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Colombia’s First Leftist President Will Face Hurdle of Conservative Congress

The new administration will encounter challenges in passing legislation, as leftists lack a congressional majority.

Colombia made history Sunday as voters elected former guerrilla member Gustavo Petro as the country’s first leftist president and environmental activist Francia Márquez Mina as the country’s first Black vice president. The pair, gaining over 50% of the vote, defeated right-wing real estate millionaire Rodolfo Hernández but will now face a major challenge to pass legislation in the conservative Congress, where they lack a majority. “The hurdle has been overcome by winning the election, but the main hurdle, the establishment, cannot be changed by the government; it has to be changed from the people, by the people,” says Manuel Rozental, Colombian physician, activist and grassroots organizer. We also speak with Colombia-based journalist Simone Bruno, who says Petro’s election could transform the politics and economy of Latin America.


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Today we spend the show in Colombia. We begin the program right there in Colombia, where an historic vote took place on Sunday. Gustavo Petro was elected Colombia’s first leftist president. His running mate, the Afro-Colombian environmentalist Francia Márquez Mina, also made history by being elected Colombia’s first Black vice president. Thousands of their supporters took to the streets in celebration in the capital Bogotá and across Colombia.

PETRO SUPPORTER: [translated] For 200 years we have been governed by the same people, but today begins the transition to a government of change that will benefit all Colombians.

AMY GOODMAN: Gustavo Petro is a former M-19 guerrilla, a former senator and the former mayor of Bogotá. He has vowed to fight worsening poverty and inequality in Colombia by raising taxes on the rich, expanding social programs, as well as access to education and healthcare. He has called on Colombia to halt new oil extraction and to move away from an economy long dependent on fossil fuel. Petro has also said his government plans to restore relations with Venezuela and renegotiate a trade deal with the United States to better benefit Colombians.

Petro won over 50% of the vote in a runoff, defeating right-wing real estate millionaire Rodolfo Hernández, who received about 47% of the vote. Petro addressed his supporters Sunday night.

PRESIDENTELECT GUSTAVO PETRO: [translated] We will develop capitalism in Colombia, not because we worship it, but because we first have to overcome premodernity in Colombia, feudalism in Colombia and the new slavery. We must overcome the past mentalities and behaviors linked to that world of slavery.

AMY GOODMAN: At his side was Petro’s vice president-elect, Francia Márquez Mina, a prominent land and water defender who was born in a small village in the southwestern Cauca region, where she led resistance against illegal gold mining despite ongoing death threats. She won the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize in 2018, is also a lawyer and a former housekeeper. On Sunday, Francia Márquez Mina took to the stage to thank supporters.

VICE PRESIDENTELECT FRANCIA MÁRQUEZ MINA: [translated] Brothers and sisters, we have made an important step forward. After 214 years, we will have a government that represents the people.

AMY GOODMAN: For more, we go to Colombia, where we’re joined by two guests. In Bogotá, the capital of Colombia, Simone Bruno is an Italian video journalist, has been there for years. And in the Cauca region, we’re joined by Manuel Rozental, a Colombian physician, longtime grassroots activist, who’s been exiled several times for his political activities, is part of the organization Pueblos en Camino, or People on the Path.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Let’s begin with Manuel. If you can talk about the significance of this election with Petro as president and with Márquez, Francia Márquez, as vice president-elect from the region where you are, in Cauca?

DR. MANUEL ROZENTAL: Good morning, Amy, and everybody. Good morning, Simone.

First, I’d like to convey to everybody the feeling of joy, overwhelming emotion and joy that we’ve all felt and that we felt on Sunday. Our fear was that the election was going to be stolen. There was every indication for that. There was repression by the armed forces. Everything was against Petro, in spite of the fact that we knew if there was no fraud or not enough fraud, he would win. So the feeling is of enormous relief, huge relief. And there’s a party in this country. For the first time, an election can be won by the people, in spite of the machinery.

At the same time, the same magnitude of that joy is the magnitude of our concern so that it doesn’t become a disillusion. Those two feelings are joined together, so the party, our party, is, once again, a celebration of freedom and a concern that we need to organize and mobilize to make change possible.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And I wanted to ask you, Manuel, in terms of the — the victory of Gustavo Petro is clearly a major advance in Latin America. However, there’s still a problem that his ambitious program may be stalled to some degree by the fact that his coalition does not have a majority in the Colombian Congress. What do you foresee now in terms of the battles between the conservative forces in the Congress contending or opposing his program?

DR. MANUEL ROZENTAL: Juan, your question is exactly on the spot. Yes, the big concern is — let’s put it broadly, even further, even beyond Congress — the establishment in Colombia runs for corruption, for mafias, for transnational corporate interests and for an army that supports all this and gains a lot of profit and benefit from this. So, there is a new government that has to rule on within this structure. The structure has not changed, the powers have not changed, and they have to rule there.

So, President-elect Petro has promised three things: He has promised social justice, he has promised environmental justice, and he has promised peace. To promise that and to achieve that within an establishment that is as rotten as the Colombian establishment is really to promise what we all want, but it is to promise too much. That cannot be achieved by a government, from a government. And you must remember that Gustavo Petro and Francia Márquez reached the presidency after and because of a massive popular uprising against that establishment, of which he becomes the government now.

So, now he doesn’t have a majority in government. I’ll just give you an idea. He has 20 members of Senate on his side. He needs 54 to pass any initiative. He can achieve 40 or 44 with alliances. So he would have to ally himself with the far right to achieve anything. Add to that that all of the control institutions, the attorney general, every one of those, have been left by the mafia, run by Uribe, Duque and all the narco and transnational corporate and Army assassins. All of that has been left in place for the next couple of years, and they’re enemies of this government and of the Colombian people.

So the concern is exactly that. He promised, and so did Francia, what we want, but the fact is he cannot achieve it. He can’t achieve it quickly, so he will have to compromise with those that have led us into this disaster. So the hurdle has been overcome by winning the election, but the main hurdle, the establishment, cannot be changed from the government; it has to be changed from the people, by the people. And government is key to it, but it cannot achieve its promises without peoples organized with an agenda. Do we know this? That’s my question.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And I also wanted to ask you about the candidate he defeated, Rodolfo Hernández, who also was supposedly an anti-establishment campaign but a right-wing populist, campaigning against corruption. But in the week before the election, a video surfaced from a Colombian magazine, and it got a lot of views, hundreds of thousands of views on YouTube, of Rodolfo Hernández being on a yacht in Miami last October, a yacht — he and his sons, a yacht that was financed by Pfizer, by lobbyists for the Pfizer drug company. I’m wondering: Did you think that had any impact on some people who were wavering between Gustavo Petro and Rodolfo Hernández in the vote?

DR. MANUEL ROZENTAL: It may have. But what it really did was expose the fact that Rodolfo Hernández was really the candidate of transnational and national corporate interests. What was discovered was that the yacht — in the yacht were corporate representatives of Pfizer, the transnational pharmaceutical corporation, and that this happened in October 2019. But when Daniel Coronell, the journalist, from that journal, Cambio, investigated and checked with Pfizer to see who had funded this yacht on this holiday, without providing dates, their response, surprisingly, was that a week before, Pfizer representatives and high officials had met with Rodolfo Hernández. So, a lot of information has been gathered up for the fact that Rodolfo Hernández was in fact the candidate of the wealthiest corporate interests in Colombia and the continent, while lying, stating that he was against this. In fact, he had promised, if he was elected, to declare a state of exception or internal commotion, and that state of exception would allow him to run the country and that he would create a sort of parallel cabinet run exclusively by corporate interests. So, what we had here was Petro and Francia Márquez or a dictatorship of corporate interests in the country. So I think that played.

But I’ll tell you, Juan, what really played out and what the right didn’t calculate. The right obtained 10-and-a-half million votes, which is more or less the same as Duque obtained four years ago to beat Petro, who had a 8-and-a-half million votes four years ago. But Petro this time had 11-and-a-half million votes. And we know where they came from. They came from women, and they came from youth in this country. The image that we’ll never forget here was Indigenous peoples from the jungles of the Pacific coast in Colombia coming on the rivers in canoes, two days traveling, to place their vote. So, what happened here was we said, “Enough,” the same “enough” that we said in the popular uprising in 2021. That spirit is what allowed Petro to win. The right thought, was convinced it was going to win. They are shocked to see that 2-and-a-half million people appeared from nowhere, according to their calculations, to say, “Enough.” So that’s the story.

AMY GOODMAN: What was also interesting and may surprise a U.S. audience is that Hernández conceded defeat immediately, unlike in the United States.

But I wanted to go to Bogotá, the capital, and go back a few years to 2018, anti-government protesters leading multiple national strikes in Colombia, denouncing the government of the right-wing president, Iván Duque, at one point bringing hundreds of thousands of people into the streets for the largest national strike Colombia had seen in decades. Police responded violently, killing several protesters, including 18-year-old student Dilan Cruz, who was shot in the head by a police projectile. Well, on Sunday, after Gustavo Petro and Márquez declared victory in Colombia’s historic presidential election, Dilan Cruz’s mother, Jenny Alejandra Medina, joined President-elect Petro and Márquez on the stage calling for justice in her son’s killing.

JENNY ALEJANDRA MEDINA: [translated] Good night to all. On behalf of my son Dilan, who was one more victim of this country, on behalf of all the victims, of the “false positives” — Nicolás Neira, Yuri Neira, Diego Felipe Becerra — and on behalf of all those victims of the government and previous ones, I raise my voice on behalf of my son to demand justice. And I welcome you, President, because we all have our hopes in you, in justice. You are the hope of us, the poor, the needy. You are the hope of the Black, the white, the rich, the poor. You are the hope. Welcome to Colombia, to our country, President.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s Dilan Cruz’s mother, Jenny Alejandra Medina, in an unprecedented show of support, standing next to the president-elect, as well as the vice president-elect. Simone Bruno, you were in Bogotá. Can you talk about the significance of this and the issue of state violence that Francia Márquez, as well as Petro, must take on immediately?

SIMONE BRUNO: Sure. Thanks for the invitation, and it’s an honor to be here with Manuel, that I know since almost 20 years.

Yeah, that was one of the most important and moving moments on the night of Sunday, when Gustavo Petro won the election. It is the first time ever that somebody like the mother of one of the youth killed during a protest in Colombia — and this happened quite a lot, because — that was a protest happening in 2019. Then there was the pandemic closedown, and the protests came back in 2021, where other 40 kids have been killed — at least 40 — by police and ESMAD anti-motíns groups. So, it was the first time that a mother had the chance to talk to an audience, to talk to a president, to look in the eyes an elected president and ask for justice for her son.

So, as you were saying at the beginning, this is a very historical moment as a leftist won the election in Colombia with the highest number of votes in the history of a presidential election, more than 11 millions vote, as Manuel was saying before. But it is not the first time that a leftist would have won the election in Colombia. Everything started in 1948, when the populist candidate Gaitán was killed. And at that time, populism was a historical populism, a Perón-style populism. So he was killed, and the violence that we’re still living here in Colombia today began that day in 1948. But back in 1990, three presidential candidates, leftists, were killed: Galán, Jaramillo and Pizarro. And so, the importance of the election of Petro is not the first time — for the first time the left would have won the election in Colombia, but that for the first time they didn’t kill a leftist candidate, so he won the election.

What his program means if Petro and Francia Márquez will be able to implement it, it will really mean a change, an historical change, in the country. Petro is a social democrat. He wants to transform Colombia in a social democrat way. He wants the healthcare to become public. He wants the public education to improve. And he wants the richest Colombians, the 4,000 richest Colombians, to pay taxes as the rest of the country does. And he wants the richest companies in the country to also pay taxes, which is not happening at this point.

And he will use that money to do two things. As Petro is not — is quite conservative in fiscal matters, so what he will like to do is pay part of the social reforms with those money, but also reduce the deficit, the fiscal deficit in the country. That’s what the same thing we saw when he was mayor of city of Bogotá. He implemented a lot of social reforms in the city, but at the same time he reduced the debt of the city, and he had an improve in the rating — the rich company improved the rating of the city of Bogotá during that time.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Simone —

SIMONE BRUNO: And he — sure.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Simone, I wanted to ask you — in terms of the importance of this election throughout Latin America, we’ve seen now a second pink tide developing across the region, following the first one that started in the 1990s. We’ve had Xiomara Castro in Honduras, Pedro Castillo in Peru, Gabriel Boric in Chile, Luis Arce in Bolivia and now this historic election in Colombia. How do you see this affecting the politics of the region vis-à-vis the United States?

SIMONE BRUNO: Well, this is an historical moment, even because Lula could come back to the presidency in Brazil, which is key, of course, to change the politics and the policies of the whole region, because of the importance of Brazil in South America. But as you said, this is the second wave in 20 years of the leftist government coming in power in Latin America, and possibly they’ll learn from the good things that have been done by Evo Morales, the good things that have been done by Rafael Correa, for example, or the same Lula in Brazil, and probably they’ll also learn from the mistakes, like, of course, [inaudible] Venezuela had a lot of problems during the past 20 years.

So, what might happen and what should really happen is that Latin America, or at least South America, to begin with, will try to unify the markets in a similar way to what happened in the European Union. This has been tried for decades in Latin America. This scheme of integration has been going on for decades, and they never succeed, because, in general, they have been politicized. Just think to the latest two: The CAN and the Mercosur have always been considered a right-wing market and a left-wing market. Well, what could happen and what should happen, if the region really wants to improve the economies, is that they should close to the external markets, especially United States. And they should try to develop internal markets inside South America and trying to produce goods. One of the main arguments of Petro related to Venezuela is that they need to reopen the border, they need to reestablish the connection and the relation. For example, Venezuela was the second market of goods coming from Colombia ’til the era of Álvaro Uribe, and that was accounting up to $6 billion per year. And that market was shut down because of the ideology during President Uribe era. So, probably what might happen now is that finally the South American countries and maybe the Latin American countries, including Mexico, ruled Manuel López Obrador, or Central America, that is changing, as well, they will decide to unify and close the markets and decide to grow together.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we want to thank you for being with us, Simone Bruno, video journalist in Bogotá, the capital of Colombia, and Manuel Rozental in Cauca, Colombian physician and activist, part of the group People on the Path, Pueblos en Camino.

When we come back, we’re going to hear from the first leftist president himself, Gustavo Petro, when we interviewed him on Democracy Now! a few years ago, as well as Francia Márquez Mina, Colombia’s first Black vice president. We hear from both of them in their own words on Democracy Now! Stay with us.

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