February 1, 2023

Who is Gustavo Petro? Profile of the elected president of Colombia

Read Time:9 Minute, 11 Second

(CNN Spanish) — The left-wing candidate Gustavo Petro won the elections in Colombia by obtaining more than 11 million votes in the second presidential round held on June 19, according to the results of the Registry. He will take office this Sunday.

Born in 1960 in Ciénaga de Oro, Córdoba, in northern Colombia, Petro ran for the presidency for the third time as the official candidate of the left. He has the challenge of leaving behind the image of his opponents as a leader of recalcitrant ideas and attitudes, and of trying to unite the progressive sectors to govern the country.

During his campaign, Gustavo Petro carried the burden of having been a member of a guerrilla group that led to one of the worst tragedies in the country’s history, the seizure of the Palace of Justice (despite not having participated directly), but at the same time of being one of the most important political leaders in the recent history of Colombia.

Petro defines himself as a leader of “progressive” left in a highly traditional and right-wing country. He proposes making the economy “revolve around life”, betting on natural wealth and environmental protection, as well as “deepen democracy”, and make an economic structure “based on production and not on extraction” , as he said in an interview with CNN in July 2021.

“It is not possible to have a Latin America – call it left or right – that lives from extracting gas, oil or copper. The only possibility of sustainable development in Latin America is knowledge, it is production”, told CNN in July 2021.

Gustavo Petro, left-wing candidate, achieves a high vote in Colombia 4:32

In the 2022 campaign, the left-wing leader approached unthinkable sectors for his previous campaigns, such as the evangelical pastor Alfredo Saade, who participated in the consultation of the Historical Pact.

Two traditional politicians, who at the beginning of the century were followers of Álvaro Uribe and later Juan Manuel Santos, were two of Petro’s greatest bishops in this new campaign: Armando Benedetti (current senator, elected in 2020 by the Partido de la U) and Roy Barreras, formerly a senator for the Partido de la U and now a senator elected by the Historical Pact in 2022.

The image of Gustavo Petro in Colombia

Petro represents one of the antagonistic political extremes of former President Álvaro Uribe Vélez, a polarization that many say they are tired of, according to current surveys when there was a willingness to vote blank for the second round in 2018. And the strength that its millions of voters give it has a counterweight in sectors that prefer to vote for the right because they see in Petro a threat to the status quo.

“Colombia is a very conservative country where somehow there is a collective idea that a big change is a leap into the abyss,” Jorge Andrés Hernández, a Bogotá-based political analyst and author of the podcast Política y Tabú, told CNN weeks earlier. of the second round elections.

Petro’s opponents have called him populist Y authoritarian. During the 2018 political campaign, members of the Democratic Center party (of outgoing President Iván Duque) said that, under his eventual government, Colombia would suffer the same fate as Venezuela. The most radical sectors of the right have characterized his image as a communist, although he defines himself as a progressive leftist. And in addition to the fact that he represents change not only by talking about possible social and economic reforms, there is also a whole series of conspiracies around him, according to the analysts consulted.

Two candidates for the Democratic Center party for Congress are campaigning on “stopping Petro.” Neither Edward Rodríguez nor Daniel Orozco achieved enough votes to be elected to Congress. (Credit: DANIEL MUNOZ/AFP via Getty Images)

According to Jorge Andrés Hernández, there is a whole thread of very strong propaganda against Petro promoted by more conservative and traditional sectors such as the evangelical churches that say that Petro “is going to bring homosexuality, he is going to bring communism, he is going to bring Satan”, something that they are pure “conspiracy theories of fear of change,” Hernández explained.

And Petro, like his nemesis, former President Uribe, is a politician of love and hate.

“He generates mixed visceral passions: there are people who idolize him to death, who adore him, and there are people who hate him with all their heart,” added the analyst.

The now president-elect has not been free of controversy within his own movement, in particular with the feminist sector that has criticized him for not sanctioning macho behavior within his ranks and for criticizing the feminist movement, when he assured in the Spain’s El País newspaper that this movement “has remained with the old traditional left in the intellectual sphere of the big city, without links with the population”. However, Peter said later that “feminism is the future, the country and the path to change”. After her victory, Petro has promised a joint government, although she has not escaped criticism from feminists who want to be an active part of her government.

Petro’s political career

Politics has been transversal to Gustavo Petro. At 62 years old, he has taken a step through public life that has led him to be a representative and councilor of Zipaquirá, a guerrilla, a representative to the Chamber, an attaché of the Colombian embassy in Belgium, mayor of Bogotá and a senator from Colombia for two terms. He now reached the pinnacle of his political career when he was elected president of Colombia.

Petro is methodical when speaking. Stoic, slow, theoretical. There are those who describe him as proud, self-sufficient, conceited, and his political enemies have compared him to the presidents of Venezuela, Hugo Chávez and Nicolás Maduro, and even they have designated him as an atheist (even though he has said he believes in God) to keep him away from voters in a country mostly catholic.

Petro is still stigmatized by his political rivals for his time in the M-19 guerrilla, an urban guerrilla of socialist origin, which he joined in his youth. The M-19 gave many blows of opinion such as the theft of the weapons of the Army of the North Canton (1978), a military fortress, through a tunnel, and in a “symbolic” act, recalls Petro”, the M-19 he stole Bolivar’s sword.

“Whose sword was it?” Petro recalls. “The sword was neither more nor less than the people. And it was really kidnapped”, he said in an interview with journalist Carolina Sanín on the television program Mesa Capital. On the day of the signing of the peace agreement with the M-19 in 1990, the guerrilla group returned Bolívar’s sword.

Reelection, uribismo and scandals: what do Petro, Fico and Hernández say? 4:35

But that group, the M-19, was the same one that took over the Palace of Justice on November 6, 1985 in downtown Bogotá. For two days, the insurgents held 350 hostages, including magistrates, judicial employees and visitors.

After the military operation to retake control of the building, 98 people died and 11 more were declared missing. But Petro has argued that he did not participate in this takeover, since he was detained by the Army.

“When the events of the violent takeover of the Palace of Justice happened and the even greater, much more violent retaking of the State of the Palace of Justice, I was being tortured in an Army cavalry in the city of Bogotá. I was a boy at that time and I ended up in jail after the torture”, Petro told CNN earlier.

After demobilizing from the M-19, Petro was an adviser to the Government of Cundinamarca and a representative to the Chamber in the 1990s. For security reasons he had to go into exile and was appointed a diplomat by the Samper government in 1994 and had an unsuccessful attempt to to be mayor of Bogotá in 1997. Later, he managed to be elected representative to the House in 2002. In 2006 passed to the Senate for the Alternative Democratic Pole party.

The mayor of Bogotá and the resurgence of Petro

Thousands of demonstrators protested against the dismissal of Bogotá Mayor Gustavo Petro in December 2010 in Bogotá’s Plaza de Bolívar. (Credit: GUILLERMO LEGARIA/AFP via Getty Images)

After years in the Senate, Petro continues to be recognized as one of the congressmen most prominent in the country after uncovering atrocious scandals such as ‘parapolitics’ (infiltration of paramilitaries in politics) and the so-called false positives (extrajudicial killings by the Army), in 2011 he won the elections for mayor of Bogotá.

After a disciplinary investigation for handling a crisis related to the city’s garbage collection system, he was dismissed by the Attorney General’s Office for 15 years to hold public office in 2013.

“Basically I move between or that they dismiss me or that they revoke me or that they put me in jail. Total is that there is no message in the sense that I can govern”, Petro told CNN en Español back then.

But what could be read as a “political death” gave Petro a popular boost that left well-remembered images, with the mayor defending himself in a public square and a crowd filling the Plaza de Bolívar in downtown Bogotá.

“That was something we hadn’t seen for decades in Colombia,” said analyst Jorge Andrés Hernández. “And I think that he began to configure the image of this politician as one persecuted by the establishment, as one persecuted by the (traditional) political class and in this case also in the State.”

Hernández points out that the international legal victory before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, which ordered his reinstatement as mayor of Bogotá in 2014, allowed him to catapult himself as the leftist leader that he has built until today.

A change of tone between 2018 and 2022

Petro was the second most voted candidate in 2018 against Iván Duque, in a highly polarized campaign in which many chose not to align themselves with either of the two candidates who represented the extremes. Many others, afraid of “being like Venezuela” as the Democratic Center campaign said, voted against Petro, supporting Duque, the current president of Colombia.

However, in this campaign, Petro showed a more moderate tone, criticized by many in his ranks, for uniting with traditional politicians who run the so-called political machines.

And that is due, according to Hernández, to the attempt Petro made to call more sectors and achieve a consensus in the face of a possible second round, in which he emerged victorious this Sunday.

Now, facing his government, Petro has called for a National Agreement in which he has invited all parties, regardless of the political spectrum, to reach prior consensus to make in-depth reforms.

This content was published on March 14 and updated on June 19.

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