Colombian President Gustavo Petro joins Democracy Now! for an exclusive broadcast interview after his address to the United Nations General Assembly in New York, where he spoke of the need to end wars and stop the climate crisis. Petro is the first leftist to ever govern Colombia. He was elected in 2022 after campaigning to fight inequality and poverty, increase taxes on the wealthy, expand social programs, restore peace and end Colombia’s dependence on fossil fuels. He is a former M-19 guerrilla who went on to become the mayor of Bogotá and a senator before rising to the presidency.
AMY GOODMAN: The United Nations General Assembly is continuing today in New York. On Tuesday, Colombian President Gustavo Petro gave an inspired address calling to end wars while doing more to combat climate change, which he described as “the mother of all crises.” Petro called for the United Nations to hold peace summits to resolve the conflicts in Ukraine and Palestine.
Gustavo Petro is the first leftist to ever be president of Colombia, the second-largest country in South America after Brazil. He was elected last year after campaigning to fight against inequality and poverty, increase taxes on the wealthy, expand social programs, restore peace and end Colombia’s dependence on fossil fuels. Gustavo Petro ran for office with Francia Márquez Mina, who became the first Black woman and the first Afro-Colombian ever elected vice president. Gustavo Petro is a former M-19 guerrilla who went on to become the mayor of Bogotá and a senator.
Well, on Tuesday, I had a chance to sit down with Gustavo Petro for an exclusive broadcast interview.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. We’re here at Colombia’s Permanent Mission to the United Nations, just after President Gustavo Petro gave his speech before the U.N. General Assembly. He was the third person to speak — first the Brazilian President Lula, then President Biden, then Colombia’s President Gustavo Petro.
Welcome back to Democracy Now!
PRESIDENT GUSTAVO PETRO: [translated] Thank you. Very kind.
AMY GOODMAN: You spoke just after President Biden. In part of his speech, he talked about the world giving more support to Ukraine. In your speech, you called for two peace summits: one in Ukraine and one for Palestine. You said:
PRESIDENT GUSTAVO PETRO: [translated] I ask: What is the difference between Ukraine and Palestine? Isn’t it time to end both wars and other wars and use the little time we have to build the roads to save life on Earth?
AMY GOODMAN: Talk about what you are calling for.
PRESIDENT GUSTAVO PETRO: [translated] Latin America, almost in general, has not had the same position as NATO, nor the United States, nor the European Union. We have been invited to provide arms, machinery for war, to send soldiers to the war in Ukraine. We have not accepted that invitation. Basically, we’re neutral in any war, not because we don’t believe that there is an occupation, but because, basically, we don’t believe in those who are inviting us to participate in war, because many of the countries of Latin America — Guatemala, the Dominican Republic, Panama, Grenada, Argentina and so on — have suffered invasions by the same countries that today are extending an invitation to reject the invasion of Ukraine. Most of the Latin American countries rejected the invasions of Libya, Iraq and Syria, which were done for motives which today are illegal.
And in that regard, when I compare the situation of Palestine with the situation of the Ukraine, I want to show a parallelism in the real situations. There’s military occupation in both countries. But there’s a different attitude among world powers. The European Union is interested in pushing Russia back, together with NATO. They have certain economic arrangements with Ukraine. Ukraine is like the role of Mexico in relation to the United States. But they’re not interested in Palestine. They’re not interested in the conflict with Israel. The United States is not interested in having a conflict with Israel — enforcing the Oslo Accords, which date back 30 years and which spoke of two states and Palestinian sovereignty and ending a civilian and military occupation of Palestinian territory. That is not happening. Yet, faced with the same circumstance, we have a two-faced situation. That is what I call the hypocrisy of international policy. In Latin America, that’s not well received.
That is why I propose that the United Nations be consistent. If we want a peace conference in the Ukraine and in Palestine, it’s because we want there to be a common policy against invasions in any part of the world, carried out by any country. It doesn’t depend on which country invades. In the Rome Statute, which was the basis for the International Criminal Court, an international crime was added there, and it is called aggression, international aggression. It had never been used before. And that formulation, which is to be found in the Rome Statute, has not been used because almost all of the countries that today condemn the invasion of Ukraine as a matter of military power have also invaded other countries. It’s just that they don’t want those invasions to be condemned.
AMY GOODMAN: Have you discussed this with President Biden?
PRESIDENT GUSTAVO PETRO: [translated] Yes, clearly, and with the European Union, because recently we had a conference in Brussels among all the countries of Latin America and the European Union. And note that the first effort, instead of trying to focus the discussion on the objective of the conference, which was to build stronger relations between Latin America and Europe, what the European leaders wanted was to bring Zelensky and to have a show in the midst, in the middle of the meeting with Latin America. The immense majority of the Latin American countries oppose that, because we are not going to that meeting for the purpose of being used. And a good part of the discussion at the end revolved not around how we could establish a new era in our relations, but rather around the question of the war in Ukraine, a war which is prejudicial to Latin America, because it has led to greater hunger among the populations of Latin America.
What we want is peace. We said the same thing to the government of the United States. Indeed, in my case, personally, given that previous administrations in Colombia purchased Russian weaponry, which is there in Colombia, there was a request on the part of both Russia, for the Russian weapons to go back to Russia, and from the United States, for the Russian weaponry to go to the Ukraine. I did not accept either. What Latin America wants is peace. Today, peace is indispensable, not only because of the consequences that that war could entail, and I think we’re beginning to see them with an expansion of the idea of war in the world, but because we need this time.
And that was the objective of my speech with the United Nations, in order to act based on what is most important, the most important thing we face today, which is defending life on the planet, which is making effective decisions that would make it possible to bring a halt to the climate crisis. So, what is the benefit to us if Ukraine or Russia wins, whether NATO expands or not, if human life is limited in this definitive manner on the planet Earth?
AMY GOODMAN: So, President Petro, you said mankind has dedicated itself to war, and that instead it must put its resources into dealing with climate change, which you’ve called “the mother of all crises.” How do you propose the world do this, as you’re together with world leaders here at the United Nations?
PRESIDENT GUSTAVO PETRO: [translated] Well, I’m not very optimistic with these meetings. There’s like a mise en scène, as the French say, where there’s not necessarily conversation among themselves, but rather each one is speaking to their own people. The stage of the United Nations is used, but to speak to one’s own country or to see oneself. But it has not produced a sufficient interlocution.
There’s a little bit more of interlocution in the conferences of the parties, the COPs, but they have no binding force. They just come up with a list of recipes, which may or may not be taken into account. The status of the conversation around climate change is very different than, say, the status of the conversation around world trade. World trade has a binding institution. If one breaches a rule of those is subject to serious financial punishment. The World Trade Organization, for example, is the institution of free market economies. But as it’s more important to resolve the issue of the climate change, because this is obviously a vital matter, yet one doesn’t find the same binding force. Nobody fails to just obey rules. There’s no courts for this. There’s no justice. So everybody can just slip by, as we say, ignoring, turning a blind eye to the decisions made.
And that is why, in relation to the 2015 COP in Paris, where the most powerful countries on Earth made a commitment to provide $100 billion, which today is a very small sum compared to what’s needed to mitigate and adapt to the climate crisis, not even 10 billion has come in of that. Yet that same figure, in just one week, if you look at the military contributions of Germany, the United Kingdom and the United States, all told, then these sums have come forward, but for war, the war in Ukraine.
AMY GOODMAN: You have called for decarbonization of the economy, for an end to fossil fuel extraction in Colombia. Yet Colombia exports — oil is the number one export. You have the largest open coal pit in the world. Can you talk about how you accomplish this?
PRESIDENT GUSTAVO PETRO: [translated] Yes, this is certainly a matter of debate in Colombia especially. I have wanted to show the world that even though we live off of oil and coal, the president of the republic can ask the world for decarbonization of the economy. It makes sense vis-à-vis the whole world, because in many countries — the Arab countries, many Latin American countries, even Russia, which are powers in respect of their oil reserves, their gas reserves — there is an attitude of wanting to stop the possibilities of a transformation of the world by stopping our use of coal, oil and gas. And this obviously condemns us.
Science is not wrong on this. Progressivism, as a worldwide political movement, was always based on the idea of doing politics enlightened by science, not irrational kind of politics like the far right has done in the world. Today we see a conflict there, because science tells us that if we use what is buried in Colombia in the way of coal, or what is buried in Venezuela in terms of oil reserves, then we would pass a point of no return, and humankind would have no possibilities, and life on the planet would have no possibilities.
Venezuela lives off of oil — it lived off of oil — and Colombia, coal and oil. Nonetheless, we — Colombia is calling for a change in the economy. Now, within Colombia, that has produced a major debate. They say, “The president must be crazy or sick. No one in the world is listening to what he has to say. He’s taking us to an abyss.” I believe, because I trust that humanity will not let itself become extinguished, that in a relatively short time period — say, 10 to 15 years — in effect, the demand for oil and coal will collapse in the world. And what we call the fossil economy, which is most of the capitalism on Earth, has to turn to new technologies without coal and without oil.
Now, if that is the case of the world, then what we call the decarbonized economy today is going to impose new realities on the world economy. There, there will be different social relations of production. And if we don’t go in that direction, then we are going to have tremendous inequality and economic backwardness and backwardness in terms of knowledge vis-à-vis the world. So, therefore, I would hope that one could move in tandem, if not move ahead, on decarbonizing the economy.
I think it’s fundamental for a region like South America, whose greatest potential and whose greatest wealth is precisely in its natural biodiversity, in the amount of its water, in the amount of sunshine that falls on the region and the winds that blow through the region — that is to say, the sources of clean energy. In my opinion, coal and oil for South America is a mirage, in which they might become anchored even as a result of their own left wings. But they would leave Latin America behind in a transformation that the entire world is going to undergo. And that transformation is not a negative thing. It mustn’t be seen as backsliding to poverty.
In Colombia, for example, there are five generators of electricity, sources of companies. It’s an oligopoly. They have rates, which for the standard of living of Colombia, the electricity rates are extremely high. This is one of the irrational paradoxes, which is that in the Caribbean coast, there is plentiful sol year round. Indeed, most of South America — in most of South America and in Colombia, most of the energy consumed is gas, whereas solar energy could be much cheaper. That irrationality has to do today with a frontier. The oligopoly doesn’t want to make a transition to clean energies, because clean energies could enable us — well, could make it possible for 1 or 2 million households in all of Colombia to generate their own electricity based on solar energy, for example, and with great efficiency in the case of the Caribbean. We would move from one generator to millions.
And this could be called a democratization, that democratization that would produce the decarbonized economy, which is the intention, which is there. Well, it doesn’t like this big fossil fuel capitalism, which has become a sort of a great monopoly worldwide and which is putting up resistance. And that is why the move from a fossil fuel economy to a decarbonized economy, under a viewpoint which I would call of the left, should be plausible, because it would lead to democratization of the world, and not concentration of property and wealth, as has been the case so far.
AMY GOODMAN: President Petro, I want to talk to you about migration, which directly links to climate. You’ve talked about that, to climate violence, conflict. You’ve called it “the exodus of humanity.” Tens of thousands of asylum seekers make their way through the deadly Darién Gap, the Darién jungle between the border of Colombia and Panama. What should be done to ensure the safety of asylum seekers, and especially when they get to the United States? Your views on the U.S. seeking to persuade other countries, like your own, Colombia, like Mexico, Guatemala, to enforce U.S. border policies and prevent asylum seekers from going north?
PRESIDENT GUSTAVO PETRO: [translated] Three years ago, nobody was going through the Darién Gap. This year, it might end up being as many as half a million. And given the flow, which is 3,000 persons a day, next year could be a total of 1 million people going through the Darién Gap. After going through the Darién Gap, the figure is doubled, going through Central America and Mexico. And then, about 2 million people reach the United States each year trying to get in.
It’s an exodus. It’s an exodus that Colombia was not familiar with before. And it goes through the most inhospitable jungle worldwide. Not even the old guerrilla forces in Colombia had used that region as part of their geography, because it is just so inhospitable. Recall the difficulties that engineering faced when it came to building the Panama Canal, so many workers who died at that time. Well, here it’s even worse, because this is a jungle which is very biodiverse but at the same time is very inhospitable for human beings, and so no one would go through there. And now we’re approaching a million people, most of them children, older people, women.
And as Pope Francis said, and quite rightly so, at a conference when I was mayor of Bogotá a few years ago — he taught me, because I had not seen that concept — he tied the concept of exodus to the concept of new forms of slavery. Well, in effect, I am seeing this with my very own eyes. That human exodus, that began moving from Venezuela to Colombia, expanded throughout South America, and now much more with other countries, they’re going across the Darién Gap — that exodus is a victim of a series of forms of new slavery — mafias, armed organizations, that are taking women to prostitution in the United States. They’re using child labor to transport drugs. They are raping women along the way. The children die of dehydration.
That is to say, there’s a human catastrophe which happens. Why? Well, and this is where we have the discussion with the United States, 62%, according to Panamanian figures, and we find that 75% of the population that has been crossing through the Darién Gap is Venezuelan. That is the population which, after the blockade and before COVID, were already going en masse into Colombia, and from Colombia dispersed throughout South America. That population now wants to go to the United States. That is to say, the blockade against Venezuela has had a boomerang-type response, now hitting the very United States, which are the ones who decided to impose the blockade. So, knocking at their door are the population that they drove into poverty.
Venezuela is a rich country. They have an endless amount of oil and gas, and Venezuela’s population was relatively stable, whatever the regime, whether it was under Chávez or what they call el Punto Fijo. But with the blockade, the standard of living of these persons collapsed. They basically totally threw off the equilibrium that the majority of Venezuelans were accustomed to. Many of them have left, and now what they want is to make it to the United States. How can one partially reduce the exodus? Well, lift the blockade against Venezuela. That’s relatively easy, thinking about it and talking about it.
AMY GOODMAN: You’re talking about the U.S. embargo against Venezuela.
PRESIDENT GUSTAVO PETRO: [translated] Yes, I call it a blockade. It’s the same thing, the embargo on accounts, the impossibility of selling oil, which is the fundamental source of wealth for Venezuelans, the financial incapacity, not because they don’t have the resources, but because they don’t reach them, in order to make the transition to productive economies.
There’s even a topic that has to do with the climate crisis. And that is that Venezuela burns methane. And they have less and less capacity to burn methane. That’s a chemical. Methane is 23 times more powerful than carbon dioxide when it comes to heating up the planet. If it’s burned, it becomes CO2, so that capacity is diminished, but if it flows into the atmosphere, it’s like a chimney of CO2 being multiplied by 26. That is what’s happening to Venezuela today because of lack of resources.
So we have a short-term human impact, the people who leave, 2 to 3 million people who now want to go to Venezuela, and they are — the countries that have been receiving Venezuelans, well, those populations have followed the example of the Venezuelans, such as Ecuadorians, for example, and that is having a negative impact on the chemical composition of the atmosphere because their own inability to bring to a halt one of the greatest negative impacts.
This is a boomerang. It’s not harming Maduro or his family or his political project very much, because they’re there governing, but it’s as though there were a suicide. We are all being affected by the chemical change of the atmosphere, and even the United States, which are beginning to frame very strong anti-migrant policies and who are pressured by a part of U.S. society that doesn’t like having people with darker skin coming to the country, who speak different languages. Well, they themselves have provoked the fact that, by the millions, these people now want to get into the United States, simply to exercise an imperial policy that is absolutely ineffective and where you end up killing children. You end up killing or impoverishing the weakest part of the population, such as this embargo or blockade against Venezuela.
AMY GOODMAN: Have you discussed with President Biden lifting the embargo against Venezuela, and also — you were just in Cuba for the G77 meeting — lifting the embargo there, the effects that these embargoes have?
PRESIDENT GUSTAVO PETRO: [translated] The Cuban case is even more strident, we could say, because Cuba is on two lists: one, the blockade, or embargo, which dates back so many decades, and the other, which was it was added to a list of countries that sponsor terrorism. And the second list imposes even more radical measures, such as, for example, that they’re not able to buy medicine abroad, medicines which are necessary for health inside the country. It’s a real crime. It kills people who are ill.
That list, which was put together by the United States — or, in the face of that list, the president of Colombia, who was an enemy of peace in Colombia, used it, insisting that the Trump administration should put Cuba back on that list, succeeded in doing so. And the excuse was that Cuba was the scenario of peace talks between the ELN guerrillas and the Colombian government. It was the Colombian government under President Santos that asked Cuba to provide its territory, and Cuba did so in good faith. And then, when Duque came in as president, and he was not happy with that peace process and shut it down, he asked Cuba to turn over as prisoners the ELN, National Liberation Army, peace negotiators. So this was a real betrayal. The two states had already signed an agreement saying that couldn’t happen, because that was to guarantee peace talks. And given Cuba’s unwillingness to turn over these persons, who today are negotiating peace with me and who are about to reach a situation where that war would be put to an end, taking advantage of that, Duque asked Trump to put Cuba on the terrorist list.
And I’m surprised that Biden has continued with that. I discussed that topic with him. I discussed the Venezuelan question with him, seeking for there to be a progressive unblocking or removal of the blockade, at the same time as certain credible guarantees would be given for free and fair elections in Venezuela. It’s a very long process. It’s very slow. What one finds is increasing poverty in Venezuela. And I’ve spoken with Cuba and with the United States about the need to at least remove Cuba from the list of countries that help terrorism, because Cuba is helping us to make peace. It’s just the opposite of what that list is all about. Nonetheless, we have also seen in the U.S. government a great sluggishness. And at the end of the day, it makes the Biden administration look like the Trump administration.
And it is leaving certain scars with Latin America that I think we need to have heal. We need to overcome them, because at the end of the day, both those in the North, the English speakers in the North, and the Latinos in the South and the Afro-descendant peoples throughout the Americas and the Indigenous peoples throughout the Americas, we all need to understand one another, because we have common problems.
One of those that I proposed to Biden is that as the United States is the largest emitter of CO2, well, we have the greatest sponge for soaking up CO2 in the South — the Amazon jungle — and we need to come to an agreement. Having in South America great potential for generating clean energy — great potential — and we cannot capture it all because of the lack of funds, and as the United States has a great need, which is also a need of all of humankind, to transition to a clean energy matrix, how can we come together? All we need, electrical cable and investment in South America. The money is here, $600 billion, for that objective. But in the United States, it’s much more expensive, because it doesn’t have the same potential as what we have in South America, which is where the sun is, where the wind is, where the waters are, the waters that come down from the Andes. That complementarity, which would be useful for the United States, which would be useful for South America, because those investments would generate economic prosperity, and which would be useful for all of humanity, isn’t happening. And all we need is to sit down, engage in dialogue and take action.
The scars of history, the invasions from before, the old imperialism, the old domination continue to weigh against humanity. That is why a government such as the Biden administration should take the step, close the heals, let the scars heal. They’re not going to go away, but let them heal. End blockades and open up a plural dialogue, which I think would benefit all of us, both in North America and in South America.
AMY GOODMAN: You also just returned from Chile, where President Boric and so many thousands of Chileans were observing the 50th anniversary of the coup d’état that led to the death of Salvador Allende, the democratically elected president of Chile, in the palace, September 11th, another September 11th, September 11th, 1973. Can you talk about that history of empire, as a number of progressive U.S. congressmembers are calling on the Biden administration to release all documents around the U.S. support, the Kissinger support, the President Nixon support, of that coup that led to so many thousand Chileans and others dying?
PRESIDENT GUSTAVO PETRO: [translated] I was 13 years old at the time of the coup against Allende. I was a child. But in the mindset of the time, in a very conservative country, Salvador Allende seemed to us to be a sort of a man who had sought justice and who came to power peacefully. What we had in the world at the time was war. The Vietnam War was going on. It was said at that time around the world that revolutions had to be armed. And that was what was happening in Africa. And this man came to power peacefully, and he began a transformation which we would watch on black-and-white TV. And then, all of a sudden, came the coup, the brutality of the bombing, the president bombing, in the ashes of the presidential palace. And it moved us. I went out to the street in the small town where I lived. And we, who had no idea of politics, blocked a street. And that helped me move into politics and to become who I am, from a perspective which is that of Allende, not of those who carried out the coup against him. And there, it was clear that the United States had helped those who carried out the coup, the Nazis. They were really Nazis. And that marked us. That’s one of the scars that I speak of.
And it’s fine for that to be evidenced, for the facts to be known, for all of the truth to come out. Fifty years later, I went back to La Moneda Palace. I had wanted to go to Chile until very recently, when Boric won. I cried when I was in the palace, because that cycle of 50 years — well, it’s really 30, for once the coup was carried out against Allende, almost all of the progressive movements in Latin America took up arms. We became insurgents. I was an armed insurgent. And I was tortured. I was imprisoned. And I resisted ’til 1990. And many of us in Latin America, young at the time, did so — and dictatorships, as well. So, Latin America became a battlefield between bloody dictatorships, who were Nazis, and armed revolutions. Central America was one of the effects of this. And it was a 30-year period that went by.
And then, as a precursor, perhaps, the M-19 in Colombia, in 1989, reached a peace agreement and laid down its weapons. A few months later, there was a vote, but it’s — on the Constitutional Assembly, even though our commander was assassinated. And we won the elections for the constitution. It was a precursor, but this was a peace process. The idea was, going back to Allende’s thesis, that one could reach power peacefully, and one could have an electoral triumph. Once again, it was a precursor, because it was some years afterwards that, one after another, progressive presidents were elected. The first progressive movements appeared, the dictatorships disappeared, and the weapons disappeared. The only place they’re still to be found is in Colombia in certain parts of the country. So we entered into a spring, a springtime with mistakes, errors, taking different paths. One can’t really compare Venezuela with Bolivia, nor Bolivia with Brazil, nor Brazil with Colombia, and so on. But we accomplished it.
And so, today, having closed out that cycle of weapons and violence, in my opinion, we need to rethink democracy. There are dangers that crop up, persons who are insinuating coups. In Washington, the takeover of the Capitol, which was then repeated in Brazil, the gestures in Peru with many persons assassinated by the state, by the government, which has happened to us in Colombia, and which happened in Bolivia, and so on — all of this shows that the transition to a more profound democracy is not yet assured.
But what happened in Chile marked an initial era of violence. I believe that the government of the United States, since then, has not known — did not know what to do, and it launched a policy of violence against Latin America, which also became a boomerang, because at the end of the day, we were not defeated. Many people died, but we were not defeated. And today, what is being proposed by a certain progressive movement in the United States and the progressive movement in Latin America is to talk. Instead of setting up flags here or there and organizing coups here, there, here, instead of preparing ourselves for combat in the Andean mountains, what we’re preparing for is to engage in dialogue to understand one another. Now, that is an understanding in which someone is standing and the other one is kneeling down? No, it is an understanding where we can all talk, you to you, about problems that we share. And I believe that that is the path which today, 50 years after the coup — and I spoke there in —
AMY GOODMAN: Did you — did you ever think you would go from M-19 guerrilla to president of Colombia?
PRESIDENT GUSTAVO PETRO: [translated] No, never. I wanted to carry out a revolution. And I still want to do so. It’s a different concept. I once helped — once we put the insurgency behind us, the armed insurgency, I helped various presidential candidates, whose votes tended to climb with the support of the progressive movement in Colombia, progressive movement that has been very hard hit. In Colombia, an entire political party was assassinated, like in Indonesia. Five thousand activists were killed, assassinated in their homes right in front of their children, without weapons in hand. And this helped us to think more that we needed to take up arms and go along the armed path. We have experienced such a violence. I was scared when I saw Pinochet when I was 14, 15 years old, what happened with Videla, watching it on television from Colombia. But now that we have the figures of persons disappeared, of persons assassinated, Colombia is by far and away — suffered, say, a genocide, because also drug trafficking became involved in Colombia.
There’s an episode that it needs to be investigated further, and this is another scar. When the Sandinistas overthrew Somoza, the United States began to build the counterrevolutionary forces, la Contra. And in a scandal that —
AMY GOODMAN: In Nicaragua.
PRESIDENT GUSTAVO PETRO: [translated] — became a big scandal in the U.S., carried out by the U.S. press, the Iran-Contra scandal, it showed that cocaine was being used to buy weapons for the Contra forces. And where did that cocaine come from? Well, it came out of Colombia. Well, that part of the story has not all been told. In one way or another, the Colombian drug traffickers believed or let it be known that if one were to kill communists, then they could export cocaine to the United States. And that killed a whole political party in Colombia. Then it generated a genocide. Drug trafficking dressed up as the far right. It wasn’t so hard for it to do so. And there was a sort of Nazi-type discourse tied to a business that the Nazis weren’t familiar with: exporting cocaine to the United States. That whole movement won over sectors of political party in Colombia. There was an articulation with the state. And I denounced that in the course of 10 years of investigations, and from there, for once the criminal has political power, the crime becomes much stronger, much heavier. That showed — that’s how a criminal can kill one, two, maybe a hundred, but if it joins together with state power, then you can kill millions. And something similar to that happened in Colombia. So we had major — we had violence that was greater than what I had seen in Chile and in Argentina as a child and which terrified me.
Nonetheless, Colombia proposed peace for the first time — the M-19 movement did so — in a Latin America that was up in flames, and achieved a peaceful electoral triumph and made the current constitution of Colombia. We have experienced two paths at the same time, the possibility of peace and genocide at the same time. And the deeper the genocide, the more peace becomes necessary.
Today, for example, the governments in the United States have helped us to build this peace. There’s a change in outlook, which has been very interesting. Thus far, in dialogues about drug policy or what’s happening with fentanyl here, it was thought here that it was necessary to make marijuana illegal 50 years ago, and that led to many people being killed in Colombia. But now you can go out and buy it at the corner store here in New York. And so many dead on our side, and who is apologizing? That was not our war, but the violence of our political wars was compounded by drug trafficking. A hundred thousand disappeared. Political parties have been annihilated because of being leftist parties. And certain wounds, there was a destruction of democratic society that was very profound. And it’s only because Colombian society has strong cultures of resistance — that is what has enabled society to continue and to continue seeking. I am a hope. Millions of young people voted because they want their own country to have a possible different path forward. I believe that the government of the United States that I have encountered today is not the one that made the decision to overthrow Allende. It’s divided. It’s not the same. But in the United States, a part of society that sees the world differently is growing. Another part of society doesn’t see the world; it sees itself. There are regions in Colombia that are similar: They don’t see the world; they see themselves. And so they think that one must use the same methods as before.
I believe, and I am optimistic, that going forward, we’re going to be able to find common ground and together adopt solutions. Look at geopolitics today. It is opening up, and some of those political leaders in the United States have told me this, that it’s a multipolar world. You have China over there. You have Russia and Iran, the BRICS. Let’s get involved there as a sort of reaction to U.S. power over history. And I sometimes think, “Well, does Iran show me a better model of society than what we can build in Colombia, respecting its culture and so forth? Russia, do we want to have the same revolutionary echoes of 1917, or is it just as capitalistic a country as the United States, even more plunged into the fossil fuel economy, so it depends so much on oil?” It does not teach me the way forward, because I need to have ties here or there. The world has changed. It’s no longer the Cold War. There are not just two social models that are in competition. There is competition among economic enterprises. And so, one path forward is the Americas. But the Americas is a path forward that has not yet been sufficiently explored, all of the Americas.
AMY GOODMAN: Are you concerned that there will be a coup d’état in Guatemala even before the democratically elected president, perhaps a man after your own heart, Bernardo Arévalo, takes office, because the pactos corruptos, the government-corporate elite, doesn’t want him to take power?
PRESIDENT GUSTAVO PETRO: [translated] The thing is, drug trafficking is a whole discussion. We’d have to take a whole program to get into that. Drug trafficking has become more powerful, drug trafficking interest, because of the prohibition, not because of consumption. It’s because of the prohibition.
And drug trafficking has evolved. They are not Colombian urban-based mafias that one sees on Netflix every now and then. They are multinational enterprises. They’re very powerful. We just arrested in Bogotá certain persons from Albania, from France, a Spaniard, all of them trying to build the new drug markets, world-scale kingpins. Now, it turns out that the Paraguayan prosecutor who was assassinated in Cartagena, in Colombia on his honeymoon, was killed by a Uruguayan who used Colombian hitmen. So, this drug business is really a multinational phenomenon.
It has become more powerful. They have private armies. They have weapons of the same caliber as the official armies. They have become empowered by prohibition. The profitability makes the difference between the cost and sales price, say, in New York. So the issue has to do with prohibition.
But that role of drug trafficking interests is destabilizing democracy. It destroyed Haiti. It is drug trafficking, which comes from Colombia along the routes, going to the United States, going through Haiti. And so they empower drug gangs that end up producing failed states. The 50 most violent cities of the world are along drug trafficking routes.
AMY GOODMAN: And what is the relation to Guatemala?
PRESIDENT GUSTAVO PETRO: [translated] They go through there. It’s not the only country where presidents have been put in jail. They used the central bank for money laundering. The state practically became narcotized, we could say. A Colombian who was the head of the Commission Against Impunity and Corruption — he’s now my minister of defense — he went there. He survived, as a matter of — as a miracle. The current president, or the current attorney general, wanted to take Mr. Velásquez prisoner, my minister of defense, because he had led the Independent Commission on Corruption and Impunity, which discovered the ties between drug trafficking and politics, the same thing that happened in Colombia. And this is not just Colombia, Guatemala. This has happened in a large number of our countries, because drug trafficking became empowered. That is what has happened over the last 50 years.
Guatemalan society has responded by electing a progressive president. I’ve spoken with him by phone. I don’t know him personally. But here, the entire inter-American system of human rights is going to be put to the test. Are we going to allow a president who’s been elected to — are we going to allow a mockery to be made of the popular vote? And here we can find — progressives from South America and the U.S. government can all find common ground, a common objective. Are we going to allow for the popular vote, or are we going to see a repeat of Allende?
AMY GOODMAN: Finally, President Lula also said at the U.N. General Assembly, about Julian Assange, “Preserving press freedom is essential. A journalist like Julian Assange cannot be punished for informing society in a transparent and legitimate way.” President Petro, do you think that Julian Assange — that the United States should drop charges against Julian Assange so he can be free?
PRESIDENT GUSTAVO PETRO: [translated] I call him Julian, Assange. He is a journalist, period. And what he did was the work of a journalist, period. And he’s been in prison for a long time because of his work as a journalist.
It’s the greatest mockery of the freedom of the press, and it’s been brought to bear by the country that built the concept. It was in the American Revolution. What they call the Founding Fathers here, they are the ones who said that there must be a press independent of power, of the powers that be. At that time, that was understood as the political power. Today, I would also talk about the economic powers, because the press has succumbed to economic power interests. But if we take this foundational concept of the United States, what they’re doing with Assange is contradicting it, denying their own foundational principle. The very government of the United States is doing this. And so it’s a contradiction in terms. It’s a contradiction, in and of itself, as a society.
Assange should be free, and we have called for that. I have called for that. Lula has made it into a banner. Ecuador, when with a progressive president, was safeguarding him. His lawyers visit us sometimes, desperate.
But if Biden — Biden has several messages to put out, in my opinion. I could not replace him, because I don’t know the U.S. society in depth, and I know that he is confronting very dark, backward-looking forces that date back a long time in the society. But Biden should take the leap of reforming the international financial system, the IMF, to reduce the public debts of all countries and free up a bunch of space for a Marshall Plan for life. He can. He has that ability, with Europe. Biden could in this way become the green leader, the environmental leader of the world. Look at all of the young people today who would like to have an opportunity to live in coming decades.
And Biden could launch the message of democracy. Lifting up the process, he could pardon him, what have you, the path to tell the world that a journalist doing their job as a journalist should not be kept prisoner, even if it has a negative impact on the interests of U.S. power, because it’s the foundational aspect of that power. Well, the principle is that the press must operate independent of power. That would be sending a message to the world. I don’t know how much it would be a message to his own society, but I believe that society itself has democratic defenses that would make it possible to recognize a great democratic leader.
AMY GOODMAN: Colombian President Gutavo Petro, speaking to Democracy Now! on Tuesday at Colombia’s Permanent Mission to the United Nations here in New York, in an exclusive broadcast interview. It was just after he addressed the U.N. General Assembly. We’ll be posting the full interview on our website in English and in Spanish. Thanks to Charlie Roberts and to María Taracena, Charina Nadura, Sam Alcoff, Robby Karran. I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks for joining us.