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'Communist' fears as Gustavo Petro elected Colombia's first leftist president

Alexandra Ciufudean June 20, 2022
gustavo petro communist
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Leftist candidate and former rebel fighter Gustavo Petro – who some fear is a communist – narrowly won Colombia’s presidential election on 19 June. His opponent, Rodolfo Hernandez, dubbed by many as the “Colombian Donald Trump”, is a millionaire and self-styled political outsider. The campaign was mainly run on social media site TikTok.

Hernandez was a popular choice among Colombian ex-pats due to his loud branding as an “anti-communist”. Some voters also feared that Gustavo Petro’s “leftist” label meant he was a communist. US Republicans are echoing a similar sentiment on Twitter after Petro’s victory.

Hernandez, who branded himself as a political outsider, made some waves throughout his short political career. According to NBC News, he once allegedly punched a councilman who disagreed with him and based his electoral campaign on a spin-off of Trump’s “drain the swamp” message. His platform was heavy on bashing elites but relatively light on policies.

In 2016, Hernandez drew international ire when he declared himself a “follower of Hitler”. Although, Hernandez later added he had meant to say (Albert) Einstein and got the two mixed up.

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Colombia elects its first leftist president: Meet Gustavo Petro

Gustavo Petro was born on 19 April 1960 in Ciénaga de Oro in the Colombian department of Cordoba. In the 1970s, his family emigrated inland, north of the capital Bogotá, to a more prosperous area.

He studied at Colegio Hermanos De La Salle. Later, he obtained a higher-education diploma from the private External University of Colombia. He also received a diploma from the Graduate School of Public Administration, the religious, elite-oriented Pontifical University and the University of Salamanca in Spain. Around age 17, he joined the rebel M-19 movement.

Petro started his political career after the rebel movement he had been part of demobilised. After which, it was recognised as a legitimate political party. In 2002, he served on the Chamber of Representatives for Bogotá. A city whose mayor he later became – from 2012 to 2014 and 2014 to 2015.

During his time as a congressman, he formed an alternative coalition, the Alternative Democratic Pole. It brought together many of the country’s leftist politicians.

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In his personal life, Petro is married to his third wife, Verónica Alcocer García, and has five children from his three different marriages. With Verónica, he shares two daughters, Sofía and Antonella, both teenagers now. The Colombian president’s tumultuous love life has been the subject of some juicy speculation from the Colombian press.

Petro’s time with rebel group M-19

During the 1980s, Petro was part of the Colombian 19th of April Movement (known as M-19), which sprung up in 1974. M-19 were in opposition to the National Front movement which split political power in the country between two dominating parties.

For those not well-versed in Colombian politics, it’s important to note that M-19 is not the same as FARC, or the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, a terrorist movement that formed during the Cold War as a peasant faction pushing for agrarianism and anti-imperialism. FARC was considered the military wing of the Colombian Communist Party.

M-19 was started following allegations of fraud in the 1970 elections. It came after a former dictator narrowly lost to a Conservative candidate. After the dictator’s defeat, M-19 claimed the election was “stolen” from him. The movement’s ethos was nationalism. But its aim was to open up democracy in Colombia after a long period of political monopoly and military dictatorship.

Climbing up the ranks

While in M-19, Petro, then a young man, became involved in its military activities and slowly climbed the ranks. In 1981, he was elected ombudsman of the Zipaquirá municipality and, from 1984 to 1986, he served as councilman for the organisation.

In 1985, Petro was arrested on charges of illegal possession of firearms and served 18 months in prison. Petro was granted amnesty after serving his sentence.

Later, when the movement became demobilised and incorporated into the country’s politics, Petro and other former members formed the M-19 Democratic Alliance. The party gained significant popularity and a number of congress seats.

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Gustavo Petro not a communist: ‘I’ve stopped looking at politics that way’

Gustavo Petro’s detractors, both in Colombia and in the US, have fretted over his “leftist” label and whether that means he’s a communist. In an interview with El País, he avoided offering a classical definition of his political ideology. Instead, he explained his aim to apply the 1991 Colombian Constitution. It is based on tenets like sovereignty, a social state, inalienable individual rights and recognising the multi-ethnic and multicultural composition of the country.

“The necessities of Colombian society are not based on building socialism, but on building democracy and peace, period,” Petro added, seeming to dispel the notion that he favours socialism.

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To many Colombians, the closest example of communism is Venezuela’s Maduro government, which many accuse of bringing the country to its knees, with unparalleled hyperinflation, poverty and crime. So, when hearing “leftist” the reaction was one of repulsion. One voter said:

“We hope that Mr. Gustavo Petro complies with what was said in his government plan, that he leads this country to greatness, which we need so much, and that (he) ends corruption, that he does not lead to communism, to socialism, to a war where they continue to kill us in Colombia. … (H)e does not lead us to another Venezuela, Cuba, Argentina, Chile.”

US Republicans spread ‘communist’ fears on Twitter after Petro victory

Following Gustavo Petro’s victory, US Republicans on Twitter made the same association, conflating “leftist” with “communist”. Many pointed to Petro’s M-19 past or a deal the previous government made with FARC in 2016 to disarm the guerrilla movement and put a stop to the violence. According to NPR, the deal might have shifted its focus from terrorist acts to voting left-wing.

However, Petro has resisted association with Latin American communist figures, such as Hugo Chávez and Fidel Castro. He has called any attempts to put them side by side as fiction. He also disavows any sympathies for Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro, saying: “I was never close to him; I always distrusted him.”

In Petro’s view, what passed for socialism and communism in Latin America was actually just the rhetoric. But with an economy sustained by oil, which, he says, cannot be socialist.

Could it be good news for the States?

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Twitter Republicans also point to Petro’s opponent, Hernandez, the 77-year-old “king of TikTok”, who loudly branded himself as “anti-communist”. According to an expert consulted by Time, the win could work in the Republicans’ favour back in the States:

“I think there will be political constituencies in the Republican Party which will try to exploit the sight of another country falling to the left as part of their efforts to demonize the Biden presidency.”

However, there doesn’t seem to be any clear basis for the “communist” fear-mongering surrounding Colombia’s new president.

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Alexandra is Head of Entertainment at The Focus, managing a growing team of outstanding graduate and experienced writers. She has worked previously as an editor, writer and content specialist across web, video and social platforms and has a bachelor's in English Linguistics and a master's in Comparative Literature.