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Colombia's presidential election spawns fear, division

By Christine Armario, Associated Press  |  Posted May 25th, 2018 @ 2:33pm


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BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) — In a ramshackle house with smog-stained walls in Colombia's capital, the fears and divisions arising from the country's first presidential election since the signing of a historic peace accord are palpable.

On one side of the tenement's open patio, Ivan Martinez has plastered images of bespectacled leftist candidate Gustavo Petro on walls. Just feet away, Dan Marin has hung up posters of gray-haired front-runner Ivan Duque, a conservative lawyer and protégé of Alvaro Uribe, the influential former president who was the main opponent of the pact that ended decades of conflict between the government and Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia rebels.

One man thinks Petro is the best hope for Colombia to finally root out long-entrenched corruption and inequality. The other fears his election could transform Colombia into another crisis-ridden Venezuela.

"One says, 'I can resolve everything with an avocado,'" says Marin, a 34-year-old artist, alluding to Petro's pledge to grow more avocados and free Colombia from dependence on fossil fuel exports. "The other says, 'No, with oil.'"

Colombian voters head to the polls Sunday after a campaign that has stoked fears on the left and right and once again polarized the nation. Rather than war, for the first time in Colombia's recent history voters are focused on issues like corruption, the economy and their weariness with establishment politicians.

"We're talking about a lot of things that were usually part of bipartisan consensus in Colombia," said Sandra Borda, dean of social sciences at the Jorge Tadeo Lozano University in Bogota. "Now it's different."

Duque is considered the candidate to beat, but in an unexpected turn, Petro has been chasing his coattails. The 58-year-old former guerrilla and ex-Bogota mayor is promising to overhaul Colombia's economic model, galvanizing the youth vote to place second in most polls. Three more candidates trail close behind and warn a vote for Petro could tilt Colombia dangerously toward the left and rattle markets in one of Latin America's most-conservative nations.

The race will head into what is likely to be a contentious June runoff if no single candidate garners more than 50 percent of the vote.

Petro's populist platform comes at a time when candidates with anti-establishment messages are finding success across Latin America. Mexican leftist Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador is casting his third run for the presidency as a historic battle against entrenched elites. In Brazil, candidate Jair Bolsonaro is at the opposite end of the political spectrum but likewise is attacking the traditional political class.

"These are change elections in Latin America," said Michael Shifter, president of the Washington-based Inter-American Dialogue.

Colombia has one of the region's highest levels of income inequality, ranking second only to Haiti according to one study, and politicians and armed groups have tried to make that a rallying point at various moments in the nation's history.

Populist firebrand Jorge Eliecer Gaitan was assassinated in 1948 as he ran for president, sparking a political bloodletting known as "La Violencia" or "The Violence" in which tens of thousands died and peasants took up arms, paving the way toward decades of conflict between the army, leftist rebels and paramilitary groups. Later in the 1980s, scores of politicians affiliated with the Patriotic Union, a party aligned with the now disbanded FARC rebels, were gunned down.

"They used to tell people the political left was somehow linked to the illegal armed left," Borda said. "Now that argument doesn't work anymore."

Petro himself has roots in Colombia's armed struggle, joining the M-19 guerrilla movement when he was still a teen. His campaign has taken pains to inform Colombians that he was an urban militant devoted to spreading the group's ideological message of social justice. At the time of M-19's notorious attack on Colombia's Palace of Justice, Petro was behind bars for illegal possession of firearms.

"He didn't fire a single shot," said former rebel Alberto Becera, one of a contingent of ex-combatants now working as a volunteer on Petro's campaign.

Petro describes himself as a "strong adversary" of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, whose name and socialist policies spark fear in the minds of Colombians who have seen almost 1 million Venezuelans arrive in their country since 2017. On repeated occasions, he's also criticized Venezuela's economic model for its reliance on commodities to fund extensive social programs.

"They've shown that's not sustainable," he said recently in a soft-spoken voice that contrasted with his fiery speeches in plazas around the nation.

He presents his candidacy as a departure from previous generations of Latin American leftists and says he wants to create a knowledge-based economy in Colombia and boost agricultural production with land reform.

Still, controversy over his past support for Venezuela's revolution has hounded him. In 1994, shortly after Hugo Chavez was released from jail after staging a military coup in Venezuela, it was Petro who brought the leftist firebrand to Colombia.

He and Duque differ on almost every single issue: Whereas Duque has proposed reviving Colombia's aerial eradication program to squash a boom in coca production, Petro is against it and instead promotes crop substitution. Duque has discussed the need to "correct" Colombia's divisive 2016 peace accord with now demobilized FARC rebels. Petro supports the accord.

Despite his rise in the polls, many analysts call Petro's proposals impractical and still consider his campaign a longshot. A close friend of Petro who asked not to be identified to protect their relationship said that while his proposals might spark interest, he doubts he could win because he generates too much fear.

And yet, fear lurks over the right of Colombia's political spectrum, too.

Duque's close affiliation with Uribe makes some think that a Duque presidency would in fact be another Uribe presidency. Though widely credited with improving Colombia's security and weakening illegal armed groups, Uribe also presided over a period of grave human rights violations by the military.

When asked recently if he'd be Uribe's puppet, Duque told a local newspaper that the former president would remain a senator leading their party's bloc in congress but added that "working together as a team is good for Colombia."

Meanwhile, Marin and Martinez continue their impassioned dialogue over the campaign at their tenement.

Marin, a former police officer, keeps a bullet proof vest on hand and says he fears traveling around Colombia. He thinks Duque will be tough with criminal groups that still dominate much of the nation's remote, coca-filled countryside.

He said he has relatives in Venezuela and that Petro's rhetoric concerns him. Migrants arriving in Bogota tell him that "the same words Chavez used, Petro is using."

Martinez, whose family was displaced by paramilitary groups decades ago, is so energized by Petro's platform that he recently gathered friends for a celebration to feast on sancocho soup and painted a colorful banner with the name "PETRO."

He hung it up outside and hopes that government officials see it as they pass by in motorcades of dark-colored SUVs in route to the presidential palace.

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Follow Christine Armario on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/cearmario

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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