OPN Gustavo Petro
Gustavo Petro Image Credit: Gulf News

For a couple of decades now, it seems, Colombia always tethered on the cusp of a new era, one that would leave behind the hard-left insurgencies and rehabilitate the rebels who fought for so long in steamy jungles for a Cold War ideology.

There has been a hope too that the corruption that has been part and parcel of the nation’s politics for so, that the long and dangerous reach of the criminal and narco elements would loosen their grip, and that the hard-right ideologies of counter-revolutionary militias would somehow face away.

That tectonic shift in Colombian politics seemed to solidify with the election in 2010 of Juan Manuel Santos, a determined man who had a solid record as the Minister of Defence in fighting the Marxist guerrilla FARC. The peace enforcer became a peacemaker, ending the world’s longest-running civil war and hammering out a treaty signed and ratified in the summer of 2016. And yes, he would earn the Nobel Peace Prize too.

Six years on Santos is gone, but his legacy — and peace — endures. And so now on to another chapter for the South American nation of some 51 million. Last weekend, leftist Gustavo Petro, a former member of the M-19 guerrilla movement who has vowed profound social and economic change, won Colombia’s presidency — the first progressive to do so in the country’s history.

He beat construction magnate Rodolfo Hernandez by a margin of almost 720,000 votes — a race that had a wider margin of victory than many observers predicted. Before polling, the two had been in a statistical dead heat.

Petro is a popular former mayor of capital Bogota and a current senator who ran on a campaign of fighting inequality with free university education, pension reforms and high taxes on unproductive land.

But it was his intent to ban new oil projects that surprised business elements, and he has promised to respect current contracts. His nation produces about 910,000 barrels of oil daily, ranking it in global terms 23rd overall — behind Oman and Malaysia but ahead of Azerbaijan.

It’s the third time Petro ran for the presidency and his success adds Colombia to a list of Latin American nations that have elected leftist leaders over the past decade.

When Santos forged the peace agreement to end the civil war that had been simmering since 1964, there was a hope that those who had suffered would somehow be able to place their hope and belief once more in a new Colombia where human rights would be respected. Petro certainly knows his first hand. The 62-year-old was tortured by the military when he was detained for his involvement with the guerrillas, and his victory has high-ranking armed forces officials bracing for change.

Even his running mate, Francia Marquez, marks a new paradigm in Columbian politics. She is single mother and former housekeeper and will be the country’s first Afro-Colombian woman vice-president.

More than 220,000 Colombians were killed in the 52-year civil war between rebels, the government and paramilitary groups — and 80 per cent of those killed were civilians. Somewhere between five and seven million people were displaced from their homes.

“I’m voting for my daughter — she turned 15 two weeks ago and asked for just one gift: that I vote for Petro,” security guard Pedro Vargas, 48, told Reuters last week. “ I hope this man fulfils the hopes of my daughter, she has a lot of faith in his promises,” added Vargas, who said he never votes.

There may be a peace agreement but there still isn’t peace, with ELN guerrillas who support a mix of Marxist-Leninist and liberation ideology still active.

Hernandez, who served as mayor of Bucaramanga, was a surprise contender in the run-off and had promised to shrink the government and to finance social programmes by stopping corruption. He has also pledged to provide free narcotics to addicts in an effort to combat drug trafficking.

Despite his anti-graft rhetoric, Hernandez is under a corruption investigation himself over allegations he intervened in a garbage management tender to benefit a company his son lobbied for. He has denied wrongdoing.

He was born to immigrant Italian farmers in Cordoba province in 1960 and he holds Italian citizenship along with his Colombian passport.

He was academically bright and edited a school newspaper and introduced liberation theology through his Roman Catholic schooling even if he questioned basic tenets of the faith.

Petro became a member of the guerrilla group 19th of April when he was 17. He was arrested in 1985 and spent 18 months in jail — where that torture too place for caught being in possession of firearms.

His guerrilla group evolved into the M-19 Democratic Alliance, a political party in which he was elected to be a member of the Chamber of Representatives in 1991. Back in 2010, he ran for president in a race that ultimately saw Santos win and set Colombia on a path to peace. Now Petro must ensure that peace endures.

Within a year, he was elected Mayor of Bogota, leading it to win a “Climate and City” accolade in 2013. He ran again for the presidency in 2018, finishing second in the first round of voting with 25 per cent, then losing the run-off.

The significance of Petro’s win last week cannot be underestimated, and it does mark a seismic shift for Colombia. For the first time since its independence in 1810, Colombia had voted for a leftist president

According to analysis in El País based on Sunday’s results, Colombia is now split between the traditionally conservative inland areas and the more liberal and leftist coast. But Petro was able to sway voters even in the areas that were opposed to him. His victory also indicates that Colombia is becoming a less conservative country than many — especially Colombian conservatives themselves — appear to believe.