On Sunday, Colombians will choose more than a president — they will choose between two opposing national projects: the return of an authoritarian conservative movement that fiercely opposes a historic peace accord signed with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, Latin America’s oldest guerrilla group; or a progressive economic and human-rights agenda that has the implementation of the peace deal at its core.
The candidate leading the progressive agenda is Gustavo Petro, a former member of the urban guerrilla group M19, known for storming the Palace of Justice in 1985. Although Petro did not participate in this military operation because he was behind bars at the time, people often assume he was responsible.
But Petro renounced armed conflict decades ago, and has a proven trajectory as a democratic leader. As an elected member of Congress, during Álvaro Uribe’s administration, Petro uncovered links between dozens of legislators and paramilitary forces. When he was mayor of Bogota, he launched social programs to benefit vulnerable groups (service centers for sexual and reproductive health, the creation of the District Department for Women), as well as other initiatives that failed in their execution — such as an attempt to reform the collection of garbage.
He is an imperfect candidate, but he has never been accused of corruption or crimes against humanity (something some of his opponents can’t brag about). Neither does he represent the extreme left; he is not a socialist, and has no plans to confiscate private property or perpetuate himself in power as Hugo Chávez did in Venezuela (a comparison thrown around by his main rivals). In fact, if Petro becomes president, he will have a robust opposition that will challenge his decisions and be a strong check on his power. Petro’s running mate, Ángela María Robledo, is a dedicated feminist who has worked with grass-roots organizations to defend the rights of women.
Petro is perceived as a threat by the elites because he has focused his campaign on Colombia’s vast inequality. He is the candidate with a post-conflict agenda for Colombia. He now counts highly respected progressive politicians such as Claudia López and Antanas Mockus among his supporters. Also, since the first round of presidential voting, several communities and organizations have come together to support Petro’s candidacy: feminists, environmentalists, artists, activists from the LGBTQ community, black and indigenous leaders. These groups understand the threat the far right poses for the peace agreement, vulnerable minorities and Colombia’s democratic institutions.
Iván Duque is an ex-congressman for the Democratic Center party, who has never managed more than six people. He knows the ways of Colombian aristocracy, and has become “the friendly face” of Uribism. Uribism is the political movement that revolves around ex-president Uribe. During his first term as president, Uribe changed the constitution to allow his reelection. His eight years in power were stained by the unlawful eavesdropping of journalists by the intelligence agency, the now-defunct Department of Administrative Security (DAS), and the almost 10,000 extrajudicial executions, known as “false positives,” perpetrated by the military.
For the second round of voting, Uribe, that is to say Duque, has made alliances with some of the most conservative figures in Colombia. One is Alejandro Ordóñez, a former inspector general who was dismissed for corruption and is known for persecuting women and girls who wanted to have access to legal and safe abortions. The other is Viviane Morales, a senator who conducted a referendum to overturn the adoption rights of same-sex couples.
Uribe’s allies already control both houses of Congress and, if Duque wins, this movement will consolidate power. He also wants to merge Colombia’s three high courts, which could lead to a takeover of the entire judicial branch.
Many Colombians have decided to vote blank as an act of protest. This may be a valid option, but it is irresponsible. One of the two candidates will still be elected president. And since Uribism has promised to “tear apart the peace agreement,” a vote for Petro is a vote to the end Colombia’s war.
Colombians are not choosing between two equal extremes of the political spectrum, as the pundits like to say. We are choosing between a right-wing government that has proven to be repressive and violent, and a candidate who will work to cement peace. Many equate the conservation of the status quo with institutional and economic stability for the country, but this is a false choice. Petro proposes a national project where we can not only prosper economically, distribute our success fairly among all citizens and strengthen our institutions, but we can also embrace our diversity and guarantee fundamental rights for all.
Catalina Ruiz-Navarro is a Colombian journalist and feminist activist living in Mexico City. She has a column in El Espectador and is the editor in chief of Volcánica Magazine.