Gustavo Petro, a former rebel and longtime legislator, won Colombia’s presidential election on Sunday. Petro galvanised voters frustrated by decades of poverty and inequality under conservative leaders, with promises to expand social programmes, tax the wealthy, and move away from an economy he has called overly reliant on fossil fuels. Petro was a former member of the FARC, which is Colombia’s largest guerrilla group.
His victory will put the third largest nation in Latin America on a path that is fraught with great uncertainty. This comes at a time when Colombia is facing a number of challenges, including rising poverty and violence, which have caused a record number of Colombians to flee to the United States border; high levels of deforestation in the Colombian Amazon, which is an important buffer against climate change; and a growing distrust of key democratic institutions, which has become a trend in the region.
Mr. Petro, 62 years old, earned more than fifty percent of the vote, and as of Sunday evening, more than ninety-nine percent of the votes had been tabulated. His opponent, construction mogul Rodolfo Hernandez, who had galvanised the nation with a scorched-earth anti-corruption campaign, won slightly more than 47 percent of the vote.
When Mr. Petro entered the stage on Sunday night, he was accompanied by his choice for vice president, Francia Márquez, as well as three of his children. The delirious scene in the full stadium saw individuals standing on seats and holding their phones high in the air.
Because to this triumph, Ms. Márquez, who is an environmental activist and came from a life of poverty to become a recognised champion for social justice, will become the first Black person to serve as vice president of this nation. The win of Mr. Petro and Ms. Márquez symbolises a passion that has swept throughout Latin America that is anti-establishment in nature. This zeal has been intensified by the epidemic and other long-standing challenges, such as a lack of opportunities.
Rodrigo Chaves, a former employee with the World Bank and a political outsider, was elected president of Costa Rica in April. Chaves was able to capitalise on considerable dissatisfaction with the ruling party by winning the election. In the last year, voters in Chile, Peru, and Honduras chose socialist candidates to govern their countries, which extended a substantial change that has been occurring over the course of many years throughout Latin America.
As a candidate, Mr. Petro has electrified a generation that is the most educated in the history of Colombia, but which is simultaneously struggling with yearly inflation rates of 10%, young unemployment rates of 20%, and poverty rates of 40%. His rallies were often attended by a large number of young people, many of whom expressed the sentiment that they had been misled by decades’ worth of politicians who had made lofty promises but provided nothing in return.
The significance of Mr. Petro’s victory increases when one considers the past of the nation. The Colombian government spent decades battling a vicious leftist insurgency known as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. As a result of the struggle, it is difficult for a respectable left to thrive in the country because of the stigma associated with the war. However, in 2016, the FARC struck a peace pact with the government, laying down their guns and allowing for the possibility of a more expansive political discussion.
Mr. Petro had been a member of a separate insurgent organisation known as the M-19 prior to its demobilisation in 1990 and transformation into a political party that contributed to the revision of the nation’s constitution. After some time, Mr. Petro established himself as a powerful leader among the country’s opposition, becoming well-known for his outspoken criticism of violations of human rights and corrupt practises. However, Mr. Petro has criticised what he refers to as the “failed approach” that the United States has taken to the drug war. He claims that this approach has focused too much on the eradication of the coca crop, which is the primary ingredient in cocaine, and not enough on rural development and other measures.
Mr. Petro has stated that he supports the legalisation of drugs in some form, that he will renegotiate an existing trade deal with the United States to better benefit Colombians, and that he will restore relations with the authoritarian government of Venezuela’s president Nicolás Maduro. All of these policies have the potential to create tensions between Colombia and the United States.
In the last several years, as a result of the economic, political, and humanitarian crises in Venezuela, over two million Venezuelan refugees have migrated to Colombia. Mr. Petro’s detractors, some of whom were previously on his side, have accused him of being arrogant, claiming that it is this trait that causes him to disregard the counsel of others and make it difficult for him to reach a consensus. When he starts office in August, he will be confronted with a nation that is severely split, and where surveys indicate a rising mistrust in practically all of the key institutions.
He has made the commitment to serve as president for all Colombians, not only those Colombians who voted for him. Ingrid Forrero, who is 31 years old and lives in Bogotá, said that she saw a generational divide in her community on Sunday while voting at a high school that had been converted into a polling station. She said that younger people in her community supported Mr. Petro, while older generations favoured Mr. Hernández.
Because of her support for Mr. Petro, whom she says she likes because of his ideas on education and financial inequality, her own family refers to her as the “little rebel.”