Colombia’s Gustavo Petro: ‘If I fail, darkness will come and ravage everything’

In his first interview with an international media outlet, the president-elect talks about the dangers his government faces and reveals the keys to his ambitious plans for tax and land reform, the military, the fight against drugs and the Church’s role

Gustavo Petro
Colombia's president-elect Gustavo Petro inside his home in Chía on June 27.Camilo Rozo

Gustavo Petro learned that he was going to be president of Colombia at 4.20 pm on Sunday, June 19. When the third report came out with 4.47% of the votes counted, he became certain of a long-awaited victory. Alone in his room, while members of his closest circle shouted outside, he felt a kind of inner collapse that he describes as a “deep stupor.” “When everything stops, when the adrenaline stops flowing, it is as if a building were crashing down on you. I just dropped on the bed,” he recalls.

Petro, 62, is sitting on a sofa inside his house in Chía, in a residential estate 15 kilometers from the capital, Bogotá. He is wearing a sports jacket, a mandarin collar shirt, jeans and buckled shoes. After overcoming the state of numbness, which he confesses lasted two days, he is looking much more relaxed than when he was campaigning. From time to time he touches the medal of Saint Benedict, a gift from the Pope, which he wears on his left wrist, and he answers most of the questions without too much beating about the bush, which had been nearly impossible before this. He conveys an inner calm that only has one vanishing point: when an issue moves him, he stamps his foot on the floor, emphasizing the end of the sentence.. He does it when he talks about poverty, big capital and tax reform, a measure that he promises to carry out as soon as possible and which cost the outgoing president, Iván Duque, a popular uprising. “Reforms are either made in the first year or they are not made at all,” says the man who will become Colombia’s first left-wing president on August 7.

Question. Why has it taken Colombia so long to have a left-wing president? Don't you feel that if you fail, the doors will be closed to other candidates in the future?

Answer. If I fail, darkness will come and ravage everything. I cannot fail.

Q. What darkness are you referring to?

A. We have launched a formidable challenge. It was unlikely that I would make it to the end of the electoral process alive. And now, if my government establishes the conditions of the transition, what follows is a new era. And if we fail, what comes next, by the laws of physics, is the reaction. And it is a reaction in which [conservative former president] Álvaro Uribe will not be the protagonist. Life cycles change. There are circles organizing themselves around fascism. We are not going to attack them for now, nothing like that, but we are going to take into account that this is happening.

Q. You were once a guerrilla member, you belonged to the M-19 group. You wanted to reach power through weapons. Now you have come to power through votes...

R. I have reached the government...

Q. The presidency. Were you mistaken as a young man?

A. No. That’s like asking if [Simón] Bolívar was wrong to take up arms against Spain and found a republic. It’s history. Could it have been otherwise? Who knows. Could Bolívar have been Gandhi? These are all mind games. Let’s just say that we took up arms against a tyranny and the product of that is the 1991 Constitution, which we and others created. And I am the government resulting from the 1991 Constitution. You can always say that things could have been like this or that, but history comes not after the fact, always before. Decisions are made and history moves on.

Q. You mentioned a physical risk. Are you afraid there may be an attack?

A. You are always afraid of it. There are always violent possibilities. You have to decrease them. But they exist.

Q. Your project is going to run into some resistance. For example, the army’s commander, General Eduardo Zapateiro, criticized you during the campaign. What are you going to do about it? [shortly after this interview was published in Spanish, Zapateiro announced his resignation]

A. Leadership changes. Every new government brings changes. This leadership was deeply imbued by the political line of the executive now reaching the end of its term. But this path is unsustainable and turns our security forces into a victim, as they have been led to perpetrate grotesque violations of human rights. What we are proposing will make our security forces democratically stronger.

Q. Aren’t you afraid of an adverse gesture by the generals?

A. There are currents in the far right that must be eliminated. Some are talking openly about coups and things like that. But look, within the army there are no factions friendly to Petro, there are factions friendly to the Constitution. And that is what needs to be developed, an army that obeys the Constitution, regardless of the government that may be in power.

Q. Colombia shows a clear division. What are you going to do to overcome that fracture?

A. I have called for a major national agreement to try to build a different political climate. I will chat with Álvaro Uribe and with Rodolfo Hernández. It is time to make reforms, not to leave things as they are. We must avoid sectarian confrontation and open a civilized dialogue. We need to seek peace. The political climate can either encourage or dampen violence. One of my goals is to achieve as much peace as possible in Colombia.

Q. How will you deal with the opposition?

A. We are not going to build a government that persecutes the opposition. We have been victims of that ourselves. The intelligence system is not going to target the opposition, but rather corruption. If they feel confident in our government and feel that there will be no persecution and that they will be respected in the political, personal and family spheres, I think we can build on that. They will also be able to conduct an opposition as they have every right to do: by overseeing our government’s actions.

Gustavo Petro
Gustavo Petro at his home in Chía, outside Bogotá.Camilo Rozo

Q. What will be your first measure when you are president?

A. I am concerned about hunger, which is already at levels of 20% to 25% of the population. And poverty is around 40% despite the economic recovery and the decline of the coronavirus. In addition, you can feel that a global economic depression is approaching. The winds are not in our favor. That is where I see that the first urgent measures must be taken.

Q. In your victory speech you defended democratic capitalism. Did you do it to remove the stigma of being a radical leftist?

A. Capitalism does not tend to be democratic. For it to be, the effort of the State is needed. The economic foundation of Colombia is fundamentally made up of millions of small businesses, with very little associative capacity. It is a very simple market economy. It is not capitalism, but rather a pre-modern form of economic activity. They must be given access to credit in order to boost agricultural and industrial production. You can call that populism, but it is what I call democratic capitalism. Until now, governments have privileged open-pit mining and traditional monopolies that have given rise to great fortunes, but these do not account for even 5% of jobs in Colombia.

Q. You have always been very critical of big capital, of the establishment. You have said that the owners of the big conglomerates are against you, that they use the media to attack you. What are you going to do against big capital?

A. Make them pay taxes, basically. But the kind of big capital that affects the environment, such as the fossil-based economy or the extraction of hydrocarbons, has no future with us. It will if it teams up with the farmers and pays taxes.

Q. In that vein, one of you great campaign promises was agrarian reform. How do you intend to achieve it? Will you meet resistance?

A. Yes, obviously. Land tenure in Colombia is feudal. It is a legacy of Spanish colonial times that has never been overcome because every time it was attempted, there was violence. The country never managed to carry out an agrarian reform. Today, we will try again and, I will confess, I would like to do it hand in hand with the United States. Unlike in the past, agrarian reform is linked to the possibility of a substantial decrease in cocaine exports. The US has concentrated its efforts in a very ineffective way on glyphosate and extraditions. The result has been a total failure.

Q. Did you mention this to President Joe Biden on the call you had?

A. (Laughter) No, no, no. In fact, we had communication difficulties with the embassy during the campaign.

Q. The US ambassador to Colombia never called you, did he?

A. Once we won the elections everything really flowed, paradoxically. Two days later I received the call from Biden, which is a sign. It means that they are interested in establishing a constructive dialogue with us.

Q. You have spoken of agrarian reform and poverty reduction; these are big projects that possibly require decades or even generations. Isn’t four years a very short time to achieve it?

A. My government has to generate beginnings, because these are long-term issues. I call it the government of transitions. An era begins and we hope it will continue. That will depend on Colombian society, on their votes, on whether they want to go back again or move forward. In that sense we are going to resemble Chile, in its effort to build democracy. Spain is also an example: it emerged from a fascist era into a democratic one. And it has been an ongoing process. It is society that takes steps forward and, in the end, the democratic idea becomes irreversible. The same thing is going to happen here.

Q. You have appointed the conservative Álvaro Durán Leyva as the new foreign minister. What message are you trying to send?

A. Leyva is quite conservative, but he authored the 1991 Constitution and has been a peacemaker for many years, both with the [guerrila groups] FARC and the ELN. And peace in Colombia needs global help, because today it has to do with the climate crisis and drug trafficking. Forty years ago it was a much more political issue, linked to the Cold War, but now the complexity is higher and we need the world to show solidarity.

Q. And what role do you want to give to the Catholic Church in this construction of peace?

A. A mediator role. I proposed it to the Pope, I mentioned it (not publicly) to the Nunciature [diplomatic mission of the Holy See] and to the president of the Episcopal Conference. Now I have to get back to it. The Catholic Church is today the only entity that is familiar with the specifics of the conflict in each region and can help a lot in bringing peace.

Q. Are you thinking about the president of the Truth Commission, the Jesuit priest Francisco de Roux?

A. It will be whoever is determined by the Church.

Q. That is to say, you will accept the mediator they appoint.

A. Yes, the one they name. Obviously, the government has a job to do to achieve the peaceful dismantling of drug trafficking networks. We hear many rumors that a debate has begun within the armed organizations about what to do.

Gustavo Petro
Petro, 62, learned that he was going to be president of Colombia at 4:20 p.m. on Sunday, June 19.Camilo Rozo

Q. And do you have the parliamentary capacity to approve a legal reform to facilitate negotiations in judicial terms?

A. At this time, yes.

Q. Are you worried about time passing?

A. Yes. Reforms are either made the first year or they are not made at all.

Q. The tax reform as well?

A. The tax reform must be done this year.

Q. Aren’t you afraid of a social outburst like what happened to Iván Duque?

A. No, because this reform will not burden the pockets of the people, but of the privileged members of society.

Q. And do you intend to call big capital, entrepreneurs and bankers to open a dialogue with them?

A. That’s what the grand national agreement is all about. We are going to reform the tax law and we have invited them to discuss the issue. The Colombian tax system is relatively progressive up to the upper middle class, which pays more taxes than the middle class, which pays more taxes than the popular class. But above the upper middle class lies injustice. A banker pays proportionally fewer taxes than the secretary in his office. And that cannot be. It is about being progressive until the end. This would reduce the fiscal deficit, improve macroeconomic conditions and help fund progress in the rights of the Colombian population. That is what I consider the social pact. It involves the willingness of big capital to pay its taxes.

Q. You have proposed resuming diplomatic relations with Venezuela and reopening the border. Will that be enough?

A. It is a complex issue that will not be solved overnight by restarting diplomatic relations. In Venezuela there are millions of Colombians who need to resolve their consular issues, academic diplomas, paperwork..., and there are two million Venezuelans in Colombia with their own problems. We must help those who want to return. And Venezuelans who want to stay in Colombia must enjoy rights, not simply immigration protection, but the right to health, education, child care... The same with Colombians struggling in Venezuela. There is such a magnitude of accumulated problems that the effort must be very great for things to return to normal.

Q. There are Venezuelan exiles, activists and journalists persecuted by the Chavista regime, who fear that once relations are restored they could be extradited to Venezuela.

A. No, not at all.

Q. That is not going to happen?

A. For us, human rights are fundamental. The first discussion I had with [former Venezuela president Hugo] Chávez while he was alive, and perhaps the last one before he died, was precisely about respect for the inter-American human rights system, which for those of us who have been in the opposition in Colombia is extremely valuable. Many of us owe our lives to it, myself included. And Chávez decided to take Venezuela out of the system...

Q. And don’t you think that Venezuela would do better with a democratic system with full guarantees and a different president?

A. Venezuela would do better if its people talked with each other, and if they are the ones who make their own decisions about elections and their mechanisms. What we have to do is be here to help.

Q. There is talk about a new progressive axis in Latin America, formed by the presidents of Mexico, Argentina, Chile, now Colombia and in the future perhaps Brazil. Do you relate to this?

A. I would say there are two phases. A first based on fossil fuels, which we could call the Chávez phase. It was like a golden age of social welfare, but it was unsustainable, because it was based on oil. All of that collapsed. Now, it’s time to abandon the fossil fuel economy, disassociate ourselves from oil, coal and gas, and build development on the basis of production and knowledge. Progressivism is not very clear on this in Latin America. But for me no progressive vision of society can be built on the fossil economy, because the fossil economy is death. We must consider a new model of development in Latin America, that is our role in the agenda, our legacy. And that is going to be the topic of discussion in that axis.

Gustavo Petro
Gustavo Petro, in an interview with EL PAÍS, at his home in Chía.Camilo Rozo

Q. Will there be gender parity in your government?

A. Yes, that is my commitment.

Q. A year ago you said that feminism had become outdated...

A. You’re going to get me into another mess.

Q. Since then you have nuanced your position. What do you think now as president?

A. I think we have to give power to millions of women in Colombia, the vast majority in the rural world. It is not about a woman being able to create a company or start a business, the issue is how millions of women can be empowered.

Q. Your daughter Sofía said that you were a man in the process of deconstruction. Is it so?

A. That term is very French. To a Colombian, deconstruction sounds like destruction. But yes, it is a deconstruction. But it’s not just me, there are millions of men in Colombia who are in the process of deconstruction.

Q. What would you like them to say about you when your term ends?

A. We have three goals: peace, social justice, and environmental justice. If at the end of the term I have made progress on all three, great. It will be the best government in history.

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