Much of Latin America has been sliding to the authoritarian left in the last two decades, but Colombia has been an exception. That status faces a stern test on Sunday when Colombians go to the polls to elect a new President. The stakes are high for the U.S., too, given the risks that the country could become another Venezuela.
The choice in Colombia is between Gustavo Petro, an ideological ally, admirer and close friend of Venezuela’s
a businessman and former mayor who vows to defeat corruption. Both are antiestablishment populists, but only Mr. Petro went to the funeral of Chávez and declared the Venezuelan to have been “a great Latin American leader.” In 2003 Colombia’s Dinero magazine described him as “one of the closest advisers of Chávez in the new model being implemented in Venezuela.”
Mr. Petro began in politics as a member of the M-19 terrorist group. In 1985 he was captured and convicted by a military tribunal for illegal weapons possession. A month after his arrest, M-19 snuck into the palace of justice and unleashed a bloody rampage. The military rescued hundreds of hostages, but some 100 people, including 11 Supreme Court magistrates, were murdered.
M-19 agreed to disarm in 1990 and the rebels received amnesty. Mr. Petro has since explained away his M-19 days as passion for true democracy. Yet his record in legal politics hardly inspires confidence.
He has been an elected congressman and senator. But he’s also an advocate of bringing mobs to the streets to achieve his goals. He has long called for a rewrite of the Colombian constitution, though he has backed off that language during this campaign. As mayor of Bogotá (2012-2015 with a brief interregnum for mismanaging city sanitation), he showed an autocratic streak, which even his supporters worried about.
The Petro agenda is a mix of leftwing economics, woke ideology and climate activism. He wants to raise taxes on the 4,000 richest Colombians, as well as seize pension assets saved in private accounts and force everyone into a state system. Petroleum is Colombia’s top export, but Mr. Petro says he’ll ban fracking and new oil exploration. He’d replace the oil industry with tourism.
Mr. Hernández is no free-market paragon, favoring subsidies and protectionism for certain industries. Like Mr. Petro, Mr. Hernández says he’d respect the agreement that Colombia made with the rebel FARC in 2016. Both candidates say they want to negotiate with the National Liberation Army (ELN) guerrillas who still practice terrorism across the country.
But Mr. Hernández has no history as an autocrat, and his criticism of Colombia’s unpopular political elites—of which Mr. Petro is a member—has struck a chord with Colombians. Mr. Hernández is close to Mr. Petro in the polls despite his age at 77, and he’s gained since the first round of voting as voters worry that Mr. Petro is a threat to Colombia’s democratic institutions, notably the courts and the electoral authority.
The pattern of the Latin American left has been to win one election, then rig institutions to remain in power. Mr. Petro still describes himself as a revolutionary, and he has said that if his progressive agenda doesn’t win, the country should expect a return to sectarian violence. That sounds like a threat and a promise, and Colombians have been warned.
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