MIAMI – As the streets of Colombia smolder amid the biggest antigovernment unrest in decades, a former rebel leader who would undo antinarcotics cooperation with the U.S. is looking to capitalize on the growing discontent and ride it to the presidency next year.
In a long political career that included a stint as Bogota’s mayor, Sen. Gustavo Petro has earned a reputation as Colombia’s perennial rabble-rouser with a silver tongue admired — when not feared — by friends and foes alike.
But he’s adopted a decidedly low-key approach to the recent protests, apparently believing that he must win over some of his many conservative skeptics to prevail in what would be his third run for Colombia’s presidency.
The protests began April 28 after President Ivan Duque attempted to ram through a tax increase amid a pandemic that has left millions without work or food. Although he quickly backed down, protesters have remained on the streets, broadening their fight to include grievances ranging from the decrepit state of Colombia’s health care and education systems to the slow implementation of a 2016 peace deal with Marxist rebels.
Duque has accused the nation’s many cocaine cartels and criminal mafias of adding fuel to the fire, although so far he’s presented no evidence to back the claim. But the culture of political violence that has long plagued Colombia has taken a toll: to date, at least 42 people have been killed, with police accused of scores of abuses.
Many of the young activists on the streets hail from Colombia’s left, where Petro, 61, has been a fixture for decades.
“If there’s someone in Colombia who has consistently been paying attention to young people and the issue of economic inequality, it’s Petro,” said Sandra Borda, a political analyst at Bogota’s Andes University.
In the past, Petro hasn’t hesitated to take to Twitter — where his 4.2 million followers almost double those of Duque — to fan protests, blast opponents as “fascists” or spread baseless claims that the 2018 election he lost by more than 2 million votes was marred by vote buying.
But this time, Petro has projected restraint, in counterpoint to the growing rejection of Duque as a weak, flailing leader.
On April 27, the night before the start of a national strike, he delivered what he dubbed an “address to the Colombian nation” in which he appealed for calm and urged protesters to wear masks and maintain social distancing while on the streets.
“The police aren’t the enemy,” he said in the video published on social media. “The enemy is the tax reform.”
So far, he's avoided appearing alongside protesters, in part for fear of being cast as a firebrand. In a leaked audio recording from a private meeting with peace activists, he suggested strikers should have gone home once Duque buried the tax hike.
“That’s when they should’ve declared a triumph and put a stop to it,” he can be heard saying in May 5 online meeting. “In other words, accumulate strength for what comes next.”
Petro didn’t respond to repeated requests for an interview.
But Jorge Rojas, a longtime aide, said Petro’s cautious approach is deliberate.
Owing to his youthful militancy in the M-19 rebel movement, Petro has long battled conservative attempts to brand him as Colombia’s harbinger of “Castro-Chavismo” who would follow the path of the late Cuban and Venezuelan revolutionaries Fidel Castro and Hugo Chávez.
“He knows that he has to behave like a statesman to fill the void left by Duque,” said Rojas.
However, younger voters less shaped by the ideological battles of the Cold War appear to be more forgiving.
In the central city of Bucaramanga, Laura Velazco, 26, said she doesn’t fear Petro so much as the status quo — her inability to find work since graduating from college three years ago with a degree in psychology.
“We’re becoming Venezuela and we’re not even governed by the left,” said Velazco, who voted for Petro in 2018 and says she will consider doing so again next year — if she doesn’t emigrate first.
“If I have to wash dishes, I’ll do so because I have a daughter to take care of,” she added.
But the more violent and disruptive the protests become, there’s a risk Petro would be blamed, said Borda. Already law-and-order allies of Duque have urged the president to deploy the military, suspend civil liberties and decree a state of “internal commotion” to control the unrest.
Petro rose to prominence 15 years ago leading a crusade to expose the alliance between conservative allies of then-President Alvaro Uribe and right-wing paramilitary groups. In mesmerizing televised speeches from the Senate floor, he revealed evidence that spurred the arrest of dozens of members of Congress for criminal ties to the paramilitaries.
The signing of a peace deal with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia in 2016 created space for leftist politics that Petro has been quick to seize on. Several opinion polls show him as the clear frontrunner to win next May’s presidential election, in some cases quadrupling the support of his nearest rival.
But some fellow leftists say his ego can get in the way of shrewd political instincts. He's also lost support among women because of his staunch defense of a former aide accused of domestic abuse. In 2018, a decade-old video surfaced showing him receiving stacks of cash from a government contractor.
Despite that, Petro has managed to maintain a lock on the left and distance himself from the rest of Colombia's discredited political establishment. And now, members of the country's business elite in recent weeks have been requesting meetings with Petro to learn more about his policies, said Rojas. A trip to Washington is planned this year, he added.
“I still believe that Petro is perhaps the only politician who has a coherent program to offer a country submerged in a deep social crisis,” said Maria Mercedes Maldonado, who distanced herself from Petro after serving as his top policy adviser in the 2018 campaign, complaining that he doesn't listen to grassroots activists.
As mayor of Colombia’s capital, he racked up enemies by banning bullfights, cutting bus fares and transferring control of private garbage collection to a city agency — a move for which he was briefly ousted by the nation’s inspector general in 2014.
U.S. officials at times have viewed Petro as a radical populist in the mold of Chavez, according to a 2006 secret U.S. Embassy cable published by pro-transparency group Wikileaks. But two years later, Ambassador William Brownfield in another cable described him as “pragmatic.”
If he were elected, it would likely upend Colombia's role as the U.S.' caretaker in the war on drugs, the linchpin of more than two decades of close bilateral cooperation, said Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington. Frictions with the U.S. could also emerge if he takes a softer approach to neighboring Venezuela and engages more with China, Shifter said.
“A Petro administration would probably mean heightened tensions with the U.S, on drug policy, sharp conflicts with the (Drug Enforcement Administration) and the end of forced eradication” of coca crops, Shifter said.
Nonetheless, he said Petro understands the importance of maintaining good relations with the U.S. “It's hard to see how hostile bilateral ties would advance his policy priorities.”
AP Writer Astrid Suarez contributed to this report from Bucaramanga, Colombia.
Follow Goodman on Twitter: @APJoshGoodman