Latin America Advisor

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What Will Petro’s Presidency Mean for Colombia?

Gustavo Petro was elected Colombia’s president on Sunday and celebrated victory with his running mate, Francia Márquez. // Photo: Facebook Page of Francia Márquez. Gustavo Petro was elected Colombia’s president on Sunday and celebrated victory with his running mate, Francia Márquez. // Photo: Facebook Page of Francia Márquez.

Senator and former guerrilla Gustavo Petro on Sunday defeated populist businessman Rodolfo Hernández to become the first leftist to be elected president of Colombia. His running mate, Francia Márquez, will be Colombia’s second female and first Black vice president. What factors led to Petro’s victory? What types of economic reforms is Petro likely to pursue, and how much support will he have in Congress for them? What will Petro’s presidency mean for Colombia’s investment climate and for relations with other countries, including the United States? How will Petro deal with drug trafficking and insurgent groups?

Michael Shifter, senior fellow and former president of the Inter-American Dialogue: “Following decades on the national political scene, six years after the peace deal and on his third presidential run, Gustavo Petro’s moment arrived. On Aug. 7 he will become Colombia’s first leftist president. Of even greater historical significance, Francia Márquez will be the country’s first Afro-descendant vice president. Their victory over Rodolfo Hernández can be attributed to several factors. Petro and Márquez presented themselves as change agents, determined to defy the political establishment and transform the country’s economic and social order. They put their finger on legitimate grievances of social exclusion and injustice felt by millions of Colombians. Their redistributionist and ‘green’ message particularly resonated with the country’s increasingly active youth. Petro’s populist appeal spread in the context of the pandemic, which hit Colombia hard (as it did other countries in the Americas). At the end of the campaign, his efforts to moderate his rhetoric and image helped assuage concerns of enough Colombians who were faced with voting for the lesser of two evils. Unlike Rodolfo, who relied chiefly on TikTok vídeos, Petro and Márquez had a solid ‘ground game.’ They campaigned tirelessly and traveled to regions and provinces, to public plazas, to mobilize support and boost turnout. Despite Petro’s anti-establishment credentials, he turned out to be the more ‘institutionalist’ of the two options. In the end, voting for Rodolfo meant jumping into a complete void. That over 47 percent of Colombian voters were prepared to take such a leap shows how daunting Petro and Márquez’s governance challenges will be.”

Sergio Guzmán, director of Colombia Risk Analysis: “Gustavo Petro has proposed very significant economic reforms, such as ending oil exploration, accelerating the energy transition, significantly extending subsidies for low-income people, making the government the employer of last resort, enacting land reform and printing currency. Petro’s unorthodox views are currently popular among public opinion, given the current economic duress and political polarization. However, it is improbable that some of his more radical views on the management of the economy will be passed by Congress, permitted by the courts or implemented by the institutions. Petro will expect fierce opposition from the business community and the Armed Forces, which will impede policymaking and further polarize Colombians. During the campaign, Petro talked a big game about unorthodox economic policy measures, and now he must come to terms with expiring Ingreso Solidario subsidies, the Fuel Price Stabilization Fund and the board of Ecopetrol. These three issues will be important in understanding if there is any real moderation from the incoming government. The conciliatory approach that Petro suggested in his victory speech is likely to change significantly once opposition to his government becomes an obstacle to his vision. Petro’s approach will likely become more confrontational against opponents within his government, sparking conflict within his coalition and consistently looking to blame political opponents, as well as business and political elites, whom Petro will blame for preventing his vision for the ‘New Colombia’ from being realized.”

Maria Velez de Berliner, managing director of RTG-Red Team Group, Inc.: “Fed up with a deaf and blind political, social, cultural, economic, security and safety establishment, 11 million Colombians elected Petro. To be effective Petro must: 1.) Apply his political and chameleonic ability to close the gap between his followers and those who oppose him by adjusting July’s national budget to the expectations of his base without alienating the 10 million who oppose him; 2.) Make peace with the leaders of capitalist, market-oriented Colombia who create employment, attract internal and foreign direct investment and keep Colombia’s economy stable; 3.) Have and keep the unwavering support of all unions; 5.) Build sustainable legislative coalitions to negotiate probable or potential changes within a Congress where he lacks a governing majority; 6.) Name Colombians of proven ability and demonstrated results to the ministries of finance, defense, interior and justice, and also name a top-notch ambassador to the United States. How Petro will deal with drug trafficking and insurgent groups remains to be seen but, Petro, a former guerrilla commander, learned how to demobilize within the state’s institutions, laws and regulations. The U.S. relationship with Colombia will change depending on the conditions that Petro sets, not by the United States. It would be helpful if the United States recognizes that Colombia has irreversibly changed, not favoring the wishes or expectations of the United States. Given Colombia’s changes from a reliable modus operandi to the ‘intelligent left,’ the United States and Colombia stand to benefit from Petro’s success and suffer from his failure.” 

Elizabeth Dickinson, senior analyst for Colombia at International Crisis Group: “Petro’s victory must be understood in the context of deep social unrest, political polarization and expanding conflict in the countryside. Fundamentally, Petro won because he was the only candidate who read the pulse of the country: voters are expressing deep frustration with daily economic suffering and the political class’ indifference to their reality. The fact that these grievances shaped the campaign marks a turning point in Colombia’s political transition following a half-century of conflict, during which the political left was stigmatized as somehow sympathetic to the guerrillas. The 2016 peace agreement between the state and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) began to lift that stigma, and mass protests in 2021 shattered it. An outburst of grievances about social inequality and the lack of development rose to the surface. Petro will not only be Colombia’s first leftist president, but he will be the first whose election depended on and included civil society, farming and ethnic organizations, and social leaders. This is a fundamental reshaping of the Colombian political space. Perhaps Petro’s greatest challenge now awaits him in the countryside, where four years of lackluster peace implementation and an ill-calibrated security strategy have helped facilitate the resurgence of conflict. To stem violence, the new government must fundamentally shift the role of the military toward protecting communities. Petro will have to win the trust of the military, an institution inherently distrustful of him, as a former guerrilla. The work and responsibility fall to both sides: Petro to build trust while working toward reform and the military to serve its elected democratic leader toward the shared goal of peace.”

Marco Molina and Sashe Dimitroff, partners at BakerHostetler: “Petro’s election underscores a recent shift by Latin American countries to the political left, sparked by increasing poverty and socioeconomic inequality and exacerbated by a global pandemic that shook public confidence in establishment political candidates and energized younger voters to become more politically active. The landmark election is particularly noteworthy because it occurred in Colombia, Latin America’s fourth-biggest economy and a country that has been a magnet for foreign investment in a region primarily known for protectionist policies. Petro promises a $13.5 billion tax overhaul to pay for unprecedented social programs and proposes to halt development of oil—Colombia’s top export—and reallocate resources to renewable energy projects. This platform is ambitious, particularly in light of Colombia’s foreign investment and contractual commitments with companies that provide services, own concessions or have other in-country investments that may be disrupted by the new regime. And, unlike other recently elected Latin American leaders, Petro will not enjoy majority support in Congress, making his policies unlikely to be passed wholesale. Political gridlock appears inevitable. Time will tell how Petro’s presidency will affect the Colombian investment climate, which has already seen a rise in investment disputes in recent years (14 investment arbitration cases are currently pending against Colombia). Historically, political uncertainty discourages future investments and begets investment-related disputes. Petro will have to manage this risk, given that he is targeting Colombia’s lucrative oil and gas sector, which receives sizable investments from U.S. and European investors who enjoy protections under Colombian investment treaties.” 

Laura Carlsen, director of the Americas Program in Mexico City: “When news broke that Gustavo Petro had won the presidential election, cries of joy broke out in the town of Suárez. Located in the Department of Cauca, Suárez is the hometown of Petro’s running mate, now Vice President-elect Francia Márquez, who galvanized the support of Afro-Colombian and Indigenous communities, campesinos and women, pushing the left-center coalition over the finish line. The pair took 63 percent of the vote in Valle de Cauca and averaged 80 percent in the other departments of the Pacific coast, where these populations are concentrated. After decades of suffering government indifference or persecution, militarization and economic exploitation, millions broke their traditional of lack of faith in electoral politics and voted for change. Petro and Márquez now face the hard part. They won in large part because life in Colombia had become untenable for much of the population. As the second most unequal nation in the Americas, with an additional 3.6 million pushed into poverty since the pandemic, the nation faces challenges to redistribute wealth fairly, confront powerful armed criminal groups allied with the political elite and break down political exclusion. Petro promised ‘social justice’ but also to ‘develop capitalism’ and promote production and growth. He must now revitalize and support small-scale production, while reducing illegal investment and the predominance of environmentally destructive extractivist industries. The only way to do that will be to govern for and with his constituencies. After years of the failed drug war, the U.S. government should recognize Colombians’ right to chart a new course of development and security in their country.” 

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