In nine weeks, Gustavo Petro could become the first leftist president in Colombia’s history—though by then, he told me, he could also be dead. In February, while he was campaigning in northwestern Colombia, a bullet pierced Petro’s armored van in what he says was an assassination attempt. It hit the window inches away from his head. This, of course, wasn’t Petro’s first brush with death. In the 1980s, paramilitary groups gunned down thousands of left-wing figures. And in 1985, as a combatant of the M-19 guerrilla group, Petro was jailed and tortured by the Colombian government. Later, while serving as a senator and then during his tenure as mayor of Bogotá, he received countless death threats.
While attacks against a left-leaning politician are nothing new in Colombia, the sheer popularity of such a progressive politician is unprecedented. Petro’s rallies draw massive crowds, and he has been consistently polling as one of the top two candidates ahead of the presidential election on May 27. His main opponent, Ivan Duque, is a pro-business, center-right politician, who was handpicked by ex-President Álvaro Uribe Vélez, a towering figure among the country’s conservatives for his staunch opposition to the peace deal signed between the Colombian government and the FARC guerrilla group.
Petro sat down with me in New York City and discussed his candidacy, the prospects for peace, and how he’d manage his relationship with President Donald Trump. This interview has been condensed, edited, and translated from Spanish.
Miguel Salazar: How do you see your chances of winning the presidency in a country as historically conservative as Colombia?
Gustavo Petro: The country is run by a small group of families that have shared power amongst themselves for at least two centuries. They have derailed, mostly through violence and fraud, any alternatives. The majority of candidates like me, who are not part of these traditional groups and who have come close to winning elections or obtaining a significant percentage of the vote, have been assassinated. If I continue to inch toward the presidency, there could be another attempt on my life.
If you look at the polls, they have been strangely inconsistent recently. The polls still suggest that progressives together would win a majority of votes. Statistically, it is possible for me to win the presidency. Now, there are always two factors that are neither statistical nor political: electoral fraud and death. But that’s the reality of Colombian politics.
MS: Colombia’s fragmented left has always struggled to come together during important elections. You’ve tried forming some sort of alliance with other progressive candidates like Sergio Fajardo and Humberto de la Calle. What are the chances of a coalition forming?
GP: I originally proposed running together under a single banner. Then I proposed creating a collective platform and running a single candidate. There was also the possibility of holding a primary election among us. All three proposals were rejected. There were some powerful people within these liberal factions, [ex-president] César Gaviria principally, that came in to prevent any of those from happening. That was a strategic error, because now de la Calle is polling at 3 percent. They held him back; they took away any real chance of him winning the election. The same happened with Fajardo. The two of us who participated in our own primaries are currently in the runoff: Duque and I.
Today, Colombia is—depending on the study—one of the most unequal countries in the world. This explains drug trafficking, our blatant democratic deficiencies, and the permanent violence in our country. Any faction that considers itself progressive would have to talk about broad social reforms of the kind I’ve proposed, like land reform, increasing government loans, and moving away from the oil and gas sectors. These liberal powers, at their base, are afraid of that.
MS: You support the government’s peace deal with the FARC, but there have been roadblocks to fully implementing it. What measures would you take as president to overcome them?
GP: There are three visions of how to approach the signed peace accords. The first is to attack the accords. Ivan Duque’s campaign fundamentally seeks to destroy the Special Jurisdiction for Peace [known as the JEP, the judicial body responsible for the transitional-justice process]. Duque’s already proposed its elimination, because by allowing individuals to avoid prison time in exchange for their confessions and stories about the war, many state officials and high-profile businessmen would end up revealing a lot about Colombia’s armed conflict, especially in answering this question: How complicit was the state in the country’s genocide? A few specific politicians are particularly responsible. One of them, in my opinion, is Álvaro Uribe Vélez, who is the politician most responsible for the expansion of paramilitarism, an instrument used for political power, for drug trafficking, and for genocide in Colombia—much more so than the guerrillas.
The second vision in Colombian politics has to do with the defense of the accords in their entirety, including the JEP. But the factions that exclusively revolve around the defense of the accords no longer have electoral strength.
There’s a third vision, which is one that I represent, that believes in respecting the peace deal, but not telling Colombian society that the deal alone is peace. Peace is not negotiating with a guerrilla group; it is a social pact. But that social contract needs reforms that would allow for a long-term coexistence. That implies fundamental reforms—reforms that have to do with education, health care, with how the Colombian people can access the conditions that would allow them to build wealth through land, water, and clean energy. For most of Colombia’s popular economy, obtaining credit means dependence on mechanisms that are tied to drug trafficking. It’s a usury system that charges 20 percent interest because private banking won’t lend to that economy and only concentrates on the five wealthiest families in the country.
MS: When speaking of Colombia’s violence, why has the country’s political discourse largely fixated on guerrilla groups?
GP: I spent six or seven years denouncing paramilitarism in Congress, and I came to a few conclusions. One was the distortion by the country’s media companies. If you examine all of the acts of violence and massacres, when they were committed by guerrillas, they had a proper name: FARC or ELN [the National Liberation Army], the guerrillas. But whenever they were committed by paramilitary groups, which they often were, we would see phrases such as “armed groups” or “unidentified groups.” So the population never really knew that the main vehicle for violence in Colombia were the paramilitaries. And even less was known about who the agents of this paramilitarism were, since, until recently, the debates were hidden from the public.
Under Uribe, the intent was to silence us. The silencing mechanism basically involved trying to confuse us with the FARC. State officials would say, “Petro is a terrorist dressed as a civilian, he belongs to the FARC.” Even today, many people believe that my politics are progressive because I am a guerrilla.
MS: Much of the world also suffers from the spread of false information. How do you combat that?
GP: We don’t have the answer to that, because it’s a phenomenon that we are currently suffering. In Colombia, it has an origin: the state. It began under Uribe and is now what we know as “fake news.” During the campaign for the peace referendum, it allowed the “no” camp to win. It was a campaign of deceit—plain and simple. The FARC obtained a mere 85,000 congressional votes—less than 1 percent of the electorate, which demonstrates that their political viability was always in question. At the same time, it dispels the lies of Uribe’s campaign, that “The FARC will take over Colombia,” which was used to scare millions of Colombians to vote against peace.
Now, could this prevent me from winning the elections? To be honest, it’s a question that I don’t have an answer to. We are simply defending ourselves through reason. I don’t see any other way to push forward our democratic political project. That’s where we are.
MS: The fight against corruption has become a hot topic in Latin America this election cycle, but we’ve seen it mishandled and used for political crusades in countries like Brazil and Peru. How can you effectively and fairly fight corruption in Colombia?
GP: I’ve participated in various anti-corruption efforts since the drafting of the 1991 Constitution. In Colombia, the Odebrecht scandal [the corruption probe into the Brazilian construction company Odebrecht that has since implicated politicians across South America] is nothing compared to the enormous sums that are extracted from the state and drug trafficking to finance politics and enrich the layer of society that already has power. The money that came out of Odebrecht, relatively speaking, is barely enough to buy us a couple of coffees. During elections alone, it’s possible to see 50 or 60 million dollars in dirty money given away in cash to buy votes.
So the anti-corruption reforms that I’d approve would have to deal with the country’s economic structure. Productive societies are ones where the source of economic surplus comes from labor, whether it is capitalist or not. Rentier societies, such as in Colombia, Venezuela, or in the Middle East, which revolve around the global price of oil, coal, or even cocaine, don’t have productive gains. Humans don’t create oil and carbon; you just build a pipe or train to extract them. They generate few jobs but fill the state with billions of dollars when prices are high, which leads to the preference of easy money over the gains of a productive society. That leads to the formation of factions, including armed groups, which chase easy money. So you end up seeing armed groups in conflict with each other, but it’s just for a slice of the pie. In Colombia, we see this with cocaine, oil, and coal. One possible solution to reduce corruption would be to transition these rentier sectors toward more productive societies based on agriculture and industry. That’s my proposal.
MS: There seem to be many issues on which you disagree with Donald Trump. What would US-Colombia relations look like if you were to win?
GP: I was more of a friend to the Obama administration. But my first initiative, if I become president, is to de-narcotize the Colombia-US agenda that has been in place for around 40 years—and has failed. That would be the first step, because my international priority is climate change. It became one of my three main priorities when I was mayor of Bogotá and that brought me friendships here and around the world. I was invited to Harvard, and I was invited to New York by ex-mayor [Michael] Bloomberg, who had also made it one of his priorities even though he leans more to the right. But that was when I began to notice something that has become a principal belief of mine. World politics are no longer divided between the left and the right. That’s the prism we used in the last century. Now politics are divided around the issue of global warming. I call it the politics of life and death. That puts me at odds with [Venezuelan President Nicolás] Maduro, of course, but also with Duque. And it also creates tension with Trump, because he wouldn’t want me to talk about climate change, but cocaine. But Colombia will talk about climate change. We’re one of the most affected countries by global warming. Our politics will change substantially.
Now, that doesn’t mean we won’t talk about drugs. I’d propose something similar to what I tried in Bogotá, where we created medical-attention centers to attend to people with addiction, not the police. The most important step we have to take, and one that we haven’t been able to take yet, is to regulate the consumption of drugs. This is an ongoing discussion around the world. Many cities have tried drug regulation and have seen results in terms of consumption and security, like in Vancouver [which, since 2016, has opened several supervised consumption sites]. I’d want to implement a similar system in Colombia, in cities that have the greatest at-risk populations.
The third element is our informal economy, which is undermined by money laundering from drug clans and predatory loan sharks, because private banking won’t lend to the people. Given that I’m not going to obligate private banking to do that, I would create and strengthen the little that we have in the way of public banking so that we can lend to millions of people that otherwise wouldn’t have access to private funds.
MS: What would your presidency mean for Latin America?
GP: There’d be a change in axis. Latin American progressivism used to revolve around the Havana-Caracas-Buenos Aires-Managua axis. That was an old progressivism, and I don’t think it gave us any solutions. It revolved around oil and coal, Havana included, since it aligned with Venezuela to get oil. It has since fallen apart, and while it was falling apart, neoliberalism got a second wind and began winning elections in Argentina, Peru, and other countries. But I don’t think that it’s lasted long yet—except in Colombia, where it always has been. Take a look at crisis in Peru, what is happening in Mexico, even in Brazil—they needed a coup to take down Lula.
You can see a new axis forming, belonging to a new progressivism: Mexico City-Bogotá-Sao Paulo, maybe Lima, depending on what happens after the crisis. That axis would be different, and part of this will depend on me, if we can achieve this in Colombia. It will be an axis that sees the transformations of Latin America toward a productive economy, and not one based the extraction of resources. We aren’t going to be primary exporters, as we have been for five centuries. We can also be an intentional society and produce on the basis of knowledge. It’s a big leap we’ll have to take, and it won’t be possible without a new kind of progressivism.