Ex-rebel candidate in Colombian elections could destabilize US relations | Health, medicine and fitness

By MANUEL RUEDA – Associated Press

BOGOTA, Colombia (AFP) – Last year, Fabian Espinel helped organize roadblocks as young people protested police violence and government plans to raise taxes on low-income Colombians.

Now, as Colombia approaches its presidential election on Sunday, Espinel is roaming the streets of working-class sections of Bogotá handing out flyers for front-runner Gustavo Petro and helping to paint murals in support of the leftist politician.

“Young people in this country are stuck,” said Espinel, who lost his job as an event planner during the pandemic and has not received any compensation from his company. “We hope Petro can change that. We need a different economic model than the one that has let us down for years.”

Colombians will choose from among six candidates in a poll taking place amid a general feeling that the country is heading in the wrong direction. The latest opinion polls suggest Petro could get 40% of the vote, 15 points ahead of his nearest rival. But the senator needs 50% to avoid a second round in June against the runner-up.

His main rival for most of the campaign period was Federico Gutierrez, a former mayor of Medellín who is supported by most of Colombia’s traditional parties and operates on a pro-business economic growth platform.

But populist real estate mogul Rodolfo Hernandez has risen rapidly in the polls and could challenge for second place in Sunday’s vote. He has few connections to political parties and says he will reduce wasteful government spending and give rewards to Colombians who denounce corrupt officials.

Petro, a former rebel with an anti-establishment rhetoric, promises major adjustments to the economy as well as changing the way Colombia fights drug cartels and other armed groups. His agenda has largely focused on combating the inequalities that have affected the people of this South American country for decades, and have only worsened during the COVID-19 pandemic.

He has promised government jobs for people who can’t find work, free college lessons for Colombian youth and subsidies for farmers struggling to grow crops, which he says he will pay for by raising taxes on wealthy individuals and businesses.

His agenda also touches on issues that could shake Colombia’s close relationship with the United States.

Adam Isaacson, a defense policy expert at the Washington Office of Latin America, a think-tank, said that if Petroe won the election, “there would be more disagreement and distance” between the two countries.

Petro wants to renegotiate a free trade agreement with the United States that has boosted imports of American products such as powdered milk and corn. Instead, it prefers local producers.

It also promises to change the way Colombia fights drug cartels that produce about 90% of the cocaine currently sold in the United States. The senator often criticizes US drug policy in the Western Hemisphere, saying it has “failed” because it focuses too much on eradicating illegal crops and capturing bosses. He wants to increase aid to rural areas, to give farmers alternatives to growing coca, the plant used to make cocaine.

Isaacson said coca eradication goals could become a lower priority for the Colombian government under the Petro administration, as well as the speed with which arrested drug traffickers are sent to the United States to face charges,

The elections come as the Colombian economy is struggling to recover from the pandemic and frustration with political elites grows.

A Gallup poll conducted earlier this month showed 75% of Colombians think the country is heading in the wrong direction and only 27% approve of conservative President Ivan Duque, who cannot run for re-election. A Gallup poll last year found that 60% of those surveyed find it difficult to manage their household income.

Sergio Guzman, a political risk analyst in Bogota, said the pandemic and the 2016 peace deal with the rebel Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) have changed voters’ priorities.

“While previous elections centered around issues like how to deal with insurgent groups, the main issue now is the economy,” Guzman said. “Voters are concerned about who will deal with issues such as inequality or a lack of opportunity for young people.”

If Petro or Hernandez wins the presidency, they will join the group of left-wing and foreign leaders who have taken over Latin American governments since the pandemic began in 2020.

In Chile, leftist lawmaker Gabriel Borek won last year’s presidential election, leading a progressive coalition that promised to change the country’s constitution and make public services like energy and education more affordable.

In Peru, voters elected rural schoolteacher Pedro Castillo to the presidency even though he never held the position. Castillo has challenged political parties that have been mired in bribery scandals and presidential trials and have marred the country’s response to the coronavirus pandemic. Ecuadoreans bucked the leftist trend last year, but still elected the external opposition candidate, Guillermo Laso.

In regional affairs, Petro is looking to restore diplomatic relations with the socialist government of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro. Colombia cut diplomatic ties with Venezuela in 2019 as part of a US-led effort to isolate Maduro and pressure him with sanctions to hold new elections.

Some observers believe Petro may be in a position to mend bridges between Maduro and some sectors of the Venezuelan opposition.

“Resolving the political and economic crisis in Venezuela is in Colombia’s interest,” said Ronal Rodriguez, a professor at the University of Rosario 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 in Colombia’s foreign policy.

She said efforts to renegotiate a free trade agreement with the United States could be thwarted by lawmakers in both countries. And when it comes to security, the Colombian military will be reluctant to abandon cooperation agreements with the United States that include joint exercises, intelligence sharing and jobs for Colombian military instructors at 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 outright. She said that if he had to go into the run-off, he would have to cut deals with parties in the middle, which might support his domestic reforms in exchange for more control over security and international relations.

“His priority will be to implement local reforms aimed at reducing inequality and overcoming poverty,” Borda said. “Petro understands that if he does this, he will have a greater chance of consolidating his political movement.”

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