Ex-rebel frontrunner in Colombian vote, could shake US ties

BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) — Fabian Espinel last year helped organize concerts in the streets of Bogotá, as young people protested against police violence and government plans to increase taxes on lower income Colombians. Now, as his country heads into its presidential election Sunday, he walks the streets of the capital’s working-class sectors handing out flyers and painting murals in support of Gustavo Petro, the front-runner candidate who could become Colombia’s first leftist head of state.

“Young people in this country are stuck. We hope Petro can change that.” said Espinel, who lost his job as an event planner during the pandemic and received no compensation from his company. “We need an economic model that is different than the one that has been failing us for years.”

Colombians will pick from six candidates in a ballot being held amid a generalized feeling the country is heading in the wrong direction. The latest opinion polls suggest Petro, a former rebel, could get 40% of the votes, with a 15-point lead over his closest rival. But the senator needs 50% to avoid a runoff election in June against the second-place finisher.

Should Petro win outright Sunday or the possible runoff contest next month, the leftist anti-establishment candidate would usher in a new era of presidential politics in Colombia. The country has always been governed by conservatives or moderates while the left was sidelined due to its perceived association with the nation’s armed conflict.

“The left has been quite marginalized due to the weight of the armed conflict in Colombia, to the very recent existence of a guerrilla that claimed to be leftist like the FARC,” Yann Basset, a political analyst and professor at the Universidad del Rosario, said referring to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. “The change occurs with the peace agreement, which lifts this mortgage for the left a little and promotes a different agenda with social issues suspended by the conflict.”

His main rival through most of the campaign has been Federico Gutierrez, a former mayor of Medellin who is backed by most of Colombia’s traditional parties and is running on a pro-business, economic growth platform.

But populist real estate tycoon Rodolfo Hernández has been rising fast in polls and could challenge for the second spot in Sunday’s vote. He has few connections to political parties and says he will reduce wasteful government spending and offer rewards for Colombians who denounce corrupt officials.

Petro promises to make significant adjustments to the economy as well as change how Colombia fights drug cartels and other armed groups. His agenda largely centers on fighting inequalities that have affected the South American nation’s people for decades and became worse during the COVID-19 pandemic.

He has promised government jobs to people who can’t get work, free college tuition for young Colombians and subsidies for farmers who are struggling to grow crops, which he says he will pay for by increasing taxes on wealthy individuals and corporations.

His agenda also touches on issues that could shake up Colombia’s tight-knit relationship with the United States.

Adam Isacson, an expert on defense policy at the Washington Office on Latin America, a think tank, said if Petro wins the election “there will be more disagreement and distance” between both countries.

Petro wants to renegotiate a free trade agreement with the U.S. that has boosted imports of American products like powdered milk and corn. and instead favor local producers.

He also promises to change how Colombia fights drug cartels that produce around 90% of cocaine currently sold in the U.S. The senator often criticizes U.S. drug policy in the hemisphere, saying it “has failed” because it focuses too much on eradicating illegal crops and arresting kingpins. He wants to boost help for rural areas, to give farmers alternatives to growing coca, the plant used to make cocaine.

Isacson said coca eradication targets could become less of a priority for the Colombian government under a Petro administration, as well as the pace at which drug traffickers who are arrested are sent to the U.S. to face charges,

The election comes as Colombia’s economy struggles to recover from the pandemic and frustration grows with political elites.

A Gallup poll conducted earlier this month said 75% of Colombians believe the country is heading in the wrong direction and only 27% approve of conservative President Ivan Duque, who cannot run for re-election. A poll last year by Gallup found 60% of those questioned were finding it hard to get by on their household income.

Sergio Guzmán, a political risk analyst in Bogota, said the pandemic and the 2016 peace deal with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia rebel group have shifted voters’ priorities.

“Whereas previous elections centered around issues like how to deal with rebel groups, now the main issue is the economy,” Guzmán said. “Voters are concerned about who will tackle issues like inequality or the lack of opportunities for youth.”

If Petro or Hernández should win the presidency, they would join a group of leftist leaders and outsiders who have been taking over Latin American governments since the pandemic started in 2020.

In Chile, leftist legislator Gabriel Boric won the presidential election last year, leading a progressive coalition that promised to change the country’s constitution and make public services like energy and education more affordable.

In Peru, voters elected rural school teacher Pedro Castillo to the presidency although he had never held office. Castillo defied political parties that have been mired in bribery scandals and presidential impeachment trials and bungled the nation’s response to the coronavirus pandemic. Ecuadorians bucked the leftist trend last year, but still elected an outsider opposition candidate, Gullermo Lasso.

In regional affairs, Petro is looking to re-establish diplomatic relations with the socialist government of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro. Colombia cut diplomatic ties with Venezuela in 2019 as part of a U.S.-led effort to isolate Maduro and pressure him with sanctions into holding new elections.

Some observers think Petro could be in a position to mend bridges between Maduro and some sectors of Venezuela’s opposition.

“Solving Venezuela’s political and economic crisis is in Colombia’s interest,” said Ronal Rodríguez, a professor at Bogota’ Rosario university.

Sandra Borda, a professor of international relations at the University of Los Andes in Bogota, said Petro may not have enough leverage to make significant changes to Colombia’s foreign policy.

Efforts to renegotiate the free trade agreement with the United States could be thwarted by legislators in both countries, she said. And when it comes to security, the Colombian military will be reluctant to give up on cooperation agreements with the U.S. that include joint exercises, intelligence sharing and jobs for Colombian military instructors in U.S.-financed courses in other Latin American countries.

Borda said Petro’s ability to change Colombia’s foreign policy could hinge on whether he wins the first round outright. If he has to go to a run-off, she said, he will have to make deals with parties in the center, which might support his domestic reforms in exchange for more control over security and international relations.

“His priority will be to carry out domestic reforms aimed at reducing inequality and overcoming poverty,” Borda said. “Petro understands that if he does that he has a greater chance of consolidating his political movement.”