Ex-rebel emerges as favorite in Colombian presidential race

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FUSAGASUGA, Colombia (AP) — Flanked by bodyguards with bulletproof shields, Gustavo Petro stood on a stage and lashed out at Colombia's political elite in a speech to the residents of Fusagasuga, a rural town where farmers are struggling.

The leftist presidential candidate spoke of the need to protect local farmers from heavily subsidized foreign competitors. In the crowded public square, supporters waving the flags of opposition parties cheered when Petro promised to oust a political class that “prefers to work with criminals.”

“What we offer is a different way to perceive Colombia,” Petro said in an hourlong address. “We want a country where the state provides fundamental rights like education and health, and can finance them because there is a productive economy.”

With an emotional anti-establishment discourse and promises to boost state involvement in the economy, Petro has garnered a comfortable lead in polls as Colombia heads into Sunday's presidential election.

The senator, who began his career in politics as a rebel, is aiming to become the first leftist president in a nation that has long been ruled by politicians with ties to wealthy families and powerful business groups. The current president — who cannot seek reelection — is Ivan Duque, a conservative from Bogota's elite.

Petro’s supporters say he will focus on reducing longstanding inequalities that have fueled decades of political violence and led to the creation of powerful drug cartels.

His critics, however, fear that Petro will upend the country’s market-friendly economy.

Politicians on the right regularly cast the senator as a populist leader in the mold of former Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, and question his commitment to democracy. It’s an accusation denied by Petro, who says he wants peaceful changes that will benefit long-neglected groups.

“If he wins, we are in for four turbulent years” said Laura Gil, a political scientist at Bogota’s Javeriana University. “He will have to prove that his leftist movement is willing to operate within the rules of democracy and control the most radical members of his coalition, while facing right-wing groups that will make every effort to block his proposals.”

Petro has been fighting against the odds for decades in his quest to transform Colombian politics.

He began his career as a community organizer for the M-19 guerrilla movement, helping a group of 400 squatter families take over a plot of land in the town of Zipaquira.

He won the housing battle, but was captured and spent two years in jail on weapons charges. He resurfaced in Colombia’s political scene in the early 90s, when his rebel organization made a peace deal with Colombia’s government and participated in drafting a new constitution.

Petro gained national recognition as a congressman in 2006, when he investigated conservative legislators with ties to paramilitary groups and revealed evidence of their crimes on nationally televised debates.

Facing numerous death threats, he’s run for Colombia’s presidency twice and served as Bogota’s mayor from 2011 to 2015, where he led efforts to reduce bus fares and wrestle the city’s trash collection system from private contractors that cost the city millions of dollars.

Though some of his ideas, like mobile health care units in poor neighborhoods, proved successful, his administration was also marked by large numbers of unexecuted projects and frequent clashes with technical advisers and members of his own cabinet.

A study financed by the central government proposing a subway in the city was ditched by Petro, who wanted to use the money for a tramway. When that became unfeasible, the mayor returned to the subway idea, but had too little time left to execute it, said Juan Carlos Florez, a historian who was then a city council member.

Petro’s third presidential run comes as Colombia is reeling from high rates of unemployment and inflation fed by the pandemic. Malnutrition has increased to levels unseen in a decade, and violence continues in some rural areas despite a 2016 peace deal with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, that was designed to end half a century of conflict that cost 220,000 lives and displaced millions.

Now smaller armed groups are fighting over drug routes, mines and other resources abandoned by the rebel group known as the FARC.

Petro has promised to resume peace talks with another guerrilla group, the National Liberation Army, that where suspended during Duque's administration and he also proposed a peace deal with the Gulf Clan drug trafficking group that would involve reduced sentences in exchange for telling the truth about their crimes and reparations for their victims.

Petro says he wants to prevent further outbreaks of rural violence by generating jobs in the countryside and ensuring farms are commercially viable. For Petro, that will start with higher import duties on food that can be produced in Colombia and having the state purchases crops from local farmers.

The senator has also proposed free college tuition for all youth and providing jobs with a basic salary to “those who can’t find work through other means.”

While these promises sound ambitious, Petro’s advisors say they are necessary.

“We do not believe that Colombia’s problem is whether it veers to the left or to the right,” said Alfonso Prada, a centrist politician who joined Petro’s campaign two months ago as a debate strategist. “What Gustavo Petro is proposing is taking a leap forward, to peace with social justice, giving people the chance to live with dignity.”

But critics have expressed doubts over how Petro will finance his programs.

The candidate, who describes himself as an environmentalist, has said that oil wells are “poisoning” the countryside and has promised to suspend oil exploration upon taking office.

He’s vowed to replace oil royalties with income from tourism and greater corporate taxes, though his critics say this is unrealistic. According to Colombia’s Central Bank, the country earned $3.1 billion from tourism in 2021, but oil exports generated almost four times as much money.

“We need a change in this country, but it can’t be a leap of faith without a parachute,” said Federico Gutierrez, a former Medellin mayor who has been Petro’s main opponent for most of the presidential race. Gutierrez has said he will protect businesses and generate employment through greater private investment.

Gutierrez and his allies often compare Petro to Chavez, who undermined the independence of his country's judiciary, nationalized hundreds of companies and designed laws to censure independent media.

Petro has responded with symbolic gestures like signing a notarized pledge that said he will not nationalize private property. He’s also backtracked on a previous proposal to draft a new constitution.

But the candidate and his team have also suggested that they will meddle with some institutions. In a recent television debate, Petro called for changes in the way the central bank’s board of directors is picked so that “productive sectors” are represented.

Analysts say there will be constraints on Petro’s power if he becomes president. “His movement will not have a majority in congress,” said Daniel García Peña, a columnist and former aide to Petro who now backs centrist candidate Sergio Fajardo.

Polls suggest that Petro is likely to fall short of the 50% mark needed to avoid a runoff with whomever places second in the field of seven candidates.

Surveys give Petro a comfortable lead against Gutierrez in a head-to-head race, but indicate the election would be very close if he has to face Rodolfo Hernandez, a 77-year-old real estate tycoon with no ties to political parties, who has promised to cut government spending and tackle corruption.

Hernandez, who is paying for his campaign with his personal funds, has said he will turn the presidential palace into a museum, and has promised rewards for citizens who denounce corrupt officials.

Florez said that the election underlines how Colombia's population has tired of the nation's establishment and is yearning for a leader who defies the status quo.

“Petro is an example of how the world is returning to the politics of passion,” Florez said. “To crusading leaders who risk it all” for their cause.