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

Colombia’s Fight for the Center

An anti-establishment candidate’s late surge in the country’s presidential race has transformed the election.

Catherine Osborn
By , the writer of Foreign Policy’s weekly Latin America Brief.
Colombian presidential candidate Gustavo Petro celebrates in Bogotá on May 29.
Colombian presidential candidate Gustavo Petro celebrates in Bogotá on May 29.
Colombian presidential candidate Gustavo Petro celebrates in Bogotá on May 29. YURI CORTEZ/AFP via Getty Images

Welcome back to Foreign Policy’s Latin America Brief.

Welcome back to Foreign Policy’s Latin America Brief.

The highlights this week: How anti-establishment candidate Rodolfo Hernández reshaped Colombia’s presidential race, how lax U.S. gun laws affect the rest of the hemisphere, and the Bolivian communities around the country’s lithium flats.

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Change Comes to Colombia

Colombia’s elections on Sunday had massive turnout: Voters participated in their highest numbers for a first-round presidential contest since 1974. They came to boot out the status quo. Not only did Federico Gutiérrez of the country’s powerful establishment right lose to leftist Gustavo Petro, but he was also knocked out of the runoff election by late-surging, anti-establishment businessman Rodolfo Hernández.

The 77-year-old Hernández, a self-described “King of Tik Tok,” campaigned largely on social media and until now had few detailed proposals other than a pledge to shake up politics and fight corruption. While Petro won 40.32 percent of votes, Hernández won 28.15, and Gutiérrez won 23.91.

The result reshapes Colombia’s race with just three weeks remaining until the runoff election on June 19. As Petro had been anticipating running against Gutiérrez, Petro’s narrative so far had depicted himself as the agent of the deep changes that Colombians seek. A former senator and mayor of Bogotá, Petro does represent a break from the country’s economic model, with his pledges to reduce new oil exploration and invest more in rural communities.

But as he accepted his victory on Sunday, Petro suggested that electing Hernández would be too reckless a change, saying, “There are changes that are not changes. They are suicides.”

Hernández’s chances look strong in the second round, as Gutiérrez immediately announced his endorsement. “The right would rather vote for a wet blanket before voting for Petro,” analyst Sergio Guzmán of Colombia Risk told El Mercurio.

With the right-wing vote likely to go to Hernández for this reason, the space where both candidates stand to pick up or lose votes is the country’s political center. In part, Petro’s campaign aims to “expose [Hernández] to his own voters, who don’t know him very well” due to scant details about his platform and the fact that many supporters got on board at the last minute, La Silla Vacía journalist Fernando Cruz said on the news site’s morning podcast Wednesday.

Some of the details Petro’s campaign plans to highlight are Hernández’s comments about women, such as his declarations just this past week that “people don’t like when women are involved in government” and that “the ideal would be that women dedicate themselves to raising children.” Additionally, despite Hernández’s anti-corruption mantra, he himself is under investigation for alleged nepotism related to a public contract during his period as mayor of the midsize city of Bucaramanga.

Petro’s vice presidential candidate, feminist environmental lawyer Francia Márquez, is expected to play a bigger role in the next phase of campaigning, El País reported. Like Márquez, Hernández’s vice presidential candidate Marelen Castillo is an Afro-Colombian woman, meaning the country is guaranteed to have its first Black woman vice president regardless of which man wins the presidency.

On Monday night, Hernández tweeted a 20-point list of reasons why he was different from Colombia’s unpopular right-wing establishment. Hernández announced his support for “reducing the size of the state,” inviting the National Liberation Army (ELN) rebel group to peace talks, reestablishing diplomatic relations with Venezuela, legalizing medicinal and recreational marijuana, and respecting sexual and gender diversity and women’s right to choose whether to have an abortion. In a nod to environmental groups, he said he opposed fracking and aerial fumigation of coca.

Many analysts observed that the list, which was effectively his most detailed policy platform to date, reflected the fact that Hernández knows he can count on the votes of the right and is thus seeking out those of centrist and more progressive voters.

Yet his list also signals that Colombia itself has shifted toward more progressive social attitudes in recent years, El País data analyst Jorge Galindo suggested on Twitter.

It’s too early to tell whether a Hernández presidency would be the kind of watershed moment for progressive values that Petro also promises, especially as a key force backing Hernández in the runoff will be right-wing Colombians. But it is clear that even before June 19, change has already come to the country’s political system.

Upcoming Events

Sunday, June 5: Mexico holds elections for six state governors.

Monday, June 6, to Friday, June 10: The United States hosts the Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles.

Monday, June 6: Chilean President Gabriel Boric meets with Canadian President Justin Trudeau.

What We’re Following

The oil price fallout. Calculations from Bloomberg offer a look at the mixed blessing of high oil prices on Mexico’s economy. One of Latin America’s biggest oil exporters, Mexico has a state-run oil company known as Pemex. While rising oil prices have increased the company’s profits, the Mexican government—like many others in the region—has upped its fuel subsidies to consumers in order to cushion the effect on pocketbooks.

Bloomberg Economics’ Felipe Hernández calculated that during the month of May, the Mexican government spent about $2.39 billion on gasoline and diesel subsidies, while profits from Pemex’s crude exports were an estimated $1.04 billion, meaning that on balance, the government actually lost money. Mexico’s finance ministry told Bloomberg it believed the cost estimate was too high, but it did not provide an alternative estimate.

Ancient Amazonian urbanism. During much of the 20th century, mainstream archeological opinion held that pre-European people living in the Amazon rainforest mostly lived in small, nomadic tribes. Thick jungle would have impeded the construction of cities and monumental structures like pyramids, the thinking went. By the early 2000s, some archeological discoveries led that thinking to change. But it is only more recently that researchers have begun to uncover more concrete details of large-scale urban civilizations in the region.

One such discovery was published last week in the journal Nature. Archeologist Heiko Prümers used an airborne laser mapping technique to discover ruins that had been buried by jungle in what is present-day Bolivia. They include what appear to be multiple settlements connected by causeways and a pyramid-like structure that is 65 feet high.

The ruins were part of the Casarabe culture, which developed in the area between the years 500 to 1400. Scientists are still studying why it died out. “The vast majority of the Amazon is terra incognita,” archeologist Michael Heckenberger told the Guardian.

The art of lithium. Bolivian photographer Marcelo Pérez del Carpio captured the visual poetry of the country’s lithium flats—and the communities surrounding them—in photographs published this week in the Economist. The lithium flats sit high up in the Andes Mountains, some half a mile higher than Peru’s Machu Picchu.

In an accompanying report, Sarah Esther Maslin discusses how lithium mining risks repeating a centuries-old pattern in the surrounding Potosí area in which the socioeconomic development of local communities fails to accompany an extractive boom. Potosí is the poorest part of Bolivia. When the government opened a state-owned lithium factory there in 2013, residents of nearby towns expected to soon be employed directly or indirectly in the industry, but progress at the mine has been slow, and a boom is yet to arrive.

A former local official who once opposed foreign companies’ involvement in the lithium industry said he came around to it over the years, saying that “it is arrogant to assume we can industrialize lithium from scratch ourselves.”

Question of the Week

This year’s first named hurricane in the eastern Pacific made landfall in Mexico this week. What was its name?

If the hurricane had occurred in the Atlantic Ocean, it would have been named Alex.

In Focus: The Regional Toll of U.S. Gun Laws

Forensic experts observe a gun used during an assault in Mexico City on May 6, 2019.
Forensic experts observe a gun used during an assault in Mexico City on May 6, 2019.

Forensic experts observe a gun used during an assault in Mexico City on May 6, 2019. PEDRO PARDO/AFP via Getty Images

After last month’s mass shooting at a Uvalde, Texas, elementary school, U.S. gun control advocates criticized the ease with which the shooter was able to legally obtain an AR-15-style semiautomatic rifle. Many Latin American observers took note, and not only because the victims were mostly Latino.

“The easy access to high caliber firearms in the U.S. is fueling a hemispheric homicide epidemic in places like Mexico, Jamaica, Central America,” Mexican journalist José Díaz Briseño tweeted. “It’s way past a U.S. domestic issue.”

In Mexico—which has only one legal gun store—70 percent of guns recovered at crime scenes between 2014 and 2018 originated in the United States, the U.S. Department of Justice reported. Many are illegally smuggled across the border. In destinations as far south as Brazil and Argentina, weapons assembled from U.S.-made gun kits, which are easy to order online, are increasingly appearing in the hands of criminal groups, Andrei Serbin Pont, director of the Regional Coordinator for Economic and Social Research (CRIES) think tank, told Foreign Policy in an interview. CRIES conducts open-source research on small arms and light weapons in the region together with Florida International University.

As criminal organizations’ demand for guns grows, “the U.S. offers a wonderful opportunity, because it’s not only accessible, but it’s cheap,” Serbin Pont said. Compared to the United States, permissions to legally buy and carry firearms are much stricter in Latin America’s major economies.

To varying degrees over the years, Latin American leaders have urged U.S. officials to take action to stop guns from reaching criminals farther south. As far back as 2010, then-Mexican President Felipe Calderón called on the U.S. Congress to reinstate a federal assault weapons ban that had expired in 2004, pointing out that its demise coincided with a rise in violence in Mexico.

Under current President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, Mexico has again worked to call attention to this issue. Its diplomats have made personal appeals to U.S. officials to better control illegal flows of arms, sued U.S. gunmakers for their alleged role in contributing to violence in Mexico, and successfully sponsored, together with Honduras and Paraguay, a resolution at the U.N. Commission on Narcotic Drugs that calls for international anti-drug efforts to address arms trafficking as well.

The United States, for its part, promised in October 2021 to work to reduce arms trafficking as part of its security cooperation with Mexico. The White House also announced in April that it will require background checks for the purchase of gun kits. But journalist Ioan Grillo, author of the 2021 book Blood Gun Money: How America Arms Gangs and Cartels about the flow of U.S. guns to Mexico, told Foreign Policy in an interview that he sees “a lack of real action still—of really strong action in the United States to try to stop this.”

Of course, Mexican authorities share with their U.S. counterparts the responsibility of controlling cargo that illegally moves across their borders. But Grillo says steps should be taken inside the United States, too. He argues that the United States should implement universal background checks and increase recommended sentences for “straw buyers,” people with clean criminal records who are paid to buy guns for others. Often, such buyers are only sentenced with probation; changing this “would have a huge impact on how people could acquire guns to traffic to Mexico,” he said.

For now, the flow continues at a rate Grillo calls “mind-boggling.”

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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