Gustavo Petro: ‘Colombia doesn’t need socialism, it needs democracy and peace’

The frontrunner in the polls for the 2022 presidential elections talks to EL PAÍS about how he plans to help the Colombian people, and why he will leave politics if he loses the vote

Gustavo Petro on the stairs of the Colombian Senate on September 9, 2021.
Gustavo Petro on the stairs of the Colombian Senate on September 9, 2021.Andrés Cardona

Gustavo Petro is the candidate to beat. In a political universe as atomized as Colombia’s, the economist currently leads the polls as the favorite to win the presidential elections in 2022. It will be a race that he knows will offer no chance for let up and that will push him to take risks and take to the street in search of votes. This is, as Petro acknowledges, the only way to become head of state and cap an intense political career. At the age of 61, he has been a guerrilla in the insurgent organization Movimiento 19 de Abril (19th of April Movement), a senator and whip for former Colombian president Álvaro Uribe, mayor of Bogotá and a presidential candidate in 2018, when he finished second with over eight million votes (43%).

So, what will Petro do if he fails to win this time? “In that case, my political cycle will be over, because I cannot become an eternal candidate.”

Petro is seated in one of the large and sparsely lit rooms within the Colombian Senate. The space, of neoclassical structure, is used for ceremonial events and in its cupola stands a mural commemorating the 1886 Constitution. On arriving for the interview, the presidential candidate announces he does not care for the work. Halfway through the conversation, when he recalling his time as a guerrilla and his support for the Constitution of 1991, he explains why: “Look at it closely,” he says, pointing to the ceiling. “There are no women, not one. Only men; and the people only appear in a ghostly form, there at the back, you can see a few farmers and over there a few plainsmen. But what is represented entirely is the oligarchy. And the Church. I took up arms against this, I was tortured and spent time in jail.”

During the three-hour interview, Petro, whose detractors accuse him of being a radical socialist, avoids offering a classical definition of his ideology under the evasive argument that the left-right political model has been superseded. He prefers instead to attack the petroleum economy, display his affection for former Brazilian president Lula da Silva and US politician Bernie Sanders and emphasize that his political program, when all is said and done, consists of applying the 1991 Constitution. “The necessities of Colombian society are not based on building socialism, but on building democracy and peace, period,” he states.

Gustavo Petro during the interview.
Gustavo Petro during the interview.Andrés Cardona

Question. You are starting out as the favorite for the presidential elections in 2022, but you’re also the candidate who everyone has taken on as a rival. How will you combat that?

Answer. Coronavirus, lockdowns and the intensive use of social media have created a distance between us and the poorest people in the country over the last two years. This has hurt us. It’s time now to take a risk and physically go among the working-class people, which has always been my forte. Without this effort, we would cease to exist. Many candidates look to the middle and upper classes, but whoever wants to win the presidency has to bring out the passion of ordinary people. This is countered by the practice of corruption and buying votes with mafia money. Only passion can overcome this. If I can achieve that, I will be the president of Colombia.

Q. To what extent does the candidacy of Colombian economist Alejandro Gaviria affect your aspirations?

A. At the moment not at all. The polls show that he has no social strength, despite the huge media coverage afforded to him by the big corporate owners to try and paint him as my opponent. I believe that Colombian liberalism must choose between more neoliberalism, which will destroy the country, or guaranteeing the fundamental rights of the people. The liberal leadership should have, and there is still time, retaken the path of ongoing revolution and forged an alliance with progressivism. Today, my rivals remain [former mayor of Medellin] Sergio Fajardo and Álvaro Uribe.

Q. Do you genuinely think that Fajardo could give you his backing if he doesn’t make it to the second round of voting? In the 2018 elections, he and other progressive candidates did not do so.

A. The current polls indicate that Uribism will not make the second round. This bar will be passed by the project I represent, Pacto Histórico, and that which you refer to as progressive sectors, which are basically liberalism without an agenda and which have constructed a discourse, shall we say a la [Brazilian novelist] Paulo Coelho, very like a literary bestseller, without getting bogged down in concrete problems. If the polls are confirmed, Uribe’s electoral base will automatically support this Coelho formula to halt the social, economic and political change I represent. This explains why the center’s discourse is so ethereal, because it is waiting, if it makes it to the second round, to channel Uribism to try and defeat me.

Q. And is this also true of Alejandro Gaviria if he loses? Will he not support you either?

A. Alejandro is a neoliberal. I asked Colombian neoliberalism to overcome this kind of thinking to construct a majority that would change the history of this country. The answer was no and I believe that he will stick with that no.

Q. Indeed, you offered Gaviria a mayoral candidacy in 2019. Was that a mistake? Was he a good candidate then but not a good one now?

A. I have not put forward candidates. I have put forward programs. In the case of the Bogotá mayoralty in 2019, we presented our proposal to María Robledo, Alejandro Gaviria and Claudia López, who is the current mayor. None of them accepted.

Q. In 2018, your formula for the presidency was the feminist Ángela María Robledo, who later disassociated herself from you, asking you for a reflection on feminist policies. What are your proposals in this regard?

A. Feminism has remained with the old traditional left in the intellectual sphere of the big city, without any link to the population as a whole. [As mayor of Bogotá] I started to understand that there had been a kind of divorce between the feminist agenda and the agenda of a woman living in the city. That is a huge mistake that the movement needs to resolve, because it is necessary to build an agenda for the women of Colombia.

If I had the opportunity to become president and carry out agrarian reform, I would not give the deed to the male farmer, but to the woman. This has to do with something I see as fundamental as, at the end of the day, male farmers allowed their land to be lost, in many cases, it was even sold to the mafia, because their link with the land is basically productive, commercial, while the relationship women have with the soil is more based on looking after it, which is very similar to the indigenous sentiment in Colombia. Looking after fertile land, which is also looking after water and food for the rest of society, is a task that can be much more efficient in the hands of women rather than men. I have been arriving at these kinds of thoughts but not through the hand of feminism, which has not raised these issues. An agenda has arisen that I call feminist and which I give a prefix, popular – popular-feminism – which seems to me to be bringing us closer to the concrete possibility that women can have power within this society.

Q. If you are elected, what will the first measure you take as president be?

A. I recently opened one for debate, which is to end oil exploration, but not exploitation. The old coffee-growing country has been left behind and sadly we moved into oil and coal. This is unsustainable and will bring about extinction. We need to move away from an extractivist economy and move towards a productive one. The energy transition is a decision that could be made on day one. And foreign exchange can be replaced by tourism, which means attracting 15 million tourists instead of five million. With this country’s natural beauty, culture and biodiversity that is not an exaggerated target but it requires one basic condition: peace. Tourism will not grow if we are killing each other.

Q. You have said of yourself that you were a leftist but that you are not now proposing a leftist program, a socialist program, but one of “democratic capitalism.” What does that mean?

A. It’s not that I was and now I am not. It’s that I have stopped looking at politics in that way. From when I was a young man who wanted armed revolution to today, many things have happened in Colombia and the world. The 19th of April Movement [M-19], of which I was a member, never belonged within the Soviet orbit, but rather revindicated armed and clandestine social-democracy until there was peace and the fruit of that agreement was the Constitution of 1991. But it was not applied. In the 1990s, the genocide of the Colombian people took place, with 200,000 deaths, and the rise of paramilitarism. Today, 30 years later, the Constitution remains in force but it is not being applied. From that perspective, my program for government is the Constitution and my reforms will not be categorized as leftist in Europe. The necessities of Colombian society are not based on building socialism, but on building democracy and peace, period.”

Q. How would you describe your relationship with the economic powers in Colombia?

A. The establishment does not want change. It has become wealthy with an economic model that prioritizes the financial sector and is based on the extraction of oil and coal. In 2013, we exported $40 billion [€34 billion] worth of these resources. But this money is distributed among a very privileged economic class – basically the owners of the banks and the big cartels that secure government contracts. That’s why they always want more oil, more neoliberalism. A model like this increases social inequality, which is the mother of violence. The owners of the large economic conglomerates, therefore, do not want me. And as they are the owners of a good part of the social communication structure, they use the media to try and destroy our project.

We need to move away from an extractivist economy and move towards a productive one

Q. You have some significant adversaries. During our conversation, you have highlighted the establishment, the economic powers, Uribism, a large part of the media and the center that you mentioned. How do you intend to win?

A. In Colombia, we have a state that cannot be called democratic, despite the fact that there are elections, because the electoral method is coopted by a series of regional de facto totalitarianism, where the population lives in fear and the candidates are under the control of those who have the weapons and the money. The Colombian mafia holds political power, it moves within the institutions of state, it can influence the laws of the Republic. The corruption of the mafias has a social basis, which is the backbone of popular support for Uribism. But there is another section of society that thinks that we can change history. What we are delineating today is whether Colombia can be built as a democratic nation or not. If the answer is no, Colombian society will undergo further social and political degradation, and even into very deep spirals of violence.

Q. And in those spirals of violence, do you fear an assassination could be carried out?

A. Yes. That is on the agenda. In fact, throughout history, many progressive candidates, even without being among the favorites, have been assassinated. Over the course of these months, we are witnessing the extermination of those who made peace with the [Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia] FARC. Social leaders are also being systematically killed, and the youth protests that flared up in April, which were a by-product of the government’s social anti-politics with Covid-19, the balance is terrible: 100 young people killed directly by the security forces or the paramilitary police and 60 disappearances. The responsibility of the president, Iván Duque, for real crimes against humanity is total.

Q. Do you support putting Duque on trial?

A. For the systematic assassination of young people? Unquestionably.

Q. And will you push for it, if you are president?

A. I will not have judicial power in my hands, nor do I wish to, although I do believe that it should be afforded more independence so that serious crimes are tried because the common denominator in Colombia is impunity. But I do not view justice in terms of punishment, in life sentences. I believe that Colombia is nearing a historic moment of social forgiveness that should permit it to move on to another era, but this forgiveness should not signify impunity. This forgiveness has to be built on the basis of reparation for the victims and truth understood as the place where responsibility lies for this series of crimes against humanity, responsibilities that not only fall on those who pull the trigger, but on those who facilitate and finance this, on those who use the state to protect this kind of activity. They are the true drivers of the genocide and they are the ones who have directed the country economically and politically.

Gustavo Petro after the interview in Bogotá on September 9, 2021.
Gustavo Petro after the interview in Bogotá on September 9, 2021.Andrés Cardona

Q. Do you think the work of the Truth Commission, agreed to under the peace accords with FARC, will serve this purpose?

A. The Special Justice for Peace is on the path that I am talking about here. But I think that the country has made a mistake in thinking that peace can be achieved exclusively by negotiating with armed organizations. What is required is a pact of coexistence, whose central protagonist is neither an armed nor state organism, but society.

Q. Isn’t this country too divided for a pact of coexistence?

A. It’s precisely because it is divided that one needs to be proposed. A pact of coexistence that is based on education and public health, with the status of work, with the ownership of rural land… the other way is armed and mafia-based Balkanization. It would become a process of disintegration that would also affect Venezuela and Ecuador and destabilize the region. Proposing an agenda of reforms such as this would imply leaving the neoliberal project aside and deepening democracy. But this is viewed by middle- and upper-class sections of society here like communism, as though we were dealing with a post-capitalist Cuban revolution, when what we are putting forward are reforms designed, simply, so that we can live in peace.

Q. The right has accused you of being pro Castro and Chávez.

A. Aside from the fact that both [Cuban revolutionary leader] Fidel Castro and [former Venezuelan president] Hugo Chávez are dead, this is a concept invented by Álvaro Uribe that does not exist. What did exist was a certain rhetoric on Chávez’s part, he was a soldier and when he started to understand the Latin American left, which has more or less always been guerrilla, he tried to fill the void of his origins with the traditional socialist rhetoric that has now become the official discourse of the Venezuelan government – a traditional socialist rhetoric without socialism, because an economy that relies on oil is not socialist.

Q. What do you think of Nicolás Maduro?

A. I was never close to him; I always distrusted him. I also never understood why Hugo Chávez anointed him in his final days. [Chávez] was an undoubted leader, he stirred up the population and he would have won every election without the need for any kind of fraud, but the people he surrounded himself with lived thanks to oil, and he never thought about an alternative, he didn’t build an administration capable of getting Venezuela out of its dependence on oil and back to a productive economy. There is an enormous inability, which can be seen as much in the government as in the opposition, to construct this agenda.

Q. And what solution would you propose?

A. We have to respect the Venezuelan process. What Duque has done is worse, by trying to impose his will. Afghanistan has shown us clearly that trying to resolve the internal problems of another country only makes things worse. It is the people that determine change. We would maintain good neighborly relations with all the countries that border Colombia, regardless of their ideologies. [And with Venezuela] what I would do on day one is re-establish relations.

The Colombian mafia holds political power, it moves within the institutions of state, it can influence the laws of the Republic

Q. Wouldn’t it be easier to find a solution if Maduro stepped down?

A. Maduro, contrary to everything I am proposing for Latin American progress, has sunk Venezuela even further into extractivism. His choice is the same as Uribe’s, the same as Duque’s with fracking. Handing out subsoil concessions to carry on living off gold and other minerals, such as coltan. Furthermore, there is a huge risk of armed appropriation, and if that occurs then the Venezuelan state will be dissolved, and this is where Duque has placed his chips. That will be the worst outcome for Colombia because it is almost akin to following the Syrian or Iraqi model, at a time when there is already armed conflict in our country. What I believe is that a political alternative will arise from the base of Venezuelan society. It is possible that Maduro, acknowledging that it has become a problem, will propose a different leadership for the official movement. But I do not know who would win an election today.

Q. Who are your living political reference points?

A. In Latin America I see ability in [former president of Ecuador] Rafael Correa. My only criticism is that, much the same as the rest of the American progressive leadership, he did not make any attempt to move away from an oil and coal-based economy for one based on knowledge. This is what I am proposing to Latin American progressivism. Nobody has paid much attention, but I believe that Lula could be closest to this idea. If I am governing this country and Lula is in power there [in Brazil], there will be an immediate rapprochement, an axis. I would not be so bold as to say the same for Mexico. [Mexican President Andrés Manuel] López Obrador seems to me to be stuttering, he has become more of an oil man. And worldwide… I find the Spanish leadership hard work and the French is in utter decline. I like [German Chancellor] Angela Merkel, because she has taken on the climate change agenda, although I do not know her personally.

Q. And US President Joe Biden?

A. Biden beat Sanders [in the Democratic Party presidential primaries]. Some people say it was the way to defeat [then US president Donald] Trump. I think that Sanders would have been the way to change the world. In any case, aside from the delivery of three million doses [of Covid-19 vaccines to Colombia] I haven’t seen any changes in the agenda.

Q. You have spoken out frequently against drug trafficking and its corruptive power on society. How will you tackle it?

A. It is nonsense that today in Colombia marijuana is illegal. It could have a great exportation potential to every region in the world where it has been legalized. If its production was in the hands of small-scale farmers, it would also even be a way to substitute coca leaves. The problem of cocaine is more complicated. Colombia faces a world in which cocaine is illegal. That might change in the coming years, but it will not change under my government. What I propose so that the weight of cocaine activity does not cause the current levels of violence is to take away power from the mafia and that implies an agrarian reform that would make the farmers owners of the agro-industrial process.

Q. And what should be done about the drug traffickers?

A. They’ll carry on, I am not unaware of the laws of the market, but they will be drug traffickers without power, without territorial control, without the state. When you have a weakened drug trafficker you can put forward a peaceful dismantling policy. In any case, drug trafficking will only end with comprehensive worldwide legalization, but that is not my short-term perspective.

An economy that relies on oil is not socialist

Q. And what about dissidents from the armed group National Liberation Army (ELN) and FARC?

A. In Colombia in this day and age it is impossible to wage a war without coming into contact with drug trafficking. And if you remove power from the drug traffickers, the ELN and FARC dissidents will go back to civil activities more easily than those purely involved in drug trafficking.

Q. Do you agree with the removal of statues of explorer Christopher Columbus in Colombia?

A. I would preserve everything, because it is history for better or for worse. The thing is that in history the voices of the conquered, those that resisted, must be heard. It is not logical that a city such as Cartagena, in the Colombian Caribbean, where slaves arrived from Africa and that was an emblem of resistance against the Spanish, does not have monuments to these resistances or to indigenous people or to Afro-Colombians. And, on the other side of the coin, there are monuments to conquistadors and pirates. It is not a case of pulling down monuments to the elite, but the others should be present as well.

Q. If you do not win the election, what will you do?

A. In that case, my political cycle will be over, because I cannot become an eternal candidate. It will mean the failure of the project, that an agreed solution to fundamental reforms to coexist in peace has failed. What could come then? I don’t know. I don’t know what would become of a Colombian society cast into the abyss and without a democratic way out. Uribism will attempt to perpetuate its model, but that will lead to violence. There could be a substitution of our model for another democratic project, but that will fall to another generation, not ours. I would consider my political cycle at an end.

Q. And what will you do then?

A. I could write. I have talked a lot, but I have not written much.

English version by Rob Train.

More information