Petro and Colombia’s Rule of Law

Former M-19 rebel Gustavo Petro won Colombia’s runoff presidential election Sunday with 50.5% of the vote. His opponent, businessman Rodolfo Hernandez, received 47.3%. The rest of the votes were either intentionally blank or annulled by electoral authorities.

With nearly half of all voters declining to endorse Mr. Petro, there is no mandate for radical change. But don’t count on him to accept that reality.

The 62-year-old president-elect is a hard-left populist. He has promised to raise taxes on entrepreneurs, impose new import duties, expand entitlements, and end permitting for oil exploration. In his view, the state, not the market, should run the economy. Colombia’s central bank is supposed to be independent, but Mr. Petro is expected to pressure it to print pesos recklessly, la Argentina. Capital is fleeing the country.

Still, Colombians will be lucky if counterproductive economic ideas are Mr. Petro’s worst contribution to public policy. A greater — and legitimate — worry is that by choosing an executive with an unbounded appetite for power and links to political factions that sympathize with criminal groups, Colombians have signed their democracy’s death sentence.

The country already has a wobbly rule of law. Special credit for this vulnerability goes to President Obama and Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, who put the problem of Colombian impunity on steroids by underwriting amnesty for the terrorist group FARC in a so-called peace agreement in 2016. The special, longstanding relationship between the US and Colombia is now over.

Mr. Petro was feared by many Colombians because he was a member of the M-19 — a guerrilla group funded by Pablo Escobar — in the 1970s and ’80s. He was a close adviser to Hugo Chávez in the early 2000s, as the Venezuelan strongman was consolidating power. The authoritarian streak Mr. Petro displayed when he was mayor of Bogotá from 2012 to 2015 alarmed even his allies. When he lost his third run for presidency in May 2018, he told his supporters to take their politics to the streets. That same year Venezuela’s Diosdado Cabello, first lieutenant to dictator Nicolás Maduro, said that Mr. Petro had asked Caracas for campaign financing.

Mr. Petro denied the allegation. During this campaign — his fourth run for the presidency — he bristled when accused of having antidemocratic intentions. Venezuela assisted him in his denials. In March Mr. Cabello declared him “an enemy of chavismo. ”

On Sunday a narrow majority of Colombian voters said that either they believe Mr. Petro doesn’t have chavista aspirations or they do not care. Shortly after the results were in, however, Mr. Cabello tweeted his “immense joy” and “a Bolivarian hug” for Colombia. At the end of his tweet he added the traditional Cuban revolutionary battle cry: “Venceremos. ”

Mr. Hernandez was a weak challenger. He promised to defeat corruption. But he was a neophyte in national politics and suffered due to popular fatigue with the center-right, which repeatedly failed when in government to boost competitiveness and spur fast growth. His relatively strong showing is mostly explained by Colombian dread of a Petro presidency.

Colombia is nominally a democracy. But there’s no law that can’t be circumvented, and drug traffickers in the past have infiltrated the courts. Mr. Petro — convicted by a military court of the felony charge of illegal weapons possession in 1985 — thought to have been constitutionally barred from running for president. But years after that felony conviction, for which he served 18 months, his lawyers managed to have a court reclassify it as a misdemeanor.

When Mr. Santos (2010-18) wanted to bring FARC terrorists into Congress, he used his control of the legislature to declare their drug trafficking (but not that of others) a political crime, and therefore pardonable.

The Santos government, with backing from Mr. Obama put the FARC on the same moral plane as the Colombian military at the negotiating table in Havana. In the final agreement, the guerrillas were granted de facto amnesty for their many bloody transgressions. In 2016, when voters in a national referendum rejected what amounted to a surrender by the democracy, Mr. Santos went back on his promise to abide by the will of the people.

The deal established a special “peace” court, ostensibly charged with uncovering the truth about five decades of FARC-spawned violence. But Team Santos allowed the ideological left to grab hold of that court. Victims of rebel terrorism, who suffered years of sex slavery and torture in captivity, and families who lost loved ones have been subjected to hearings planned and scripted by FARC sympathizers.

Chávez used high oil revenues to grease palms and pay his enforcers as he was constructing his dictatorship. Bolivia’s Evo Morales used cocaine income to do the same. Should Mr. Petro try to copy the neighbors, Colombia’s institutions may be strong enough to resist either or both methods of consolidating power. But betting on that seems like a triumph of hope over experience.

Write to O’Grady@wsj.com.

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