By: Léon Valencia
I met Gustavo Petro in March 1994 by the time he had been defeated in his run to get the Colombian Parliament. He went to visit us in Flor del Monte, a county in the province of Sucre, Colombia, where the Corriente de Renovación Socialista (Stream of Socialist Renovation) , a faction of the ELN (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – National Liberation Army), was in peace talks towards signing a peace agreement with the government of Cesar Gaviria Trujillo. If I remember well, he stayed in the camp for more than a week sharing with the guerrillas and brooding over the anguish of his failure.
He looked pretty angry. He blamed Antonio Navarro’s mistakes for his loss and the decline of the M-19 movement in that electoral campaign. They had given up some revolutionary flags in the Constituent Assembly; also they have accepted being part or President Gaviria’s cabinet; and there were the consequences, he said. They had allowed themselves to be co-opted by the neoliberal government, he claimed.
Later on, I kept track of him and his steps. At first because we met frequently in the political activities of the left parties and movements and later because, as an analyst and writer, I have spent a good deal of time studying his speeches and debates as a parliament member and his achievements as major of Bogota, the capital city.
I was astonished over and over again by his persistence and his unappeasable vocation for change and revolution. Always faithful to what he had said in Flor del Monte, the need to challenge the establishment, to radically transform the Colombian economy and society. Always in the messianic illusion of saving the country from para-militarism and mafias, from the centuries-old political class, from dependence on extractive industries and from poverty and inequity.
With those convictions and ideas, he is about to win the presidency of Colombia. I never thought he would go that far. Colombian society went through the twentieth century and settled in the twenty-first without showing signs of wanting deep changes. Conservative and cunning elites have always found ways to avert away from risks and remain in power. At the beginning of the century, society and the elites embraced Álvaro Uribe Vélez who offered them security to face, on one hand the advance of the guerrillas and on the other hand the rise of non-violent left wing parties. Petro, for his part, as a lone wolf, went from one alliance to another, from one campaign to another, without finding a firm hold for his project.
But some powerful events catapulted his leadership and softened his flaws, which are not few. The peace agreement signed with the most powerful guerrilla and under this process the national political elites were divided; the opinion vote began to grow in the big cities and the left won key mayoralties; The pandemic arrived with its trail of death, uncertainty and hunger; the social explosion took place and brought seven million to the streets; another wave of leftist governments reached the shores of Latin America; and uribismo plummeted under the burden of the judicial inquiries, the seriousness of the 6,402 extrajudicial executions of unarmed people and the outrages of the terrible government of Iván Duque.
Gustavo Petro has led the polls from the beginning of the campaign with an advantage. Hence, the inter-party consultations and the first round have become competitions to choose a rival who has a chance of defeating Petro. Until a few days ago, Federico Gutiérrez, supported by the Liberal, Conservative, Centro Democrático (Democratic Centre, President Alvaro Uribe’s party) , Partido Radical, Partido de la U, Mira and 45 political clans, appeared as someone who would go to the second round to compete with the candidate from the left. But for two months it had been stuck at twenty points or a little more; On the other hand, Rodolfo Hernández, the outsider of the contest, left Sergio Fajardo behind and began to grow and got the ticket for the second round by displacing Gutiérrez.
Petro failed to win in the first round. But in the second, he has high chances of doing so thanks to the advantage he has at this stage. In any case, the arrival of Rodolfo Hernández has complicated his life at the end of this contest. We will see if Petro's tenacity and the desire for change in large sectors of the Colombian society manage to push the political pendulum to the left for the first time in our republican history.
*León Valencia Agudelo is a Colombian political analyst, with expertise on Colombian armed conflict. Director of Fundación Paz y Reconciliación. Opinion columnist in the Colombian magazines Semana, Diners and Credencial, and in the newspapers El Tiempo and El Colombiano. He published political books such as: 'Goodbye to politics, welcome to war' (2002) and 'Miseries of war, hope of peace'. He recently presented the second edition of the book 'My years of war', which recounts his experiences as an ELN’s guerrilla fighter.