Latin America hails “historic” Colombian election result 

June 21, 2022 - 17:40

Gustavo Petro's victory in Colombia’s election as the first left-wing president in the country’s history has been described as “stunning” by pundits and has been met with praise from governments across Latin America. 

The former mayor of the capital Bogota and current senator beat his rival Rodolfo Hernandez, a business mogul, with 50.47 percent of the vote in the runoff election, which was heavily focused on increasing inequality and rising costs of living.

The 62-year-old pledged profound social and economic change and has named Francia Marquez, a prize-winning defender of human and environmental rights, as vice-president, marking the first time a black woman fills the post.

Around 22.6 million people voted, about 1.2 million more than in the first round. Petro will take office in July replacing the incumbent conservative Ivan Duque and spelling an end to right-wing rulers in the country, for the next four years at least. Since 2015, the president is restricted to a single four-year term and barred from running for reelection.

The victory has also expanded a trend over the past few years that has seen many countries in the region swinging to the left with similar ideologies and policies. 

Recent elections in Bolivia, Peru, Argentina, Chile, Mexico, and Honduras have seen new governments emerge that has expanded the leftist rule in Latin America and Petro's victory has sparked a feeling of unity and togetherness amongst the new leaders.

Mexico President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador said Petro's success could heal the wounds in a country in which “political assassinations” are not uncommon. Colombia has been rocked by decades of violence and more recent years of unrest during street protests. 

Expressing his views on a social media thread, President Lopez Obrador said “the conservatives of Colombia have always been tenacious and tough” and recalled a writer who recounted that the “dictators” of Colombia “dipped their daggers in holy water before killing.”

He referenced the ten-year Colombian civil war that broke out following the 1948 assassination of leftist presidential candidate Jorge Eliecer Gaitan and triggered the ensuing six-decade-long conflict between the state and left-wing guerrillas.

"Today's triumph can be the end of this curse and the awakening for this brotherly and dignified people," Lopez Obrador said. 

Argentina’s President Alberto Fernandez wrote on social media "your victory validates democracy and ensures the path towards an integrated Latin America in this time when we demand maximum solidarity amongst brother peoples,"

The Chilean President Gabriel Boric, who was elected earlier this year to replace conservative Sebastian Pinera, labeled Petro's victory as a "joy for Latin America.”

"We will work together for the unity of our continent in the challenges of a world-changing rapidly," Pinera said.

Peru's President Pedro Castillo, who is also a teacher and trade unionist, said he was looking forward to working with an ally, despite the right-wing opposition dominating Peru's congress.

"We are united by a common feeling that seeks improved collective, social, and regional integration for our peoples,” Castillo said. 

Bolivia's Luis Arce said “Latin American integration is strengthened," as a result of Petro's unexpected victory. 

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, who has accused the former Colombian government of working with the United States to topple his government and replace it with a Washington-friendly administration said "the will of the Colombian people has been heard, it went out to defend the path to democracy and peace,"

Maduro said "I congratulate Gustavo Petro and Francia Marquez for their historic victory in the presidential elections in Colombia. The will of the Colombian people was heard, who came out to defend the path of democracy and peace. New times are in sight for this brother country"

In 2019, the Venezuelan government broke off diplomatic ties with Colombia after the now outgoing President Duque-backed attempts by Venezuelan opposition figure Juan Guaido, who claims to be the country's acting leader, to oust Maduro.

Petro has advocated for a reopening of ties with the elected Venezuelan government of President Maduro, ending the country's former policy of trying to isolate its neighbor. 

Miguel Diaz-Canel, the president of Cuba, which like Venezuela is the subject of sanctions by the U.S., spoke of his hope for "advancing the development of bilateral relations for the wellbeing of our peoples."

The United States recently angered many Latin American leaders by not inviting the heads of Nicaragua, Cuba, and Venezuela to the Summit of the Americas, leading to many leaders in the region to boycott the event or sending lower-level delegations. 

There has also been some welcoming remarks from one of the few remaining conservative leaders in Latin America: neighboring Ecuador's Guillermo Lasso, who last year beat the leftist Andres Arauz is a rare recent success for the right.

Lasso said he has spoken to Petro and "reiterated the availability of our government to strengthen friendship and cooperation, prioritizing development and the integration of our peoples."

Petro says he will try and unite the country, declaring "change consists precisely in leaving behind sectarianism… It is not a time for hate.”

During his victory speech, Petro issued a call for unity and extended an olive branch to his opponents, saying all members of the opposition will be welcomed at the presidential palace “to discuss the problems of Colombia”.

“From this government that is beginning there will never be political persecution or legal persecution, there will only be respect and dialogue,” he said, adding that he will listen to not only those who have raised arms but also to “that silent majority of peasants, Indigenous people, women, youth”.

Outgoing President Duque has congratulated Petro shortly after the results were announced, and his election rival Hernandez quickly conceded defeat.

“Today the majority of citizens have chosen the other candidate. As I said during the campaign, I accept the results of this election,” Hernández said in a video posted on social media. “I sincerely hope that this decision is beneficial for everyone.”

Analysts say the remarks by the outgoing President and Petro’s rival indicate there will be a smooth transition of power with no violence expected. 

The 62-year-old has pledged to fight inequality with free university education, wholesale land reform, a wealth tax on the largest 4,000 fortunes in the country, and the repeal of laws from two decades ago that liberalized the labor market.

His tax reform plan is aimed at raising at least $10 billion a year to help the country’s suffering economy. Petro has said he would implement this partly by imposing levies on company dividends, offshore assets, and large rural estates; but will not nationalize any private property. 

The move “would affect 4,000-5,000 people in Colombia but it would bring social justice, stimulate production and give us the source of money we need”, he told the Financial Times in a recent interview.

He has pledged to use the revenue to fund universal free higher education and a minimum wage for 1.3 million people, and to cut the government deficit, which reached 7.1 percent of gross domestic product at the end of 2021.

“We hope we can have a constructive dialogue with the new government,” said Bruce Mac Master, president of the National Business Association of Colombia. “Petro is an economist. He understands economic issues. The important thing now is that he names a really good cabinet.”

Even Colombia's last recognized guerrilla group, the National Liberation Army (ELN), said it was ready to reopen peace talks with the government after Petro was elected the country's first leftist president.

Despite the White House publicly welcoming Petro’s victory, many experts have said Washington will be deeply concerned by the election result and the regional tide to the left.

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