The president of Mexico was happy. “Today we’ll listen to cumbia music,” said Andrés Manuel López Obrador, “because of the victory of Gustavo Petro” in Colombia’s presidential election. “I cannot hide it. I am very happy.
The vote tally in Colombia had aligned with his own political vision of “first, the poor.” And suddenly, from a giant TV screen at the National Palace, in front of dozens of journalists, came the song La Pollera Colorá:
“… It’s that I am very happy
because his movement
inspiration it gives me.”
With Petro’s victory, Colombia joins the list of Latin American countries with leftist leaders. On the list are the presidents of Mexico, Argentina, Chile, Bolivia, Peru and Honduras – plus the dictators of Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela.
The celebration is on the left. There’s no doubt.
Petro’s victory is similar to López Obrador’s. It came with the defeat of traditional political parties. “Starting today, Colombia changes. Colombia is different,” Petro said in his victory speech. “What is coming here is true change, real change. For that, we commit our existence, our very life.”
The left’s agenda is first and foremost for the least favored, for the people at the bottom, for those who have been exploited for generations. That’s why it’s no surprise that it is surging in a Latin America that remains the world’s most unequal region. The wealthiest 10 percent receive 37 percent of all income, according to a United Nations study reported by the BBC. And the poorest 40 percent of Latin Americans receive barely 13 percent of the income. The pandemic has only widened that gap.
What is a Latin American to do, when he’s lashed by hunger, discrimination, a lack of opportunities, bad health and education, the impunity of gangs and cartels, the corruption of traditional politicians and the violence? He leaves his country. If he can. Last month, the Border Patrol detained nearly 241,000 people who entered the United States illegally. That is a record. If that trend continues, about 2 million people will enter this country without documents in 2022.
And those Latin Americans who cannot move north vote for the left, for politicians who do not stink of the old party structures and who promise a little bit of hope. But they do not want more of the same promises. We cannot forget that the poorest of the poor don’t even have the money to emigrate – the trip and payments to coyotes cost thousands of dollars. And they are the ones electing new leaders.
Petro, for example, won by a large margin along Colombia’s Pacific region and 81 percent in El Chocó. Millionaire Rodolfo Hernández, – who disappeared from the campaign, left for Miami and refused to participate in a debate – got trounced in the poorest parts of Colombia.
The promises of change and more equality are welcome in Colombia and the rest of Latin America. Specially in the face of the global recession discussed at the Davos forum. At least a significant drop in the world economy.
But what worries me the most is that some of these leftist rulers will want to perpetuate themselves in power and destroy the fragile and young democracies around the continent. The dictatorships in Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua started with promises of democracy, and today murder, torture, silence and jail opponents and flagrantly violate human rights.
It’s very frustrating that some of the democratically elected presidents around the hemisphere – let’s say, AMLO in Mexico and Alberto Fernández in Argentina – refuse to publicly criticize the grave abuses committed by Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega, Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela and Cuba’s Miguel Díaz-Canel. They don’t know the damage they cause to their credibility and reputation when they protect dictators. Democracy itself also erodes.
It’s not the same to win an election fairly, like what just happened in Colombia, as jailing presidential candidates like what happened in Nicaragua, holding fraudulent elections like Venezuela or repressing protesters who demanded a democratic opening in Cuba on July 11 of 2021.
Not all the leaders of the left are the same.
During an interview in March of 2018, I asked then-presidential candidate Gustavo Petro if he believed that Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez was a dictator. The Chávez regime’s many abuses, expropriations and acts of repression and censorship – and the brutal way in which it concentrated power in its own hands and ended democracy in Venezuela – were already well documented. But Petro sidestepped the question and even started to talk about climate change. In the end, after I insisted repeatedly, he replied: “It seems to me that he was popularly elected.”
I hope Chávez never becomes an example to follow for Colombia or any other country in the hemisphere. Many people could sleep much better if they knew that the new leftist leaders in our region do not admire and respect tyrants like him.
There is an inability, almost biological, for the more progressive leaders of Latin America to criticize the leftist dictators in our continent. Why is it so difficult for them to say “dictator Ortega,” “dictator Maduro,” or “dictator Diaz-Canel”? Their tongues are tied. Those dictators are as murderous as Chile’s Gen. Augusto Pinochet.
Today, the left is having a fiesta because it is finally taking power. And it is doing it in a democratic and peaceful way, without violent revolutions, guerrilla movements or coups. But governing wears you down, and in a few years the pendulum now benefiting the left so much might swing to the other side. Meanwhile, I only hope they govern in the best possible way for the neediest – that they land their dreams – and that in a few years they hand over power, without delay, to whoever wins the next election.
Is it too much to ask for a genuinely democratic left?