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Meet Gustavo Petro, Colombian Former Guerrilla & Leftist Who Mounted Historic Campaign for Presidency

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In Colombia, right-wing politician Iván Duque has been sworn in as Colombia’s new president. Duque was handpicked by former right-wing President Álvaro Uribe and has vowed to roll back key parts of Colombia’s landmark peace deal with FARC rebels. Just before Duque’s inauguration, Democracy Now! spoke to Gustavo Petro, who placed second in this year’s presidential race, receiving 8 million votes in his attempt to become Colombia’s first leftist president. In the 1980s, Petro was jailed and tortured for being a member of the M-19 guerrilla movement. He later went on to lead efforts in Colombia’s Congress to investigate ties between paramilitary death squads and top politicians.

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Web ExclusiveSep 22, 2023Colombian President Gustavo Petro: Full Interview on Democracy Now!
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: In Colombia, the right-wing politician Iván Duque has been sworn in as Colombia’s new president. Duque was handpicked by former right-wing President Álvaro Uribe and has vowed to roll back key parts of Colombia’s landmark peace deal with FARC rebels. U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley met with Duque ahead of his inauguration Tuesday to discuss U.S.-Colombia relations and the U.S.-backed drug war in Latin America. Duque also opposes drug legalization. Protesters gathered across Colombia to protest his inauguration and to demand an end to the wave of assassinations of human rights leaders.

Just before Duque’s inauguration, I spoke to Gustavo Petro. He placed second in this year’s presidential race, receiving 8 million votes. That would have been the largest number of votes ever received by a leftist candidate for Colombia’s presidency. In the 1980s, Gustavo Petro was jailed and tortured for being a member of the M-19 guerrilla movement. He later went on to lead efforts in Colombia’s Congress to investigate ties between paramilitary death squads and top politicians. Petro is the former mayor of Bogotá and has just rejoined the Colombian Senate.

I began by asking Gustavo Petro in Bogotá about the news from Venezuela, Colombia’s neighbor to the east. On Saturday, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro was uninjured in an apparent assassination attempt when drones loaded with explosives detonated above his head as he gave a nationally televised speech. Maduro blamed right-wing opponents and the Colombian government for the attack. It is the first drone attack, attempted assassination, on a sitting head of state. I asked Gustavo Petro for his response to what happened.

SEN. GUSTAVO PETRO: [translated] In general, I believe that governments try to resolve their own internal conflicts, oftentime their inabilities, by blaming it on external actions or foreign actions. And even though there’s no question about it, that there is external action, that no government operates absolutely independent of international contexts and interests and forces that are outside of a given society, what is true is that a government does not do very well by delegating blame for any event on those outside forces. There is always an internal situation that makes possible different actions.

And I believe that President Maduro has to examine in depth the internal situation of the country. There is an absence of a real dialogue. There is an absence of a clear program for a transition to a productive economy, given that Venezuela can no longer live off of oil. And these plans are not seen either in the opposition or in the government. A philosopher by the name of Gramsci called this, a long time ago, an integral crisis. The problem is not with Santos; it has to do with the integral crisis that Venezuelan society is experiencing.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about what’s happening today in Colombia, the inauguration of Iván Duque, your opponent, the man you ran against for president in Colombia, the significance of his victory?

SEN. GUSTAVO PETRO: [translated] Today is a day of many questions in Colombia, alongside the inauguration of the new president whose campaign was a sort of anthem or hymn to President Uribe, who represents the far-right-wing forces in Colombia and who is being judged and investigated for his ties to the paramilitary groups, which resulted in a genocide in Colombia. At the same time, in hundreds of communities and cities around Colombia, in their plazas and in more than 40 cities worldwide, there are demonstrations today that are shouting out to the new government, telling it that decisions need to be made about life, about peace and about justice in Colombia—about life, because they have assassinated more than 330 grassroots leaders, in recent months they have threatened thousands of opposition political activists; in terms of peace, because during the campaign the current president, the new president, announced that he would destroy essential aspects of the peace agreement reached by President Santos and the FARC guerrilla movement; and justice, because former President Uribe has been called to give testimony in a judicial proceeding for having bribed witnesses in an effort to hide his own ties to the paramilitary groups, and he has unleashed, from the Senate, where he is a senator, a campaign to discredit the Supreme Court, a campaign that he had already waged when he was president. Indeed, he illegally wiretapped the communications of the justices of the Supreme Court, the highest court in Colombia.

AMY GOODMAN: Gustavo Petro, can you talk about Iván Duque’s relationship with Uribe, how far back it goes, what they worked on together, and what you’re most concerned about, especially for an audience not from inside Colombia, but outside, who may not be as familiar with Colombian politics?

SEN. GUSTAVO PETRO: [translated] Well, very few of us know Duque. I don’t know him, either. He was really an unknown figure until four or five months ago. It is the power of Uribe’s leadership over a part of the right wing of Colombian society that has allowed Duque to become president. Before being a senator, without popular election, Duque was living in Washington, where he organized concerts to entertain the staff of the Inter-American Development Bank. And not much more about him is known.

What we do know is the discourse that has brought him to the presidency, which is exactly the same as the discourse of former President Álvaro Uribe. And it’s in this connection that there are concerns and fears. This is what led 8 million people to vote for me in the effort to win the office of president of Colombia. There is fear that the little bit of peace and democracy that has been constructed in Colombia would be destroyed, of public liberties, of judicial independence and respect for differences.

If you examine, for example, the résumé of the person who is going to be the representative of Colombia before the Organization of American States, Mr. Alejandro Ordóñez, you will find the résumé of a person who is an anti-Semite, who is a homophobe and who acts on that and whose ideology is fascist. He is the one who is going to be representing us at the Organization of American States.

If you analyze a bit the latest speeches of the person who today becomes the president of Colombia regarding anti-drug policy, you will find one very worrisome fact, which you have already noted in your own investigations. Colombia is one of the most violent countries in the world. It is one of the most socially unequal countries on Earth, the most unequal country in Latin America. And those have been the causes of the rise of a very powerful drug-trafficking interest around cocaine. The construction of a policy, that was born in Washington, of military confrontation and the repressive approach to put down drug trafficking has made Colombia this violent country and has turned a large part of the geography of the Americas, including several cities of the United States, among the 50 most violent cities in the world. The crisis is paid for in Colombia in the form of hundreds of thousands of deaths, the destruction of Colombia’s democracy, as is happening in Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, in Central America, in Venezuela, in Brazil, in Ecuador. But the price is also paid in the United States with the new statistic of deaths from overdoses from drugs that are much more harmful than cocaine, more than 60,000 deaths. So this is the balance sheet of a failure.

Mexico is moving towards a progressive policy regarding drugs, to stop confronting the drug problem from a military and repressive angle and to build a social path to emerge from the drug problem. Colombia has taken steps in that direction. When I was mayor of Bogotá, we took correct steps, showing—and the statistics showed that the new strategy was working. President Uribe has announced once again fumigation, jailing drug users, stepping up the military and repressive policy, following the advice of President Trump, and that path could lead our society to even greater violence.

Today, we have new actors in the violence. It’s not the FARC guerrillas who have disarmed. It’s not the insurgent guerrillas of the time of the Cold War. It’s no longer the paramilitary leaders who were extradited to the United States, not to be judged for the genocide they carried out in Colombia, but merely for drug trafficking. But there is an Americas-wide strategy, directed by the cartels, with roots in the United States, Mexico, Central America and Ecuador, trying to capture the production of coca leaf and cocaine in Colombia that could lead to even greater violence than we’ve experienced to date. Duque doesn’t appear to realize this, and in that ignorance or lack of knowledge, trying to construct a FARC in arms that does not exist today as a way of maintaining political power of Colombian society, they may—imitating Trump’s policy, they may condemn Colombia to a new era of violence. And that is the danger we’re talking about.

That is why there has been a growth in the assassination of grassroots leaders. It’s been 330 in the last months. That is why the threats against the judicial system. And for this reason, there is an internal struggle within the army and within the police to try to vet those forces, trying to clear out those who are allies of the peace process and trying to lead into the top positions the hard-line hawks who might lead Colombia to a new dirty war.

AMY GOODMAN: Colombian Senator Gustavo Petro. He placed second in this year’s presidential election in Colombia. We’ll be back with him in Bogotá in a moment.


AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we return to my interview with Colombian Senator Gustavo Petro. He placed second in this year’s presidential race in Colombia, receiving 8 million votes, more than any left presidential candidate in Colombia’s history. The inauguration took place on Tuesday, when we spoke to Gustavo Petro—the inauguration of Colombia’s new right-wing President Iván Duque.

AMY GOODMAN: Your own aide, Ana María Cortés, was also assassinated in the last weeks of the campaign. Can you talk about her? Do you think this was a message to you?

SEN. GUSTAVO PETRO: [translated] Not only was one of our activists assassinated, several of the activists of Colombia Humana were assassinated. In just one province, Cesar, one of more than 30 of the administrative regions of Colombia, 72 activists from our movement have been assassinated. And my brother just received a death threat at his home. My communications with the Office of the Prosecutor have been intercepted for the last year and a half. My family is in exile. There are millions of Colombians who are fearful today, who are afraid. That is why we’re calling them into the streets, because in the public plaza one can overcome fear and at least not allow oneself to become paralyzed. But that is the reality today in Colombia, and that is what the new president, Iván Duque, will have to answer to.

AMY GOODMAN: While you lost, Gustavo Petro, you also made history with 8 million votes to Duque’s 10 million. You garnered more votes than any left politician in Colombian history. Can you talk about your vision for Colombia and why you think that vision did not succeed in ultimately winning?

SEN. GUSTAVO PETRO: [translated] I no longer divide politics into left and right. I think that was a relatively logical way and a relatively realistic way to describe politics in the 20th century, but today politics is divided between the politics of life and the politics of death. Climate change worldwide separates us into two major sides. On the one hand, you have Trump, Maduro, Duque, and on the other side, you have those of us who want to respond and adapt as quickly as possible to climate change by bringing about changes in Colombian society, economy and politics. It’s life or death.

What we were preaching in Colombia is that. We need to build the movement of life, from the standpoint of respect for nature, from the standpoint of moving from an extractive-based, coal-exporting economy. We are the fifth-leading coal exporter in the world. That is to say, we have a lot of responsibility for climate change. And we want to move to a productive economy in agriculture and industry based on knowledge, so as to be able to live together with nature. We want to move to a zero-carbon economy. These are the kinds of proposals that we put forward as the main agenda in our election campaign. That’s what we want.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s very interesting that you put together Trump, Duque and Maduro, Maduro of Venezuela. I wanted to go back to this issue of the assassination attempt. On Sunday, Bolivian President Evo Morales tweeted, “Within the last 12 months, US Vicepresident Mike Pence made 3 trips to Latin America to meet at least 8 presidents from whom he demanded support for military intervention against our brother president of Venezuela Nicolás Maduro. Those are the Empire’s coup attempts.” Do you feel the U.S. was involved in some way in what looks like an assassination attempt on Maduro’s life?

SEN. GUSTAVO PETRO: [translated] I reject any type of violence for resolving social conflicts in Latin America. I believe that we have experienced 30 years of revolutionary wars in Central America. In Colombia, I myself was a protagonist of that effort as a member of the M-19 movement, which laid down its weapons in 1989, and then it became a majority through popular vote and played a very important role in the 1991 Constitution of Colombia, a profoundly democratic constitution. We experienced years of military dictatorships, exile. The word “democracy” practically vanished from Latin America. It was really just at the beginning of the 21st century that a sort of spring began, with progressive, popular electoral victories, and we began to see new paths emerging. We cannot go back to the past—the dictatorships that exist, for example, in Brazil, as I believe exist in Venezuela, and a threat thereof in Nicaragua and Honduras, a threat of this in Colombia—nor can we go back to the revolutionary wars, trying to resolve conflicts through violence.

I think we need to preserve and persevere along the nonviolent paths in order to work out our own conflicts. That does not mean that there’s not a violent attack against Maduro. That doesn’t mean that there are not interests who would like to see Venezuelan society collapse, by the same interests who brought about the collapse of the society of Libya, Iraq, Syria. Behind that there is a dark and dirty game, all around oil interests and the world oil market. I know that the collapse of Venezuela would immediately mean the collapse of Colombia, because millions of Colombians who in years past went into economic exile in Venezuela would come back. And as Pope Francis says, these kinds of exoduses just create new situations of slavery and violence. I know that there is also a tough, a hard-line, racist, xenophobic, imperialist sector in U.S. society who, with their allies in Europe, believe they can dominate the world and accommodate the different visions of hundreds of human cultures into their exclusive way of thinking and acting. But I am totally convinced that it’s the peoples themselves who transform societies.

The issue that I’ve raised of climate change, well, I propose to the Colombians and to Colombia that this should be the fundamental line of our international policy, and from there, based on that, we should determine who are our allies and who are on the other side. Together, in a single political party, speaking in general global terms, someone like Maduro and someone like Trump are together, because the progressive wave in Latin America that began in the early 20th century consolidated its role by greater income distribution, the genuine desire to reduce inequality in the most unequal region of the world based on the rents that were generated by the rise in international oil prices, as well as coal and gas prices. It’s an unsustainable way forward which is being shown in Venezuela, and the governments of Ecuador and Bolivia and, in part, Brazil followed that same path. I think that this has brought about a crisis, violating their own democratic principles. We see this in Venezuela, and we now see it in Nicaragua.

A new progressivism is emerging. Graphically speaking, we could say there is a new axis between Mexico, Bogotá and São Paulo. Now an important force has won the presidency of Mexico. We almost did the same thing in Colombia with 8 million votes. And it may happen in Brazil, if the current dictatorship there allows it. That new axis should propose for Latin America a new role in the international order: reject being assigned, being mere exporters of raw materials, of fossil fuel raw materials. That alone would bring an end to Colombia. And we need to have a new role: production based on knowledge, production without carbon, a decarbonized production, and therefore a new democracy. This is what we propose to the world. And this new progressive axis would have very powerful allies, humankind itself, and would display its moral and political superiority, its superiority of arguments based on science. That, I believe, is what we are now building in Colombia and in Latin America. That is the way forward that we are going to be trying to insist on in coming months and coming years.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re speaking to now-Senator Gustavo Petro. He ran for president of Colombia, got more votes than any previous opposition left-leaning presidential candidate in Colombian history. Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to Colombia, is leading the delegation for Iván Duque’s inauguration as we speak. Ambassador Haley wrote in the Miami Herald, “The United States stands unequivocally with the people of Venezuela and Nicaragua against their corrupt governments. Colombia presents a model for their democratic aspirations. We look forward to working with the new government in Bogota to ensure that the freedom model endures for all of the Americas.” The Washington Post quotes one unnamed U.S. official saying, “Now Colombia will have the most pro-U.S. president in all of Latin America.” Your thoughts?

SEN. GUSTAVO PETRO: [translated] I think that all of the Colombian presidents have been the most pro-U.S. presidents of Latin America, whatever U.S. policy has been, back to the 1950s. Colombia was one of the few countries that joined the United States in the Korean War. The same brigade that was in Korea came back to kill insurgents in Colombia, giving rise to the FARC. And that was at the orders of the president at the time, who had made speeches favorable to Hitler and Mussolini. They had been defeated in the Second World War. So, before having a sort of—rather than facing some sort of Nuremberg trial, they decided to become the chief allies of the United States, so long as they would not be tried for genocide. And that has been history of the presidents of Colombia. The current conduct of incoming President Duque has been traditional.

But the ambassador of the United States to the United Nations makes a mistake when she talks about Colombia. First of all, she does not recall the analysis and statements of her own ambassador a few years back, Myles Frechette, who said publicly that Uribe’s government was a government that was an ally of the drug-trafficking interests, and that the Uribe government made peace with the paramilitary groups, and rather than having them become subjected to justice, instead it was really the consolidation of an alliance with drug traffickers.

And the representative coming to—the one who becomes—she says that here we have liberty, the liberty one would like to see throughout Latin America. No, I’m sorry, Ambassador. They have killed 330 leaders in recent months. I don’t think that that is the liberty that the United States wants for Latin America. That’s not freedom. I myself am threatened. Is that the freedom that the United States would like to see?

But getting into a specific and fundamental issue, as presidential candidate, I had a dialogue with the current ambassador of the United States. And if the United States really wants to stop the exodus from Latin America to the United States, if it really wants a serious relationship based on friendship, it has to begin by changing its own drug policy. The anti-drug policy of the United States government has found its highest expression in military struggle and repression that is directed against drug users and against the peasants who produce coca leaf, and this is now making all of Latin America bleed. It’s leading to the violent death of Latin American society. But at the same time, it is leading to the death, through overdose, by not mitigating damages by a more scientific-based policy in the U.S. society itself. I would invite the ambassador of the United States to the U.N., now that she’s coming to Bogotá, to re-examine with scientists and objectively a drug policy that has been profoundly criminal and ineffective throughout the Americas.

AMY GOODMAN: Gustavo Petro, you said your own life is threatened. Have you received death threats?

SEN. GUSTAVO PETRO: [translated] Yes. The last one I received was two weeks ago. There was a pamphlet circulating against the main opposition leaders in Colombia by a group called the Black Eagles. They have threatened thousands of people throughout Colombia in the last couple of months. The grotesque content of these death threats, well, they always say that we should not be the opposition to Duque.

Not a single member of the Black Eagles is in prison. There has never been any combat. There is no record of the real existence of an organization independent of the state called the Black Eagles. They carry out threats from the far north in the Guajira Peninsula to the far south of Colombia, Leticia, in the Amazon. There is no organization that has such a capacity to cover all of Colombia’s geography other than the state.

The threats are actually made by public officials, officials of the Colombian state, who create internal, clandestine groups. And those who are at the command are struggling to become the top commanders of the police, the army and the intelligence bodies in the new Duque administration. That’s what the Águilas Negras, or Black Eagles, are. Those are the ones who have been carrying out most of these threats.

AMY GOODMAN: Colombian Senator Gustavo Petro. He placed second in this year’s presidential race in Colombia, receiving 8 million votes, more than any left presidential candidate in Colombia’s history. I spoke with him in Bogotá on Tuesday just before he left for the inauguration of Colombia’s new right-wing President Iván Duque. We’ll play the second half of the interview next week on Democracy Now! Special thanks to Charlie Roberts.

When we come back, the Media Enabled Musketeers, a group of American and Russian filmmakers with disabilities collaborating on telling their own stories. Stay with us.

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