It is not easy to guess what goes through Gustavo Petro’s head when he is in front of him. Hermetic and impenetrable, it exudes an air of absence, as if it were somewhere else at the same time. Not even his advisers sometimes know what to expect. A few weeks ago one of them tried to convince him to qualify a firm position on an issue that has made him very unpopular with part of the electorate. The candidate reviewed the papers and replied: “My positions are categorical. I’m not going to back down.” Then he began to observe the sky through the window of the plane.
Petro is stubborn, says his daughter Sofía, but he believes that stubbornness is what has made him the first left-wing president in Colombian history. He was presenting himself for the third time for a position that did not seem destined for someone like him, a former guerrilla who provokes fear among the social and business elites. In recent years he has moved away from any sympathy towards Cuba and Venezuela, tries to understand feminism and speaks of creating a progressive axis in the region together with Boric in Chile and Lula in Brazil. And he has stopped dressing like the social fighter he always was to look more like a statesman.
Despite being shy, one of his strengths is rallies. Petro, 62, is part of the tradition of great speakers that this country of people with ease of speech has had. He has given 100 speeches with which he believed he could settle the elections in the first round. It was not like that, and in the second he had to do with the most unpredictable opponent, the enigmatic Rodolfo Hernández. In the last stretch of the campaign, he concentrated on broadcasting his visit to ordinary people on social networks to give an image of closeness that he did not transmit on the stage.
His journey to get here has something of an odyssey. Many would have fallen by the wayside. He was born in the Caribbean town of Ciénaga de Oro, but his parents moved to Bogotá when he was still a baby. He was a student enrolled in the same college for priests where García Márquez studied in Zipaquirá. When at the age of 17 he joined the M-19, an intellectual and urban guerrilla, he called himself Aureliano, after one of the characters in One hundred years of solitude. The armed group recruited a brain, because Petro at that time was puny and already suffered from severe myopia.
At that time he became a social leader by invading, together with hundreds of families, some land where he founded a neighborhood, Bolívar 83. “I will never forget those days because they linked me forever to the world of the poor,” Petro writes in his autobiography. He was briefly a councilor there, before being captured in 1985 by the military, who tortured him in army stables. From that moment he is accompanied by the premonition that his way of rebelling against the world leads him to a violent death.
When he got out of prison he failed in his attempt to create an armed cell in the bush, that was definitely not his thing. In those times he severed all his relationship with family and friends. He returned to civilian life in 1990, when the M-19 signed a peace agreement with the government. The last guerrilla leader, Carlos Pizarro, was assassinated a month and a half later, when he was a presidential candidate. His daughter, María José, today a congresswoman from Petro’s coalition, makes a comparison between the two: “Gustavo is much more rational, he is a man of proposals already built in the maturity of all these years.” She considers that for having lived in that environment full of great ideals, Petro has something of a redeemer: “All that generation of men and women are quite messianic. The luck that Gustavo has is that he has survived.”
For the first time he was elected congressman in 1991, but after finishing his term he had to go into exile in Belgium: the guerrillas who got into politics were assassinated. In Europe he became an environmentalist, and without that it would not be possible to explain why he now wants to change Colombia’s economic model when he assumes the Presidency – he proposes, for example, to stop oil exploration as part of the energy transition. He believes that Latin America has to abandon extractivism and focus on production, industrialization and knowledge. Back in the country, in 1998, he returned to Congress to become one of the most admired opposition legislators. The biggest stain on that legislative career was his vote to elect Alejandro Ordóñez, a controversial ultra-conservative politician, close to Uribism, as attorney general.
From the Capitol he was the whip of President Álvaro Uribe (2002-2010). He denounced both the alliances between politicians and paramilitaries and the espionage of the secret service, which he himself suffered. He believed that with that fame he was enough to be president and he tried it with little success in 2010. He did not give up. He was mayor of Bogotá and no one agrees whether he did it right or wrong. He achieved the lowest homicide rates in 20 years, extended the school day in public schools and carried out a policy to guarantee the vital minimum of water to the poorest households. Many former collaborators agree that he is difficult to work with, as evidenced by the frequent changes in an unstable government team. He was dismissed by Attorney General Ordóñez for trying to de-privatize the garbage model and he called demonstrations that became massive with speeches from the balcony of the Liévano Palace. That’s where petrism was born.
Riding that wave, he tried again to be president four years ago, but the polarization and rejection of the peace process turned against him. He had been campaigning ever since. The unpopular administration of Iván Duque, placed there by Uribe, now placed him as the favorite for the elections that he won this Sunday with more than eleven million votes. In the first round, led by Francia Márquez, he defeated the right, the establishment, Uribism and all those currents that are against it. The presidency seemed close after ending his historical enemies. However, an anti-system opponent was put in front of him who represented disaffection for politicians, just what he is. In the final stretch he has had to climb an Everest, one more in his life. The idealistic Aureliano, the courageous congressman, the combative mayor and the stubborn candidate had enough strength to crown that summit.
*This profile was updated once the result of the second round of the presidential elections was known.
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