishment president who could destroy decades of democratic and economic progress.

According to Gideon Long and Michael Stott of The Financial Times, the candidate’s radical positions could jeopardize its longstanding relationship with the US. Threats of a coup or election postponement by Petro’s supporters have the “country…on edge”.

Democracy in the world at large is in an existential battle for survival. From Victor Orban’s populism in Hungary, to Venezuelan Chavismo, disgruntled populations of previously open and democratic countries are turning to authoritarianism for stability. According to Zach Beaucamp of Vox media, this new style of dictatorship, made possible by the reactionary voting in of a charismatic popular leader has a new name: soft fascism.

The turbulent setting in Colombia today positions it perfectly for soft-fascist takeover. The gap between traditional centrism (the party of current president Ivan Duque) and anti-establishmentarianism was exacerbated by the violent 2021 protests, which killed at least 21 and wounded thousands. Much of the anti-government ire was fueled by Russian disinformation propaganda which stoked confusion and discontent, according to a recent CIA investigation.

Like the ghosts that haunt Márquez’ magical realist novel, Colombia is haunted by its own complex past, rife with drug and guerrilla warfare. Revolutionary ideologies clash in a struggle for the memory of a larger purpose, a time when Liberation Theology infused them with spiritual values, like the liberation of the oppressed. Now, in disenfranchised rural regions where newly formed drugs cartels vie for land control, indigenous populations are caught in the crossfire. It’s a battle for money, power and survival, one that despite Colombia’s sophisticated democracy and its Nobel-prize-winning 2016 peace deal – doesn’t have the economic bandwidth to solve.

Revolutionary idealism has given way to reactionary anger, setting the stage for an anti-democratic takeover.

Colombia’s lauded Foundation for Press Liberty (FLIP) emphatically called out Gustavo Petro for his reactionary rebuttal of critic David Ghitis, calling the news outlet “neoNazi”. Ghitis’ March 28 opinion article in Noticias RCN critiqued the candidate’s proposal to dismantle Colombia’s pension system. According to FLIP, “linking one’s critics to the ideology that fueled the holocaust is a clear stigmatization with hugely symbolic and political implications.”

Of the four remaining presidential hopefuls in the May 19 election, Petro is the only candidate who refuses to call out Russia’s Vladimir Putin for his war crimes in Ukraine. When asked in a recent presidential debate whether as president he would renew relations with Venezuela’s Nicolas Maduro, (accused by HRW of thousands of cases of extra-judicial killings ), Petro argued “Colombia’s border problems would be solved by renewing our friendship with Venezuela.”

For context, much of the Colombia-Venezuela border is controlled by narco-funded dissidents and ELN guerrilla allied with the Maduro regime. Recent intelligence reports suggest Russia is militarizing that border, training Venezuelan militias – “collectivos” – thus empowering Venezuela’s already complex system of institutionalized crime.

To be sure, Colombia’s robust heritage is too firmly rooted in democracy to be destroyed by one destructionist with a huge popular following. Congress could obstruct any anti-democratic measures.

But the 1991 Colombian Constitution allows for a plebiscite. And with a strong constituency – and majority mandate on either May 29 or June 19 – a referendum to change the country’s all-encompassing Constitution would be possible.

The world cannot afford to turn a blind eye as Colombia succumbs to populism.  Recently designated by U.S President Joe Biden a Major Non-NATO Ally (MNNA), Colombia’s record of democratic freedom and environmental preservation should celebrated and preserved at all costs, leaving the revolutionary phantoms to its acclaimed novelists.

Kristina is a Rotary Scholar of translation and interpretation researching disinformation and geopolitics. Based in Bogotá and Buenos Aires, she writes about Latin American affairs.

Follow her on Twitter @kristinainsf2