Why Gustavo Petro’s Newfound Faith in Free Markets Won’t Fool Colombia

Gustavo Petro now claims to be an advocate of free markets and entrepreneurship, but he won't be able to convince Colombia that his beliefs are sincere.

petro polls
Leftist presidential candidate Gustavo Petro has a new found appreciation for free markets. But is it genuine?

Gustavo Petro’s recent play, ostensibly in conjunction with his major backers Antanas Mockus and Claudia Lopez, is a classic move out of the campaign book. After a lengthy career as a socialist firebrand, run to the center, and run just as fast as you can.

We might imagine, for a moment, a Twilight Zone-type scenario in which Bernie Sanders has just bested Hillary by the narrowest of margins. (After all, he won 43.1% of the vote; so it is not so outlandish as it seems). While centrist Democrats and their well-heeled financial backers on Wall Street are having their moment of sheer panic, over at Bernie campaign headquarters, top strategists are considering a perplexing challenge: How do we appeal to the center after a political career marked by far-left extemism?

Of course, Sanders did not win the nomination, and the vast majority of political analysts believe he would have fared worse than Clinton against Trump in 2016.

Petro, as polls have demonstrated and political analysts have discussed, has a difficult path for convincing a majority in Colombia; perhaps even more difficult than Sanders would have had, had he won the nomination.

Half of Colombians, for virtually the entire course of the campaign, have told pollsters that the one candidate they would never consider supporting is Petro. There is good reason for that.

Petro is a former member of the notorious M-19 guerrilla group whose audacious attack on the Colombian Supreme Court in 1985 left 98 people, including more than half of Colombia’s Supreme Court members, dead. Even worse, it has been alleged that the assault was at the behest of Pablo Escobar. Regardless, Petro claims that even though he was part of the group’s top leadership, he advocated peaceful measures and had no foreknowledge of the attack. Petro’s “defense” seems hardly credible to all but the most biased.

We are really to believe that even though he was a key leader of the group, that he knew nothing about the attack, and could have done nothing to stop it?

Petro served as mayor of Bogota from 2011-2015, and his tenure was generally regarded to be disastrous. He left office with abysmal approval ratings, and it would have been laughable three years ago, to even consider that he would reach the second round of a Colombian presidential election.

So what happened? How could an ex-guerrilla who did a disastrous job as mayor of the nation’s largest city, end up even as one of two final contenders for the presidency?

Simply put, he has two major factors to thank: one cultural, and one strategic.

Just as in the United States, culturally the Colombian Left has moved considerably to the left over the past few years. At the heart of their newfound aggressive ideology are their concepts of class struggle and social justice. “Petristas” as they are commonly known in Spanish, see the state as the means to address all manner of social, economic, political, and cultural ills, and want more money and power concentrated in a powerful government in order to right past wrongs.

The other factor is strategic: center-left candidate Sergio Fajardo miscalculated. He thought that his professorial, aloof, dignified manner would succeed in nudging enough of the hard-left (read: socialists) towards his camp. While his running mate Claudia Lopez rightly criticized Petro for his longstanding ties with the Venezuelan regime, Fajardo hoped to carve out enough support by presenting a positive message, and going light on criticism of other candidates; especially Petro.

As political scientists have often found, when people tell pollsters that they want a “clean” and “high-browed” and “honest” and “dignified” campaign, don’t believe them. They may say that, but empirical results show that they don’t want that.

Fajardo has wisely decided to endorse neither Petro nor Duque. He has already served as mayor of Medellin, and governor of Antioquia, so he is most likely contemplating another presidential run down the road; a campaign in which he might find considerable success, particularly if he is able to make a convincing case to advocates of free-markets and entrepreneurship.

Which brings us to Gustavo Petro’s sudden “change of heart.” Despite decades of evidence to the contrary, Petro now is attempting to convince Colombia’s 48 million, (and the rest of the region and the world), that he is really a believer in free-markets, entrepreneurship, the rule of law, and private property rights.

To that end, he’s enshrined his majestic “Twelve Commandments” in marble and deigned to appear in order deliver them to the eager and grateful citizens of Colombia. And here they are, delivered straight from God (his centrist backers Lopez and Mockus) to Gustavo “Moses” Petro, on Mount Sinai (the Plaza de Bolivar in Bogota).

  1. I will not expropriate.

  2. I will not convoke a Constituent Assembly.

  3. I will manage public resources as sacred resources.

  4. I will promote private initiative, entrepreneurship, and formalization in the economy.

  5. I will guarantee a pluralist democracy and respect for diversity.

  6. I will respect the social rule of law.

  7. I will respect the peace agreement.

  8. I will name the most capable in my administration.

  9. I will guarantee gender equality.

  10. I will promote an orderly move to use of clean energy.

  11. I will promote free and quality public education for all Colombians.

  12. I will guarantee compliance with the results of the consultation against corruption.

For those who have been following Petro’s lengthy career, it is no accident that items 1 and 2 stand out. Expropriation and a Constituent Assembly have been integral to his ideology for years. Just three months ago, I attended a Gustavo Petro campaign event, where he discussed the Constituent Assembly as the best means to do away with the power of the elites and oligarchs. Now, we are to believe that, on the threshold of the second round, that he has conveniently changed his mind?

He pledges to be fiscally prudent in management of public resources, but that was decidedly in contrast to his tenure as mayor.

After years of advocating for socialism and class-warfare based thinking, he now vies private enterprise and entrepreneurship, (not massive state intervention in the economy), as the key? It almost reminds one of Hugo Chavez’s 1998 campaign, when he pledged his support for free enterprise to the Venezuelan people. Look how that turned out.

The rule of law, pluralism, and respect for democracy are important things. Petro is correct that people in Colombia (as well as all countries) must learn to live together despite ideological, political, ethnic, racial, and religious differences. However, just thirty years ago, this is a man who joined a guerrilla group which killed numerous innocent people, in order to advance his agenda. Doesn’t sound like respect for diversity.

He claims he will base his political hires on the concept of meritocracy, but if we can deduce anything from his fellow comrades in the “Socialismo del Siglo XXI” movement, he will do just the opposite.

He pledges to respect the peace agreement, which the Colombian people rejected by democratic means. Duque, furthermore, has not pledged to destroy the peace agreement, but modify it to ensure that those who have committed the most serious crimes face justice.

“Gender equality” is of course a concept that sounds reasonable and respectable to just about every one. In the hands of a firm believer in “social justice” and “political correctness” such as Petro, however, who even knows what exactly “gender equality” means…but we can expect more of the ridiculous “gender inclusive” language that has been pushed by so-called progressives, which fundamentally changes the nature of the Spanish language.

His “orderly move to clean energy”, is of course a euphemism for ending Colombia’s oil and mining industries. Yes, that is correct. According to Gustavo Petro, Colombia would be better off without them. Where will we make up the lost revenue? Selling avocados, of course.

He pledges “free” education for all Colombians. Of course, nothing is free, but don’t tell that to the Petristas. Regardless, Duque has already stolen there thunder on this one, and pledged “free” education at the university level as well.

Finally, like his backer Lopez, he claims to be the greatest anti-corruption crusader in the history of Latin America. Yet, an investigation by the prosecutor’s office revealed that 96% of the city contracts handled by Petro between 2012 and 2015 were awarded directly, and without a bidding process! Of all of Comrade Petro’s “commandments”, this would appear to be the most hypocritical one of all.

Every one of the six major polls taken between the first and second round shows Petro losing, by margins of between 6% and 20%. If past polling is any indicator, the real margin will be closer to 20%, with around 10% to 15% casting a blank ballot, an option propelled by Fajardo.

Petro claims to have had his “St. Paul on the Road to Damascus” moment; he has seen the light and now he believes, (as history clearly demonstrates), that free markets and entrepreneurship are the keys to developing a stable, prosperous, and vibrant society.

If only his belief were sincere.

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