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

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 are in Colombia. We start the program in Colombia, where a historic vote took place 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]We have been governed by the exact same people for 200 years, but today we begin the transition to a government 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 pledged that he would fight the worsening poverty in Colombia by raising taxes for the rich and expanding social programs. He called on Colombia not to extract new oil and to stop relying on fossil fuels. Petro stated that his government plans to reopen relations with Venezuela and to renegotiate a trade agreement with the United States, in order to better serve Colombians.

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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 not worship capitalism in Colombia. Instead, we must overcome premodernity and feudalism in Colombia. We must overcome the past mentalities that led to this world of slavery and the behaviors that they influenced.

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 was also a housekeeper and a lawyer who won the 2018 Goldman Environmental Prize. On Sunday, Francia Márquez Mina took to the stage to thank supporters.

VICE PRESIDENTELECT FRANCIA MÁRQUEZ MINA: [translated]Brothers and Sisters, we have taken a major step forward. After 214 year, we will have a government which 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 are happy to welcome you both. 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 everyone. 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 would be stolen. There was evidence of this. The armed forces were repressive. Everything was against Petro despite the fact we knew that if there was fraud or not enough fraud, Petro would win. It’s a feeling of great relief, immense relief. And there’s a party in this country. In spite of all the machinery, it is the first time that an election can be won by the people.

At the same time, the same magnitude of that joy is the magnitude of our concern so that it doesn’t become a disillusion. These two emotions are combined so that the party, our party becomes a celebration of freedom as well as a concern about how we can organize and mobilize for change.

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 think the future holds for his program and the battles between conservative forces in Congress?

DR. MANUEL ROZENTAL:Juan, your question is spot on. 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. This structure has a new government. The structure has not been changed, but the powers have not. They must still rule.

So, President-elect Petro promised three things. He promised social justice, environmental justice, and peace. To promise this and to achieve it within an establishment that is just as corrupt as the Colombian establishment, is to promise what all of us want. However, it is impossible to promise too much. This cannot be achieved by a government or 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 senators on his side. To pass any initiative, he will need 54. With alliances, he can achieve 40 or 44. To achieve anything, he would need to allies himself with the far right. The mafia, which includes Uribe, Duque, and all the assassins of transnational corporations and the Army, has taken all control institutions, including attorney general. 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.

This is the reason for concern. Francia also promised him what he wanted, but the truth is that he can’t. He can’t achieve it quickly, so he will have to compromise with those that have led us into this disaster. The election has cleared the hurdle. However, the main obstacle, the establishment, cannot and should not be changed by the government. It must be changed by the people, by people. The government is crucial to this, but it cannot fulfill its promises without people organized around an agenda. Is this something we know? 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 Daniel Coronell was the journalist who worked for 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. He had actually promised that he would declare an internal commotion or state of exception if he was elected and that this would allow him to lead the country. In other words, he would create a parallel cabinet that is controlled exclusively by corporate interests. So, what we had here was Petro and Francia Márquez or a dictatorship of corporate interests in the country. I believe that was the role that it played.

But I’ll tell you, Juan, what really played out and what the right didn’t calculate. The right received 10-and-a half million votes, which is roughly the same amount as Duque received four years ago to defeat Petro, who had 8-and-a–half million votes four year ago. Petro, however, had 11-and a half million votes. We know exactly where they came. They came from young women 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. Petro won because of that spirit. It was certain it would 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 and shot several protesters in the head with a 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. President, I welcome you because we all have hopes in you. You are the hope of all of us, the poor and the less fortunate. You are the hope for the Black, the White, the Rich, and the Poor. You are the hope. Welcoming to Colombia, 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.

That was one of the most significant and moving moments of Sunday’s election night, when Gustavo Petro won. 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. It was the first opportunity for a mother to speak to an audience, talk to a president, and look in the eyes of an elected President to seek justice for her son.

As Manuel said before, this is a historic moment. A leftist won the election with the most votes in the history. It is not the first time a leftist has won the election in Colombia. Everything began 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 is a social democrat and wants to change Colombia. He wants healthcare to be public. He wants to see public education improve. He also wants the richest Colombians (the 4,000 most wealthy) to pay the same taxes as the rest. He also wants the richest companies of the country to pay taxes. However, this is not happening right now.

He will use the money for two purposes. 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:This is a historic moment, even though Lula could return to Brazil’s presidency, which is crucial to changing the politics and policies of the region. Brazil is a key player 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 has faced many difficulties in the last 20 years.

What could happen and what should actually happen is that Latin America or at least South America will try to unify markets in a similar manner to what happened in Europe. This has been tried for many decades in Latin America. This scheme of integration has been tried for decades and failed because they are politicized. Take a look at the latest two: CANThe Mercosur and its right-wing counterparts have been viewed as both a right-wing and left-wing market. If the region wants to improve its economies, then what could and should happen is that they close to the outside markets, especially the United States. They should also try to develop South American internal markets and produce goods. Petro’s main argument regarding Venezuela is that they must reopen the border. They need to reestablish the relationship and the connection. 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. This market was closed because of President Uribe’s ideology. 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 directly from them both in their own words. Democracy Now!Stay with Us.