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Elephants in the Room

The Ghost of Hugo Chávez Is Haunting Colombia’s Election

Some Colombians fear that their country could go the way of Venezuela.

Colombian presidential candidate Gustavo Petro at a press conference in Bogotá on June 14. (Raul Arboleda/AFP/Getty Images)
Colombian presidential candidate Gustavo Petro at a press conference in Bogotá on June 14. (Raul Arboleda/AFP/Getty Images)

This Sunday, Colombian voters will go to the polls in one of the most important presidential elections in that country’s history. The choice is between a conservative candidate who represents tried-and-true security measures that helped the country rebound from near failed-state status in the early 2000s and an anti-establishment former guerrilla who wants to target elite privilege and inequality, even as the country struggles with an imploding Venezuela next door, implementation of a controversial peace agreement, and rising coca cultivation.

As one Colombian put it, “It’s the clearest choice Colombians have ever had. It’s the first time that the left has united to run a socialist candidate.”

That candidate is Gustavo Petro, a former member of the long-defunct M-19 guerrilla group who was deposed as mayor of Bogotá in 2014 for incompetence, and is a professed admirer of the late Venezuelan caudillo Hugo Chávez. He came in second in the election’s first round held May 27, edging out a former governor, Sergio Fajardo, a moderate, 25 to 24 percent.

That sets up this weekend’s showdown with first-round winner Iván Duque Márquez, a telegenic, 41-year-old senator and protégé of former President Álvaro Uribe, who is widely credited with leading Colombia back from the abyss in its fight with the narco-terrorist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). In the highest electoral turnout in two decades, Duque won 39 percent, below the 50 percent threshold to avoid a runoff.

But where once Colombians were brimming with optimism about the future, today they are full of uncertainty and doubt. Much like voters elsewhere — including in the United States — there is a profound dissatisfaction with politics as usual and with traditional political parties. President Juan Manuel Santos is leaving office with an approval rating in the teens and a struggling economy.

In addition to bread-and-butter issues such as corruption, unemployment, health care, and education, what is causing great angst among voters is the ongoing societal meltdown in Venezuela, its impact on Colombia, and whether President Santos’s peace agreement with the FARC is threatening to reverse the great gains made under Plan Colombia, the U.S.-Colombia strategic partnership that crippled the FARC militarily.

Presenting himself as the law-and-order candidate, Duque has hammered away at these themes. And for good reason: According to a Gallup poll, more than 40 percent of Colombians fear that their country could go the way of Venezuela. They have seen more than 1 million Venezuelans flee over the border, escaping repression and deprivation and overwhelming local infrastructure and services. They also know that Venezuela serves as a safe haven for Colombian criminal groups that wreak such havoc on their cities and towns.

On the stump, he says Colombia cannot “[fall] into the same tragedy” as Venezuela, as his supporters plaster flyers around major cities declaring, “Vote so that Colombia does not become another Venezuela.”

Try as he might, Petro cannot shake his past association with Chávez. He has tempered some of his more radical positions, such as re-writing the country’s constitution or nationalizing private enterprises, proposals straight out of the Chávez playbook. He also has tried to modify his past support for Chávez by disassociating himself from the Maduro regime, now calling it a “dictatorship.” Still, it has been an uphill battle.

Duque has also tapped into widespread popular dissatisfaction with the FARC peace agreement, specifically the provisions granting FARC leaders immunity for their crimes against the Colombian people. Duque says he will not tear up the agreement but intends to reform it to ensure “peace with justice.” Petro, for his part, has no intention to revisit the agreement.

Further negative fallout from the FARC peace agreement that affects Plan Colombia and U.S. interests is the explosion of coca cultivation (around 90 percent of cocaine in the United States comes from Colombia). As a concession to the FARC, the Santos government relaxed eradication efforts, resulting in the highest levels ever observed of coca cultivation and cocaine production in 2016, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

Duque has taken a hard line on drugs, recognizing its ineluctable links to corruption and insecurity. He says he will revive extraditions to the U.S. of drug criminals, rule out drug trafficking as a “political crime” (as under the peace deal), and restore strong eradication policies. Petro promises to abandon Colombia’s “subordination” to the U.S. on counter-narcotics policies, saying, “The militaristic approach to drugs has been ineffective.”

As the campaign enters its final days, many observers doubt that Petro will be able to make up the 14-point margin from the first round. (Latest polls show him behind Duque between 6 and 20 percentage points, depending on the pollster.) Petro’s only chance is if his anti-corruption, anti-establishment message could have competed frontally with Duque’s market-friendly, law-and-order stance. But when your biggest challenge is having to convince voters you won’t turn your country into another Venezuela that is just not a winning ticket.

Over the past decades, Colombians have paid a steep price due to the presence of illegal armed groups in their midst. They thought they had turned the corner with Plan Colombia, only to see with great frustration so much backsliding under the current administration. Look for them to make the safe choice this weekend, in the hopes that they can reclaim the stable and prosperous future that is due them.

José R. Cárdenas was acting assistant administrator for Latin America at the U.S. Agency for International Development in the George W. Bush administration.

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