By MANUEL RUEDA, Associated Press
BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) – Last year, Fabian Espinel helped organize roadblocks where young people protested against police violence and government plans to raise taxes on lower-income Colombians.
Now, as Colombia faces the presidential election on Sunday, Espinel is taking to the streets of Bogota’s working-class sectors handing out leaflets to leading candidate Gustavo Petro and helping to paint murals in support of the left-wing politician.
“Young people in this country are stranded,” said Espinel, who lost his job as an event planner during the pandemic and received no compensation from his company. “We hope that Petro can change that. We need a different economic model than we have had for years.”
Colombians will choose between six candidates in a vote to be held amid widespread sentiment that the country is going in the wrong direction. Recent opinion polls suggest that Petro could get 40% of the vote, with a 15-point lead over his closest rival. But the senator needs 50% to avoid a runoff in June against the runner-up.
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His main rival for most of the campaign has been Federico Gutiérrez, a former mayor of Medellin who has the support of most of Colombia’s traditional parties and works with a business-friendly economic growth platform.
But populist real estate mogul Rodolfo Hernandez has risen rapidly in polls and could run for second place in Sunday’s vote. He has few connections to political parties and says he will reduce wasteful government spending and offer rewards to Colombians who denounce corrupt officials.
Petro, a former rebel with anti-establishment rhetoric, vows to make major adjustments to the economy and change the way Colombia fights drug cartels and other armed groups. Its agenda focuses primarily on combating the inequalities that have plagued the people of the South American nation for decades and worsened during the COVID-19 pandemic.
He has promised government jobs to people who cannot get a job, free college tuition for Colombian youth, and grants for farmers struggling to make crops, which he says he will pay by raising taxes on wealthy individuals and corporations.
His agenda also touches on issues that could shake Colombia’s close relationship with the United States.
Adam Isacson, a defense policy expert with the Washington Office for Latin America, a think tank, said that if Petro wins the election, “there will be more disagreement and distance” between the two countries.
Petro wants to renegotiate a free trade agreement with the US that has boosted imports of American products such as milk powder and corn. and instead favor local producers.
It also promises to change the way Colombia fights drug cartels that produce about 90 percent of the cocaine currently sold in the U.S. The senator often criticizes U.S. drug policy in the hemisphere, saying it has “failed” because it focuses too much on eradicating illegal crops and arresting them. heads. It wants to boost aid in rural areas, give farmers alternatives to the cultivation of coca, the plant used to make cocaine.
Isacson said coca eradication targets could be a lower priority for the Colombian government under Petro’s administration, as well as the pace at which drug traffickers who are arrested are being sent to the United States to face charges.
The election comes as Colombia’s economy struggles to recover from the pandemic and frustration grows with political elites.
A Gallup poll earlier this month said 75% of Colombians believe the country is going in the wrong direction and only 27% approve of Conservative President Ivan Duque, who is unable to run for re-election. A Gallup poll last year found that 60% of respondents had difficulty coping with family income.
Sergio Guzmán, a political risk analyst in Bogotá, said that the 2016 pandemic and the peace agreement with the rebel group of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia have changed the priorities of voters.
“While the previous elections focused on issues such as how to deal with rebel groups, now the main problem is the economy,” Guzmán said. “Voters are concerned about who will address issues such as inequality or lack of opportunities for young people.”
If Petro or Hernández won the presidency, they would join a group of left-wing and foreign leaders who have taken over Latin American governments since the pandemic began in 2020.
In Chile, left-wing legislator Gabriel Boric won the presidential election last year, leading a progressive coalition that promised to change the country’s constitution and make public services such as energy and education more affordable.
In Peru, voters elected rural schoolteacher Pedro Castillo as president, although he had never held office. Castillo challenged political parties that have been embroiled in bribery scandals and presidential impeachment trials and shattered the nation’s response to the coronavirus pandemic. Ecuadorians countered the left-wing trend last year, but still chose an external opposition candidate, Gullermo Lasso.
In regional affairs, Petro seeks to re-establish diplomatic relations with the socialist government of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro. Colombia cut off diplomatic relations with Venezuela in 2019 as part of a U.S.-led effort to isolate Maduro and put pressure on him to hold new elections.
Some observers think Petro may be in a position to repair bridges between Maduro and some sections of Venezuela’s opposition.
“Resolving Venezuela’s political and economic crisis is in Colombia’s interest,” said Ronal Rodriguez, a professor at Rosario University in Bogota.
Sandra Borda, a professor of international relations at the University of Los Andes in Bogota, said Petro may not have enough leverage to make significant changes to Colombia’s foreign policy.
Efforts to renegotiate the free trade agreement with the United States could be thwarted by lawmakers in both countries, he said. And in terms of security, the Colombian military will be reluctant to waive cooperation agreements with the United States that include joint exercises, intelligence exchanges and jobs for Colombian military instructors in US-funded courses in other Latin American countries.
Borda said Petro’s ability to change Colombia’s foreign policy could depend on whether he wins the first round directly. If he has to go to a second round, he said, he will have to make deals with center parties, which could support his domestic reforms in exchange for greater control over security and international relations.
“Their priority will be to carry out domestic reforms aimed at reducing inequality and overcoming poverty,” Borda said. “Petro understands that if he does, he is more likely to consolidate his political movement.”
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