Colombian President Gustavo Petro says the U.S.-backed coup in Chile 50 years ago, when General Augusto Pinochet deposed socialist President Salvador Allende, left a lasting scar across Latin America. Many progressives took up arms against corrupt governments, often led by “Nazis,” Petro says, fueling decades of conflict that is only now beginning to fade. “Today, having closed out that cycle of weapons and violence, we need to rethink democracy,” Petro told Democracy Now! in an exclusive interview this week at Colombia’s Permanent Mission to the United Nations in New York. He also discussed how the U.S. war on drugs exacerbated violence in countries including Colombia throughout the Cold War and beyond.
More from this Interview
- Part 1: Colombian President Gustavo Petro on Ukraine, Palestine & Why Latin America Rejects Western Hypocrisy
- Part 2: World Must Decarbonize Before “Point of No Return” on Climate Crisis: Colombian President Gustavo Petro
- Part 3: Lift the Blockade on Venezuela & Cuba: Colombian President Petro Warns U.S. Sanctions Are Driving Migration
- Part 4: Colombian President Gustavo Petro Denounces U.S. Intervention in Americas, from Chilean Coup to Drug War
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we return now to our interview with Colombian President Gustavo Petro in Colombia’s Permanent Mission to the United Nations here in New York. I spoke to him shortly after he addressed the United Nations General Assembly.
AMY GOODMAN: You 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.
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 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: 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.
This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org. A very special happy birthday to Jackie Sam! Democracy Now! is produced with Renée Feltz, Messiah Rhodes, Nermeen Shaikh, Tami Woronoff, Tey-Marie Astudillo, John Hamilton, Robby Karran, Hany Massoud. Also thanks to Mike Burke, Deena Guzder, Sonyi Lopez. Our executive director is Julie Crosby. Special thanks to Becca Staley, Jon Randolph, Paul Powell, Mike Di Filippo, Miguel Nogueira, Hugh Gran, Denis Moynihan, David Prude, Dennis McCormick, Matt Ealy, Emily Anderson and Clara Ibarra. To see all of our podcasts, in video and audio, go to democracynow.org. You can also read all of our transcripts there. I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks for joining us.