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Former rebel frontrunner in Colombian vote could rock US ties

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BOGOTA, Colombia – Last year, Fabian Espinel helped organize roadblocks where young people protested against police violence and government plans to raise taxes on low-income Colombians.

Now, as Colombia heads into its presidential election on Sunday, Espinel walks the streets of working-class areas in Bogota handing out flyers to leading candidate Gustavo Petro and helping to paint murals in support of the leftist politician.

“Young people in this country are stuck,” said Espinel, who lost his job as an event planner during the pandemic and received no compensation from his company. “We hope Petro can change that. We need a different economic model than the one we have been missing for years.

Colombians will choose from six candidates in a ballot to be held amid widespread sentiment that the country is heading in the wrong direction. The latest opinion polls suggest Petro could win 40% of the vote, with a 15 point lead over his closest rival. But the senator needs 50% to avoid a runoff in June against the second.

His main rival for most of the campaign has been Federico Gutierrez, a former mayor of Medellin who is backed by most of Colombia’s mainstream parties and operates on a platform of business-friendly economic growth.

But populist real estate mogul Rodolfo Hernández has risen rapidly in the polls and could be in contention for second place in Sunday’s vote. He has few ties to political parties and says he will cut unnecessary government spending and offer rewards to Colombians who speak out against corrupt officials.

Petro, a former rebel with anti-establishment rhetoric, promises to make major adjustments to the economy as well as change the way Colombia fights drug cartels and other armed groups. His agenda largely focuses on addressing the inequalities that have plagued the South American people for decades and have worsened during the COVID-19 pandemic.

He promised government jobs for people who can’t find work, free tuition for young Colombians and subsidies for farmers struggling to grow crops, which he says he will pay for by increasing the taxes of wealthy individuals and corporations.

His program also addresses issues that could upend Colombia’s close relationship with the United States.

Adam Isacson, defense policy expert at the Washington Office on Latin America, a think tank, said if Petro wins the election “there will be more disagreement and distance” between the two countries.

Petro wants to renegotiate a free trade agreement with the United States that has boosted imports of American products like powdered milk and corn. and favor local producers instead.

He also promises to change the way Colombia fights the drug cartels that produce about 90% of the cocaine currently sold in the hub United States. He wants to strengthen aid to rural areas, give farmers alternatives to growing coca, the plant used to make cocaine.

Isacson said coca eradication goals may become less of a priority for the Colombian government under a Petro administration, as well as the rate at which arrested drug traffickers are sent to the United States to face charges,

The election comes as Colombia’s economy struggles to recover from the pandemic and frustration grows with political elites.

A Gallup poll conducted earlier this month found that 75% of Colombians believe the country is heading in the wrong direction and only 27% approve of conservative President Ivan Duque, who cannot run again. A poll conducted last year by Gallup found that 60% of respondents struggled to get by on their household income.

Sergio Guzmán, a political risk analyst in Bogota, said the pandemic and the 2016 peace deal with the rebel group Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia have shifted voters’ priorities.

“While previous elections focused on issues such as how to deal with rebel groups, the main issue now is the economy,” Guzmán said. “Voters are wondering who will tackle issues like inequality or the lack of opportunities for young people.”

If Petro or Hernández were to win the presidency, they would join a group of leftist leaders and outsiders who have taken over Latin American governments since the pandemic began in 2020.

In Chile, leftist lawmaker Gabriel Boric won the presidential election last year, leading a progressive coalition that has promised to change the country’s constitution and restore public services like energy and electricity. education more affordable.

In Peru, voters elected rural schoolteacher Pedro Castillo as president despite never having held office. Castillo has challenged political parties that have been mired in corruption scandals and presidential impeachment trials and marred the country’s response to the coronavirus pandemic. Ecuadorians bucked the leftist trend last year but still elected an outside opposition candidate, Gullermo Lasso.

In regional affairs, Petro is seeking to restore diplomatic relations with the socialist government of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro. Colombia cut diplomatic ties with Venezuela in 2019 as part of a US-led effort to isolate Maduro and pressure him with sanctions to hold new elections.

Some observers believe that Petro may be able to mend the bridges between Maduro and certain sectors of the Venezuelan opposition.

“Resolving Venezuela’s political and economic crisis is in Colombia’s interest,” said Ronal Rodríguez, a professor at Rosario University in Bogota.

Sandra Borda, a professor of international relations at the University of Los Andes in Bogota, said Petro may not have enough clout to make meaningful changes to Colombia’s foreign policy.

Efforts to renegotiate the free trade agreement with the United States could be thwarted by lawmakers in both countries, she said. And when it comes to security, the Colombian military will be reluctant to forgo cooperative agreements with the United States that include joint exercises, intelligence sharing, and jobs for Colombian military instructors on US-funded courses. in other Latin American countries.

Borda said Petro’s ability to change Colombia’s foreign policy could depend on winning the first round. If he is to stand in a second round, she said, he will have to strike deals with center parties, which could support his domestic reforms in return for greater control over security and international relations.

“His priority will be to drive national reforms aimed at reducing inequality and overcoming poverty,” Borda said. “Petro understands that if he does that, he has a better chance of consolidating his political movement.”