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Colombia’s highly anticipated presidential elections on Sunday resulted in victory for two anti-establishment candidates: leftist Gustavo Petro and Trump-like right-wing millionaire Rodolfo Hernández. The two will face off in a runoff election on June 19, the outcome of which will determine whether Colombia addresses worsening inequality under Petro or ushers in a new era of populist conservatism under Hernández. Both options seem to answer to previous years’ mass uprisings in the country that protested the corruption within the state leadership. “What is going on in Colombia is a popular uprising now being expressed through the electoral process against the status quo,” says Colombian activist Manuel Rozental. “People want to vote against the establishment because there are very few and very small avenues to act politically otherwise.”
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.
In Colombia, the leftist presidential candidate Gustavo Petro will face off against right-wing businessman Rodolfo Hernández in a runoff election in June. On Sunday, Petro won the first round with just over 40% of the vote, falling short of the 50% needed to avoid a runoff. Petro is the former mayor of Bogotá, former member of the Colombian guerrilla group M-19. He has vowed to fight worsening inequality in Colombia with landmark policies including tax reform and redistribution of pension savings. He spoke to supporters Sunday night.
GUSTAVO PETRO: [translated] What is in dispute today is change. The political parties allied to President Iván Duque’s government, President Duque himself and his political project have been defeated. I believe that the total vote in Colombia sends that central message to the world. A period is ending. An era is ending.
AMY GOODMAN: Earlier on Sunday, Gustavo Petro spoke to reporters after casting his vote.
GUSTAVO PETRO: [translated] We came to do our exercise, to vote. I trust in the Colombian society and in their desire for change. In the end, there are only two alternatives. It’s a relatively simple election: to leave things as they are in Colombia, which, in my opinion, means more corruption, violence and hunger, or to change Colombia and take it towards peace, prosperity and democracy for the people.
AMY GOODMAN: Gustavo Petro’s vice-presidential running mate is the Goldman Prize-winning environmental activist Francia Márquez Mina, who would become Colombia’s first Black vice president if they win the runoff.
Rodolfo Hernández’s second-place finish surprised many. He received 28% of the vote. Another right-wing candidate, the establishment candidate, Federico Gutiérrez, placed third with 23%. Together, the two right-wing candidates received about 52% of the vote, almost 11 million votes. Petro received about eight-and-a-half million votes. Rodolfo Hernández is a former mayor, a real estate tycoon, who’s been compared to Donald Trump. He ran on an anti-corruption platform but is under investigation himself for graft. Hernández once described himself as a follower of Adolf Hitler.
RODOLFO HERNÁNDEZ: [translated] I am a follower of a great German thinker. His name is Adolf Hitler.
AMY GOODMAN: Rodolfo Hernández later said he meant to say he was a follower of Albert Einstein, not Hitler.
For more on the Colombian election, we’re joined by Manuel Rozental, Colombian physician, activist with more than 40 years of involvement in grassroots political organizing with youth, Indigenous communities and urban and rural social movements. He’s been exiled several times for his political activities, part of an organization called Pueblos en Camino, or People on the Path. He lives in the Cauca region of Colombia, joining us, though, now from Toronto, Canada.
Manuel, welcome back to Democracy Now! Talk about the significance of this election, that’s leading to a runoff.
DR. MANUEL ROZENTAL: Good morning, Amy, and everybody. Yes, to talk about the significance of this, I have to first of all express my deepest condolences to the people of Uvalde, the families and the — and the families of the children and the teacher, and the fantastic, extraordinary, clear statement by Brandon Wolf. And I have to make a link between what they’re going through and what we go through, that will help us understand these elections and what’s going on in Colombia.
Just on the 28th of March, we helped denounce — I wrote about it myself — a massacre committed by the Colombian armed forces in Putumayo, in the border with Ecuador. Eleven unarmed civilians were murdered. And this was announced by President Duque and his minister of defense as an armed and combat operation against FARC members in arms. This was all a lie. The testimonies of the people in the community, brave enough, while surrounded by the Army, proved that it was an open massacre committed by the Army. There have been more than 70 massacres committed in Colombia already this year.
And President Biden, two days before the referendum that chose the presidential candidates, and just on the 23rd of May, announced that Colombia has been supported by his government to be joined — to join NATO as an extra member. In other words, that Colombian Army that has been involved in the massacre of innocent civilians, that is corrupt, that is involved in drug trafficking, which has been exposed everywhere, that Colombian Army, that has become involved in the electoral policies, its commander-in-chief announcing that if Petro wins the election, he will not support it, violating the Constitution, is being supported by President Biden, not only by providing further funding, research, support for Army and more weapons to Colombia, but is also at the same time the Colombian police that acted on the peaceful uprising in Colombia, murdering, disappearing, torturing, has received three bases as a gift from President Biden. So the parallel is obvious, and what goes on in Colombia is massive.
What are these elections about? And beyond the elections, what is going on in Colombia? What is going on in Colombia is a popular uprising now being expressed through the electoral process against the status quo, that is exactly what Brandon Wolf described for the U.S. but a part of the state structure. So it is a little crack in the wall, a hopeful crack in the wall, to begin to change status quo of murder, corruption, and all for the benefit of corporate and elite interests, there and elsewhere.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Manuel Rozental, in terms of, though, the rise of Rodolfo Hernández, which surprised many, the establishment candidate was Federico Gutiérrez, but now it appears that Gutiérrez and the entire political and economic elite are rapidly uniting behind Hernández, so it’s going to be a tough fight for Gustavo Petro to be able to win the runoff, isn’t it?
DR. MANUEL ROZENTAL: Absolutely. It’s frightening. Federico Gutiérrez, the official candidate of the far right, of President Uribe, of drug trafficking, of the mafia, he lost to Rodolfo Hernández. Federico Gutiérrez had openly stated — and this is on massive media; it was during a presidential candidate debate — he openly stated that Rodolfo Hernández is a corrupt — he has a process against him, he’s about to be sentenced, and that he should not be supported. As soon Hernández won the second place, he announced that he would vote for him for the good of Colombia.
So, the problem now, Colombia — the electoral process in Colombia, and the entire country, not only the electoral process, is fraudulent in Colombia. And fraud is not only in the counting of votes. It’s not only the day of the elections. It’s not only buying voters. It is the sophisticated, established mechanism that has been there for many years, involves violence, involves terror, etc.
So, now what’s actually happening is exactly what Amy said in the beginning. The 28% votes that Hernández has and the 23% votes that Fico Gutiérrez has are going to be added up by the far right to defeat Gustavo Petro. And behind all this, there is fear, there’s terror, there’s manipulation. And so, Petro has and the campaign for Petro has basically two — a little more than two weeks to gather more than a million votes and defeat a misogynist, corrupt politician that people would understand the parallels with Trump. He campaigned only on TikTok. So, that is what is going on in the electoral picture, which is not enough to explain the context of democracy in Colombia.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And there’s been a lot of attention to the running mate of Gustavo Petro, Francia Márquez, who would be the first woman and Afro-Colombian woman to hold such a high post. But what about the vice-presidential candidate of Rodolfo Hernández, Marelen Castillo? What can you tell us about her?
DR. MANUEL ROZENTAL: Well, it’s also very unusual. First I want to say a couple of things about Francia Márquez and Gustavo Petro that are very important. Gustavo Petro is probably the strongest, most knowledgeable, critical voice of the Colombian establishment from within. He has denounced the paramilitaries. He has denounced the relationship between paramilitaries and politicians, where Colombian Congress, 35% of it was taken by paramilitaries. This was denounced by Petro. Drug trafficking, corruption — and not in theory, providing evidence, facing death threats, etc. So, probably the strongest, most clear and critical voice of the Colombian establishment, the rotten establishment of Colombia, is Gustavo Petro.
On the other hand, Francia Márquez was probably one of the strongest Afro-Colombian women who mobilized from the ground, from the bases, against transnational, legal/illegal mining, corporate interests. And she actually went to the Ministry of the Interior with women, walked to Bogotá and made one of the most extraordinary statements for the Afro-Colombian people and women and for all Colombian people that anybody has heard. So, the two of them have a legitimacy with regards to the critical approach to this establishment, and they do threaten what is established there.
Rodolfo Hernández, on the other hand — and you must understand this clearly — is, portrays himself and has done a campaign as an anti-establishment candidate. So, in fact, if you add Petro’s votes, 41%, and Rodolfo Hernández, there was a massive anti-establishment vote. And one believes that many, many of the people who voted for Hernández honestly believed that he was — his promises of finishing with corruption. He lies. He manipulates. And that is confusing a lot of people.
And it is confusing people in a context where political participation and activity has been reduced to voting, and even voting and electoral process have been reduced to a preconceived and premanipulated outcome. In Colombia, only the elites and only the mafias win. And that, you have really no choice beyond that. So, what is missing in Colombia, and has been missing in Colombia all along, is the fact that politics are not just voting. In fact, voting should be the least component of voting.
We can and we must construct our education systems, our health system, our security system, our autonomies, in order to achieve peace and democracy. And that has been systematically denied, is being denied. And we run the risk, even with these elections, that the electoral promises and the faith in a government changing a reality that can only be changed by the people becomes the issue again. And that explains why Rodolfo Hernández, in part, gained so many votes. It’s the fact that people want to vote against the establishment, because there are very few and very small avenues to act politically otherwise.
AMY GOODMAN: So you’re saying that it could be that they just won’t join together to beat Petro and Márquez. Finally, we just have 20 seconds, but how dangerous is this for Petro and Márquez? Some of their speeches they give behind bulletproof shields. They’ve had death threats against them.
DR. MANUEL ROZENTAL: Absolutely, extremely dangerous to them, extremely dangerous to everybody in the whole country. There was an armed strike by paramilitary forces throughout half of the country. This is linked to the armed forces. Yes, it’s dangerous for them, for everybody. We all live, including Francia and Gustavo, under constant death threats and under a state of genocide.
AMY GOODMAN: We have to leave it there. We will continue to follow this, of course. Manuel Rozental, Colombian physician and activist, part of Pueblos en Camino, People on the Path.