Colombia: Victory to Ivan Duque but Petro’s Strong Showing Raises Great Anxiety for the Future of Colombia and the Region

Ivan Duque’s victory in the second round of Colombia’s presidential election is definitely good news. Duque is a follower of former president Alvaro Uribe. Duque has taken a strong stand in opposition to the Venezuelan government; has strong democratic and pro-American credentials and a moral vision that will enable Colombia to continue to be a stabilizing force in a region that has not yet clearly rejected the regimes of Venezuela, Cuba, and Nicaragua.

While Duque’s victory was overwhelming, the results of this election may anticipate a highly problematic situation for the future.

Duque’s opponent, Gustavo Petro, succeeded in securing 8 million votes, which is the equivalent of 46% of the vote. This is undeniably impressive. It gives a boost to the opposition as Petro made very clear in his concession speech.  According to Petro’s promise, the opposition is going to be very strong and will try to exercise as much influence as possible. Of course, in a democracy, this sounds perfectly legitimate. However, it is important to stress a number of points.

Petro ran on a platform of social justice, the environment, economic development and the need to eradicate corruption. However, he failed to dissipate his image as a man of the radical left. Petro gave some interesting opinions about current events. He rightly claimed that the government of Nicolas Maduro is a dictatorship.

However, he vindicated the government of Hugo Chavez. Petro played the music of those chavistas who still believe that Chavez was different from Maduro while ignoring that Maduro is nothing but a product of Chavismo. Considering that when Chavez was alive and in power, drug trafficking, alliances with terrorist groups, incarceration and expulsion of opponents, subjugation of the legislative and judicial branches, mass expropriations and mass exoduses were already taking place. Although it is true, that circumstances became direr under Maduro, the seeds were very much planted and established by Mr. Chavez. Furthermore, during the first round of presidential elections, Petro supported the installment of a Constituent Assembly, which is the first step Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador took to perpetuate their authoritarian revolutions and corrupt democratic institutions. Petro dropped this idea in the presidential run off to secure the support of the more moderate center-left members of the coalition.

Petro also expressed support for the peace agreements signed with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). (Duque did not call for the abolition of the agreements but for a revision of them).

Petro’s concession speech had some overtones. Petro pointed out that “the opposition will not allow the government to take a path that may destroy the foundations of our society, its children and its youth. We are a new force endorsed by 8 million votes. I do not feel I am defeated. …This is part of a fight that has been going on for decades. We are an alternative to power. We cannot be part of the continuity of Colombia.”

Although Petro recognized the victory of Duque, he called on the elected-president to break with his mentor Alvaro Uribe because he represents an anachronism. He added that “the 8 million citizens who voted for me will not allow us to withdraw to a state of war. We will not allow our youth to return to war and violence” in allusion to the possibility of annulling the agreements with the FARC.

The reason why Petro lost in the election is precisely because the FARC has not been able to convince the Colombian public that they will be bound by the peace agreements. One of the FARC chief negotiators were found trafficking cocaine and people resent the fact that FARC enjoys representation in Congress without any of its members having been democratically elected by Colombian citizens.

Petro’s comments are the tip of the iceberg of a more profound problem. Petro is a former guerilla group member. The group entered politics in 1990 after giving up its arms and signing an agreement with the Colombian government. However, Petro is now giving signs of being polarizing figure, not a conciliatory one. It seems that the broad and diverse coalition of progressive forces that voted for him has empowered him to adopt a more ideological position that raise fears that after all Petro is closer to Havana and Caracas than he is willing to admit. Petro, who is also a former Mayor of Bogota, was denounced by his own supporters for having an autocratic style of management and for his intolerance towards opinions that differ from his own. In addition, Petro, while mayor surrounded himself with sycophants and “yes men.”

But there is a greater potential danger.

In a recent interview with Frank Gaffney, I spoke about the radicalism expressed by leftist elements now in the opposition. Followers of former Argentinean president Cristina Kirchner not only continue to support the Maduro and Cuban regimes but also maintain relations with Iran. Most recently a pro-Kirchner group, La Campora, threatened Argentinean players as they were ready to travel to Israel to play a friendly game with the Israeli national team. Those threats led the Argentinean team to cancel the game.

Kirchner cut a deal with Iran while she was in office in an effort to remove a number of top members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards involved in two major terrorist attacks in Argentina from Interpol’s most-wanted list. Over their attempts to protect the Iranian murderers, Kirchner along with her former foreign minister and other individuals associated with her are being prosecuted in a Federal Court for cover up, obstruction of government functions and for abuse of power.

The left-wing government of Uruguay has declined to condemn the Maduro regime and to join the voices that demanded improvement of human rights in Venezuela and the restoration of democracy. More recently Graciela Bianchi, a Uruguayan congresswoman from the opposition, stated that important elements in the government associated with former Uruguayan president Jose Mujica (particularly those belonging to the former guerilla group known as “Tupamaros”) receive money from Iran. Interestingly enough, when Petro was accused of being a Chavista, he dismissed that accusation by claiming that he was closer to Mujica. Although Mujica did not destroy democracy as Chavez and Maduro did, he created a culture where Castro and Chavez were admired; where Maduro was given a pass despite his violations of human rights, and where anti-Americanism and friendship with Iran were encouraged.

Indeed, Congresswoman Bianchi-a former member of the ruling leftist Broad Front who changed views and joined an opposition party five years ago and who is very familiar with the inner workings of the party in power- pointed out that some Hezbollah members live in Uruguay and maintain strong contacts with the Uruguayan government.

Iran obviously sees the Latin American left as an ally and are likely to expand these relations. The Latin American left has failed to become a real moderate force that advocates for specific social issues while placing democracy and the rule of law above their agenda. The Latin American left, radical and moderate, are not real social-democracies European style and I suspect Gustavo Petro is no exception.

If groups associated with Kirchner and with the Uruguayan government have built alliances with such radical elements and Iran, it is reasonable to assume that Petro may well be courted by Iran. Through these relationships Iran seeks to increase its influence using these political contacts.

Iran has already developed a strong political and tacit military alliance with the countries of the Bolivarian Alliance (ALBA). Iran could definitely penetrate Colombia by strengthening relations with the opposition. This could make Iran’s political influence in the country more consequential. If that influence comes with financial support, as Uruguayan Congresswoman Bianchi claims is the case with political sectors in Argentina and Uruguay, the situation could be very troubling.

At this point, I have no evidence that Petro is flirting with Iranians, but after all he is a former guerilla leader and his discourse is combative. That makes him a potential target for the Iranians who have seen Colombia as a potential source of cocaine money while at the same time looking to undermine the country that has been (particularly under the government of President Alvaro Uribe), a bastion of opposition to the Venezuelan regime and the ALBA alliance.

Petro’s strong showing could also affect the region. Petro not only has avoided speaking about the Venezuelan crisis but has also defined the tragedy of that country as “a distraction from Colombia’s real problems.”

Currently, the Venezuelan crisis is not the only challenge Latin America is facing. Nicaragua is facing a crisis that has brought more than 150 deaths with high levels of government violence. Nicaragua’s president, Daniel Ortega, refuses to step down despite the fact that the regime is no longer legitimate. Petro did not publicly express support for Ortega but he also failed to speak up about the Nicaraguan crisis. The position around Ortega, is also another test for the Latin American left. The extent to which Latin American leaders push for restoration of democracy or not will determine the future of democracy and stability in the region.

Petro has succeeded in gathering the support of a broad coalition that he is now trying to maintain.

There are reasons to celebrate Duque’s victory in Colombia but there are reasons to be concerned. Indeed, Petro may well win the next presidential election in Colombia. All it takes to shift the political map is for Colombia to face an economic crisis or public discontent with the performance of the government of Ivan Duque. The public is not likely to relate to anything beyond its immediate needs.

About Luis Fleischman

Dr. Luis Fleischman is a Senior Adviser to the Menges Hemispheric Security Project at the Center for Security Policy in Washington DC. He is also a professor of Sociology at Palm Beach State College. He is the author of the book, "Latin America in the Post-Chavez Era: The Security Threat to the United States."