Petro’s social media raises questions about leadership and democracy

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Protest by members of Colombia's armed forces in Bogotá's Plaza de Bolívar. Photo: Emel Rojas/Twitter

On May 10 some 3,000 ex-military – including commanders and generals who were given early retirement – marched in protest of Colombia’s leftist president, Gustavo Petro, and his reform initiatives.

Among their most vocal complaints was the deepening division between the military and the branches of democratic government. Last September, Petro unilaterally removed 70 military officers and commanders, leaving its 200,000-strong military with new leadership amid increasing narco-terrorist violence.

The statement by an ex-military spokesman during a La W radio interview that a military “coup” to remove Petro is one option for Colombia, further raised the specter of political instability in the country. The off-the-cuff statement, however, was quickly rectified by the commentator after receiving fierce criticism from even Petro’s most fierce opponents.

Even the hardline, conservative former President, Álvaro Uribe Vélez, who has far-reaching support from the military, offered his interpretation of the interview: “Harmful to talk about a coup d’état when Colombia has had the Armed Forces that are most respectful of democracy. Harmful that by political agreements, Congress is ready for a coup to the health system.”

Considering the traditionally patriotic ethos within Colombia’s military, the upheaval raises serious questions about Gustavo Petro’s presidency and supports a theory held by many Colombians that the gravest threat to democracy won’t arise from within the rank-and-file, but from the President’s barrage of divisive and often contradictory social media narratives.

A recent article in The Economist titled “Latin America’s left-wing experiment is a warning to the world” described Colombia’s Petro as showing “worrying signs of authoritarianism” and ranked among the most “extreme” leaders of the 12 of 19 countries run by left-wing governments. A far cry from Petro’s progressive-sounding campaign promises that appealed to political consensus.

The nine months of a new administration now draws parallels between the leftist President and former U.S President Donald Trump in how social media is widening the political divide. While many of Petro’s social and environmental protection measures remain in sync with those of his predecessor, Iván Duque (from ending reliance on fossil fuels to bolstering existing welfare programs for the most disenfranchised and indigenous populations), the narrative from Casa de Nariño has become more focused on discrediting those who oppose government reforms, including former presidents and presidential hopefuls, among them, Germán Vargas Lleras.

The May 10 protest was quickly disqualified by Petro’s social media hacks as “a paltry assembly” of disgruntled ex-military personnel, paramilitary supporters and, of course, Urbistas. His statement on Twitter signaled one media outlet – Caracol TV – for its coverage of the 16,000-strong protest. “Look at this media (Caracol) trying to divide the Armed Forces from the government. I am the constitutional commander of the armed forces. There is no conflict between the active military and national government”.

The accusation by a “constitutional commander” that a traditional media outlet was covering a news event to cause institutional “division” received strong condemnation from the Foundation of Press Freedom (FLIP). “The president of Colombia, Gustavo Petro, “attacks” the press on his social networks, where he is very active, and “opens the door to criminalization” of the media,” reads the statement.

And the number of untruths Petro has Tweeted regarding the state of the nation’s health system, the country’s private/public pension schemes, and soon-to-be-presented labor reform, recalls Donald Trump’s some 30,000 “post-truths” documented by the Washington Post during his presidency. These alternative facts have the potential to erode even the strongest democracies.

According to Sergei Guriev and Daniel Treisman in their book “Spin Dictators” the manipulation of narratives is the playbook of 21st Century autocrats. In a Foreign Affairs review, G. John Ikenberry explains their take on the modern modus operandi. “They wrap their regimes in the symbols and rhetoric of democracy while using the powers of the state to incrementally weaken and silence opposition”.

Petro appears to be following that playbook. His misrepresentation of his pension reform plan has been thoroughly documented by the media outlet Semana. In reality, his plan would expropriate the existing public/private pension funds into the slow machine of state bureaucracy and presidential control, which he calls “democratization”.  Such a transfer of capital is concerning to economists and raises implications for democracy.

The facts Petro told the Colombian public about the existing public/private pension system were also completely false.  One example – that the existing private system didn’t produce any real pensions, when in reality the private pension system grows by 20% each year, and does produce consistent pensions for Colombian workers.  Or that the pension funds were being financed by corrupt banks that were taking 30% commissions, off the top  – a flat-out lie, as explained in the news magazine.

During a recent RCN “Day in the Life of the President” newscast, Petro admitted that a recent Tweet in which announced the rescue of four indigenous youngsters hadn’t been written by him, and had to be eliminated given that the information was false. Meanwhile, the search continues for the children who survived a plane crash in the Amazon.

If Colombia’s democracy is one of the strongest in Latin America it may ultimately withstand assaults on its institutions, the opposition, and the media. But in a “post-truth” reality, and one increasingly powered by AI, Petro’s disruptive use of social media threatens to delegitimize the independence of the Executive from the legislative or Judiciary.

“His use of Twitter is leaving his cabinet without work,” affirms Senator for Cambio Radical party, David Luna, and one of many voices within Congress increasingly frustrated by a government addicted to communication offensives. Communication strategies far too often at the expense of the President’s accountability, a nation’s credibility, and as recently proven, vulnerable populations the “Government of Change” promised to protect.

About the author: Kristina was a Rotary Scholar living in Bogotá. She writes on Colombian current affairs.