Colombia, unlike virtually all of its South American counterparts, has never had a collapse of its central bank and currency. It has never faced hyperinflation. Other than a very brief period under General Gustavo Rojas Pinilla, it has never lived under the scourge of a military dictatorship. Having seen the destructive nature of Marxist guerrillas, and their longstanding quest to overthrow the government in Bogota, Colombians have been wary of the left and of any ideology that smacks of socialism. Venezuela, right next door, serves as a perpetual punching bag; a counter-point; a cautionary tale.
As we ring in 2019, one might ask, why worry about former Bogota mayor Gustavo Petro? After all, he didn’t win the presidential election. In fact, he lost in a landslide to current president Ivan Duque, 54% to 42%, losing 24 of Colombia’s 32 states. Why does Gustavo Petro pose a singular threat to the future of democracy and capitalism in Colombia?
Primarily, because his ideas are both dangerous and infectious. This should be particularly troubling because the actual implementation of his ideas would be a complete disaster for the Colombian economy, and there is a real threat that Petro could seek to end democracy in Colombia through a Constituent Assembly, as his comrade in arms Nicolas Maduro recently did in Venezuela.
Virtually every Petro campaign event features his pledge to end Colombia’s oil, coal, and cocaine industries. In the place of oil and coal, Petro has touted an agriculture-based “avocado economy” as the correct path forward for the Andean nation. Petro wants to do away with oil and coal because the grave dangers posed to humanity by climate change are just too pressing to continue to extract hydrocarbons from the ground. Petro wants to leave this oil, coal, and natural gas in the ground, forever.
In a Financial Times writeup during the campaign, they do not mince words when it comes to the radical nature of Petro’s agenda:
“Mr Petro’s proposals include free education for all, radical land reform, a greater role for the state in the banking and health systems, and…perhaps most controversial of all, he wants Colombia to stop exporting coal and oil within a few years, even though the country is the world’s fifth largest coal exporter.”
Oil currently accounts for 45% of Colombia’s exports. Petro yearns to replace oil with the export of agricultural products, such as the avocado. Indeed, his laudatory remarks about an “avocado economy” became a hit on the campaign trail, prompting starry eyed young supporters to proudly present him with avocados on the campaign trail.
But how many of these young scholars would actually like to leave the cities to go tend their own farm? Not very many, by the looks of it. From 1980 to 2014, agriculture declined from 20% of GDP to 7% of GDP. There is no indication that young urban-dwelling Colombians are clamoring to return to a rural, agrarian society and lifestyle, toiling in the dirt year in and year out, to eke out a meager existence from the land.
Petro is wildly popular with Colombian college students, but likely less popular with economics professors, who note the implausibility of his radical and sweeping economic agenda: as economics professor Oskar Nupia notes, “He has all these lovely ideas, which would turn Colombia into some sort of beautiful Nordic idyll, but the truth is he would have to do it with the cheque book of a middle-income country. It doesn’t seem feasible.”
For a candidate steeped in a Marxist tradition, such as Petro, who advocates the state as an agent of redistribution of wealth, he is unable to answer a very basic and simple question: if Colombia ends the oil, coal, and natural gas industries, from whence will the money come to fund social services?
Even the most basic and cursory analysis of Petro’s outlandish “avocado economy” quickly reveals that government coffers will quickly be in the red without the cashflow from these extractive resources.
Yet, even more troubling than Petro’s avocado economy, is his close alliance with the Chavista movement in Venezuela. A long admirer and supporter of Hugo Chavez, Petro traveled this year to Venezuela to seek support from the Maduro regime, according to Chavismo’s #2 man, Diosdado Cabello.
Petro has also long pledged to hold a “Constituent Assembly” to rewrite Colombia’ Constitution, which currently has provisions that would restrict his sweeping agenda of Marxist reforms.
Could Petro win in 2022?
Yes. It’s possible. Sadly, Duque and his vice president Marta Lucia Ramirez, are off to a slow start, with their approval rating hovering around an abysmal 20%, despite being in office for less than six months.
Duque has appeared largely tone-deaf on the basic pocket-book issues that move the Colombian middle class, and has attempted to place a new IVA tax on the “canasta familiar”…a basket of basic consumer food staples, which has proved wildly unpopular. Strangely, for a free-market enthusiast, he has also pledged to take on ride-sharing apps like Uber, despite their wild popularity with Colombian consumers.
Yes, Duque has three and a half years to right the ship, but the threat posed by Petro and his leftist allies is real. The time to battle Petro’s outlandish economic agenda is now. Not in three and a half years. Now!