Everything changed in Colombia at the weekend when Gustavo Petro, a senator and former guerrilla, was elected the country’s first leftist president, galvanizing millions of poor, young, struggling people desperate for someone different.
For more than two centuries, Colombia was considered a conservative stalwart in Latin America. Even as leftist governments came and went across the region, a center-right political establishment remained in control, a continuity that cemented the country’s role as a key United States ally.
Petro’s victory underlines an ongoing shift of South American politics to the left, which has seen leftist leaders secure victories in Peru last July, and in Chile and Honduras this year. Petro, 62, a former mayor of the capital, Bogota, and current senator, has pledged to fight inequality with free university education, pension reforms and high taxes on unproductive land. He won 50.5% to Hernandez’s 47.3%, The Trumpet gathered.
His victory, unthinkable just a generation ago, was the most stunning example of how the pandemic has transformed the politics of Latin America. The pandemic hit the economies of this region harder than almost anywhere else in the world, kicking 12 million people out of the middle class in a single year.
Petro’s running mate Francia Marquez, a single mother and former housekeeper, will be the country’s first Afro-Colombian woman Vice President. Petro, who described his victory as one “for God and for the people”, wrote on Twitter: “May so much suffering be cushioned by the joy that today floods the heart of the homeland”.
Colombia has been America’s most reliable ally and the largest beneficiary of USA aid in Latin America. The new government under Petro could lead to significant changes in bilateral relations, especially if Petro follows through on his proposed policies on the war on drugs and the question of Venezuela.
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The US has attempted to cut off Venezuela, run by the authoritarian regime of President Nicolás Maduro, from the world economy. Colombia has been an enthusiastic supporter of America’s policy of “maximum pressure” on Caracas.
Petro has stated that he will restore diplomatic relations with Venezuela and hold dialogue to address violence along the long border between the two countries. He has also said he would allow the restarting of trade across the border.