Latin America Brief

A one-stop weekly digest of politics, economics, technology, and culture in Latin America. Delivered Friday.

Colombia’s Left Finds Its Footing

A leftist has never ruled Colombia. But after last week’s primaries, the country’s upcoming presidential election is Gustavo Petro’s to lose.

Osborn-Catherine-foreign-policy-columnist15
Catherine Osborn
By , the writer of Foreign Policy’s weekly Latin America Brief.
Gustavo Petro, the presidential candidate for the Colombia Humana political party, celebrates after winning the primary for the leftist Pacto Historico coalition in Bogotá on March 13.
Gustavo Petro, the presidential candidate for the Colombia Humana political party, celebrates after winning the primary for the leftist Pacto Historico coalition in Bogotá on March 13.
Gustavo Petro, the presidential candidate for the Colombia Humana political party, celebrates after winning the primary for the leftist Pacto Historico coalition in Bogotá on March 13. RAUL ARBOLEDA/AFP via Getty Images

Welcome back to Foreign Policy’s Latin America Brief.

The highlights this week: Presidential primaries and legislative elections in Colombia show a lurch to the left, El Salvador’s bitcoin experiment approaches a major test, and Peru remembers a giant of culinary journalism.

If you would like to receive Latin America Brief in your inbox every Friday, please sign up here.

Welcome back to Foreign Policy’s Latin America Brief.

The highlights this week: Presidential primaries and legislative elections in Colombia show a lurch to the left, El Salvador’s bitcoin experiment approaches a major test, and Peru remembers a giant of culinary journalism.

If you would like to receive Latin America Brief in your inbox every Friday, please sign up here.


An Outlier No More?

Unlike many of its Latin American peers, Colombia has never had a leftist president. For the past several decades, left-wing ideas were unpopular at the polls in part because of their association with leftist guerrillas who terrorized urban and rural areas alike, most notably the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). While most of Latin America experienced a “pink tide” of left-wing leaders during the 2000s, right-wing Colombian President Álvaro Uribe was carrying out a bloody military campaign against the group.

After most FARC fighters demobilized following a 2016 peace deal with Colombia’s government, former FARC members who entered formal politics did not find widespread appeal. Bitterness about their role in past violence remains to this day. But in recent years, the lingering effects of Colombia’s armed conflict ceded space in the headlines to the COVID-19 pandemic and mass protests over inequality and police violence. And now a left-wing candidate appears to have the strongest chances of reaching the presidency in Colombia’s history.

Last Sunday, three groups of Colombian political parties—on the left, center, and right—held primaries to choose one presidential candidate for each group ahead of the country’s May 29 presidential election. Voters also chose new members of both houses of Congress.

Most voters chose to cast ballots in the leftist primary, where former Bogotá Mayor and now Sen. Gustavo Petro—who was a guerrilla himself with a group called M-19 before he demobilized in 1990—was victorious with 4.49 million votes. Former Medellín Mayor Federico Gutiérrez won the right-wing primary with 2.16 million votes, and former Antioquia Gov. Sergio Fajardo won the centrist primary with more than 723,000 votes. Petro’s coalition won 16 seats in the Senate and 28 in the House of Representatives, its best-ever results—though still far short of a majority in the 108-seat and 172-seat bodies, respectively.

In another sign of voter confidence in Colombia’s left—and new, more diverse faces in national politics—Black human rights leader Francia Márquez, who has devoted most of her political career to advocacy in Colombia’s working-class countryside, rose to a second-place finish in Petro’s primary, earning more votes than the centrist winner Fajardo.

Márquez’s strong showing “inaugurated a new class of political leadership: the presence of territorial communities in national politics, of women who have directed the resistance with their own vision, language, and transformative project,” Colombian Sen. Iván Cepeda tweeted.

Meanwhile, more women were elected to Colombia’s legislature than ever before. Their share of seats in both houses of Congress combined will rise from 19.7 percent to 28.8 percent.

Petro is now virtually guaranteed to make it past the first round of Colombia’s presidential election. But his triumph in a runoff, which would occur on June 19 if no candidate wins over 50 percent of votes in the first round, is less certain. That’s in part because two popular presidential candidates skipped the primaries: centrist former Sen. Íngrid Betancourt, known for having been held hostage by the FARC between 2002 and 2008, and conservative anti-establishment businessman Rodolfo Hernández. One of Petro’s competitors could peel away votes from him in the main election if he fails to appeal to centrist voters. According to a March poll by Cifras y Conceptos, far more Colombians identify with the political center (60 percent) than the left (23 percent).

Petro has failed to attract voters in Colombia’s political center before: He advanced to the runoff of the last presidential election, in 2018, and eventually lost to conservative Iván Duque by 54 percent to 41.8 percent of votes. In the months approaching that vote, Petro’s numbers wavered up and down. But this time around, he has for months consistently polled as the most popular candidate of any political persuasion.

While Gutiérrez, the victor of the right-wing primary, has made a strong showing thus far, he could be weakened going forward due to his close association with Uribe. Once a kingmaker of the Colombian right, Uribe had a paltry 19 percent approval rating in December, and his party’s presence shrank by 5 seats in the Senate and 16 seats in the House in Sunday’s election. Though Gutiérrez ran as an independent, the candidate from Uribe’s party endorsed him after the primary, and Uribe’s party reportedly helped Gutiérrez campaign in several Colombian departments, which are similar to states.

If Petro becomes Colombia’s next president, he will have to craft broad coalitions in both houses of the legislature in order to govern, whereas a centrist or right-wing candidate would likely have an easier time building majorities. A coalition of centrist and right-wing parties currently supports Duque in the legislature, and despite Duque and Uribe’s party losing some ground in the new Congress, it remains strong.

While the ideological makeup of Congress will certainly affect the next president’s ability to govern, his or her own individual policy priorities will still be influential in shaping Colombia’s future. Here, Petro distinguishes himself from the other four candidates heading into May’s vote.

Petro has campaigned on proposing deep changes on issues including energy policy, taxes, health care, and pensions, while the rest have suggested that they would not stray nearly so far from Colombia’s economic status quo. Petro, for example, is the only candidate who has pledged to halt new oil exploration and push for a broader green jobs transition, a significant change in a country whose leading export is oil.

There are still important differences among the other candidates: Betancourt and Fajardo have joined Petro in supporting the legalization of marijuana as well as better and more complete enforcement of the 2016 peace agreement. Gutiérrez has criticized the agreement and voiced more skepticism about marijuana legalization, promising a hard-on-crime approach. Hernández says he supports conservative family values, suggesting a recent court ruling legalizing abortion in the country could face implementation challenges.

The candidates could adjust these positions as they look to attract wider backing ahead of the May election. The next clues will come via their vice presidential picks, which are due to be announced in the coming days.


Upcoming Events

Thursday, March 31: The deadline for Brazilian public officials who plan to run for office in October’s general elections to leave their current positions.

Sunday, April 3: Costa Rica holds a presidential runoff election.


What We’re Following

Chilean President Gabriel Boric holds a press conference with international press at La Moneda presidential palace in Santiago, Chile, on March 14.

Chilean President Gabriel Boric holds a press conference with international press at La Moneda presidential palace in Santiago, Chile, on March 14.MARTIN BERNETTI/AFP via Getty Images

Boric consults Brussels. In Chilean President Gabriel Boric’s first press conference with international media on Monday, he proposed that Latin American countries organize a joint quota system to receive Venezuelan migrants, similar to the system European Union countries used to respond to the Syrian refugee crisis in 2015. His government has sought guidance on such a system from the EU, he said.

Some 24,000 Venezuelans crossed into Chile over the country’s northern border in the first half of 2021, according to Chilean authorities. That’s up from 16,000 in all of 2020. Many of those who survive the desert journey go on to Chile’s coastal city of Iquique. Last September, residents there organized an anti-migrant march and set fire to migrants’ personal belongings.

BRI banks take a break. China’s two main banks that carry out its overseas development lending—often but not always under the label of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI)provided no new energy financing to countries in Latin America or anywhere else in the world in 2021, according to researchers from Boston University’s Global Development Policy Center. That’s in stark contrast to trends between 2016 and 2020, when these banks’ global energy financing far outpaced that from any other development bank, including the World Bank.

The researchers wrote that Chinese lenders appear to have grown more conservative in the wake of the pandemic and also may be recalibrating toward plans to focus on greener investments in the future. Around half of the two Chinese banks’ overseas energy lending between 2011 and 2020 went to projects in which coal, oil, and natural gas were primary energy sources, according to the researchers. Chinese President Xi Jinping announced in September 2021 that China plans to “step up” support for green and low-carbon energy in developing countries.

Mourning a culinary icon. Today, Peruvian food is world famous. The international community’s knowledge of pisco sours and ceviche is thanks in part to the work of journalist Bernardo Roca Rey, who died this week at age 77. From his perch as a food columnist for the Peruvian newspaper El Comercio in the 1980s, Roca Rey became one of the founders—and promotersof New Andean cuisine, which combined Indigenous Peruvian ingredients and flavors with techniques from cooks who had trained abroad.

Roca Rey went on to become a prominent media entrepreneur and press freedom advocate, co-found Peru’s gastronomy association, and serve as a vice minister of culture. He was also a vocal supporter of a still ongoing campaign for Peruvian cuisine to obtain UNESCO intangible heritage status.

“If Lima today has become a kind of regional ‘hub’ for conferences, symposiums, and other international forums,” he wrote in 2016, it is in part because “visitors from the whole world want to eat deliciously in Peru.”


Question of the Week

Latin American countries have begun rolling out policy responses to the economic shocks of Russia’s war in Ukraine, which come amid already high inflation in the region.

Which government signaled this week that it was weighing a tax hike on its own exports of soy products to tamp down on inflation?

Argentina is among the world’s top exporters of soybean oil and soy meal. Government planners are reportedly weighing raising taxes on exporters in order to bring in more dollars for the central government, which could then distribute new food subsidies. Industry representatives voiced opposition to such a change.


In Focus: El Salvador’s Bitcoin Gamble

Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele gestures during his speech at the closing ceremony of the Latin America Bitcoin & Blockchain Conference at Mizata Beach, El Salvador, on Nov. 20, 2021.

Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele gestures during his speech at the closing ceremony of the Latin America Bitcoin & Blockchain Conference at Mizata Beach, El Salvador, on Nov. 20, 2021. MARVIN RECINOS/AFP via Getty Images

Six months after El Salvador began accepting bitcoin as legal tender, public adoption of the cryptocurrency is spotty, and the country’s broader financial problems continue, Rest of World reported this week.

President Nayib Bukele pitched the shift as a way to make El Salvador less dependent on the international financial system, reduce fees on sending remittances to the country, and boost investment in local businesses. But in January, only 2 percent of remittances were sent to El Salvador using digital wallets, according to Salvadoran central bank data. A Salvadoran Chamber of Commerce survey conducted in January and February found 86 percent of Salvadoran businesses contacted had never conducted a sale in bitcoin.

The proposition that bitcoin can be used to free El Salvador from the traditional financial system may soon be put to its biggest test yet: The country is preparing to sell its first bitcoin bond as soon as this month. Finance Minister Alejandro Zelaya said in January that if the sale is successful, El Salvador could sell similar bonds to help it repay some $800 million in debt it is due to pay creditors in January 2023.

“If this is a failure, a lot of doors close,” Carlos Acevedo, a former Salvadoran central bank president, told the Financial Times. On Wednesday, London School of Economics researcher Frank Muci noted that there was still no legal documentation about the bond available online. It is also due to be issued by a small state-owned energy company rather than the Salvadoran central bank, a fact Muci said could make it easier for the government to walk away with the money.

Though El Salvador recovered its early pandemic GDP losses in 2021, analyst Tim Muth writes the country may have stayed afloat almost entirely due to migrant remittances, which grew by $1.6 billion that year—more than the country’s GDP growth over the two previous years. Meanwhile, this month JPMorgan Chase downgraded El Salvador’s ranking on its index of sovereign debt risk to the second worst in Latin America, behind only Venezuela.

It appears the promised bitcoin boom is yet to arrive.

Catherine Osborn is the writer of Foreign Policy’s weekly Latin America Brief. She is a print and radio journalist based in Rio de Janeiro. Twitter: @cculbertosborn

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