'God save us from becoming Venezuela.' Colombians to vote in bitter presidential race

A volunteer at the “Divina Providencia” migrant shelter distributes lunch to Venezuelan migrants, in Cúcuta, Colombia, in February, 2018. The food is cooked in several large vats and the diocese says it offers an average of 1,000 meals a day.
A volunteer at the “Divina Providencia” migrant shelter distributes lunch to Venezuelan migrants, in Cúcuta, Colombia, in February, 2018. The food is cooked in several large vats and the diocese says it offers an average of 1,000 meals a day. AP

As Alberto Solis heads to the polls Sunday to cast his vote for Colombia's president, he knows what he wants — and what he doesn't.

“This country has its problems and we need a young, capable leader,” said the 76-year-old pharmacist. “And God save us from becoming Venezuela.”

Colombians are voting for president amid an avalanche of disastrous news from their neighbor to the east. Food shortages, hyperinflation and human rights abuses have forced more than 800,000 Venezuelans to immigrate to Colombia in recent years.

And Colombian voters see an object lesson in the Venezuelan collapse: Even the richest and most democratic nations can be turned into authoritarian wastelands by bad leadership. Colombia, only a year into its peace deal with the guerrilla group known as the FARC after 50 years of conflict, may be vulnerable to upheaval, depending on who wins.

Polls show that Iván Duque, a 41-year-old former senator and the handpicked successor of former President Alvaro Uribe, is leading a packed field.

Behind him is former senator and Bogotá mayor Gustavo Petro, the standard-bearer of Colombia’s left; Sergio Fajardo, the former mayor of Medellín; and Germán Vargas Lleras, who served as vice president to current President Juan Manuel Santos until last year.

Former guerrilla turned politician Gustavo Petro wrapped up his campaign for president of Colombia on Thursday.

If Duque wins more than 50 percent of the vote, he could clinch the presidency in the first round. If no one wins outright, the top two candidates will meet in a June 17 runoff.

And it’s that fight for second place that’s becoming a nail-biter.

Despite being stuck in a distant fourth place when the last polls were released May 19, Vargas Lleras, 56, who has the backing of the ruling U Party and a powerful get-out-the-vote machine, might stage an upset and wind up in the runoff, analysts say.

And to achieve that, he’s been hammering away at Petro’s lead with the specter of a Venezuela-style disaster.

“We don’t want Colombia to follow the same destiny as we’re seeing in Venezuela today,” Vargas Lleras said during one of his campaign stops. “Mr. Petro, you are the little Maduro of Colombia, and next Sunday we are going to cut you off — but democratically.”

To compare Petro, 58, to Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro is deeply unfair but may prove to be brutally effective, analysts said.

While polls show that Petro has support from about a third of the population, when potential voters were asked about the one person they would “never vote for,” 37 percent name him — more than any other candidate.

Fernando Gallo, a 56-year-old shopkeeper, said the political elite are using Venezuela as a boogeyman to undermine the former mayor. Duque, the front-runner, and his political mentor, Uribe, have been describing Petro as a "Castro-Chavista" for months — references to the late Cuban leader Fidel Castro and the late Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez.

“When the race first started, I also believed the stories that he was too much like Chávez, but if you listen to him, that’s not true,” he said. “Still, I don’t think this country is ready for a leftist leader. I don’t think they’ll let him become president.”

Like every other contender in Colombia’s race, Petro has distanced himself from the neighboring disaster.

On May 20, Venezuelan President Maduro secured a new six-year term in an election that his opponents said was marred by fraud and that the international community, including Colombia, has called illegitimate.

“We cannot be among the bloc of countries that believe that there’s democracy there,” Petro told reporters in the run-up to Venezuela’s vote. “What we have there is an unsustainable dictatorship.”

While Petro preaches social justice, land redistribution and anti-corruption, he argues that it’s his rivals’ economic policies — focused on expanding Colombia’s coal and petrol exports — that are most similar to Venezuela’s addiction to oil.

But Petro’s critics have drowned out his message by highlighting his guerrilla background and Caracas ties.

In his 20s, Petro was a member of the M-19 guerrilla group, which infamously seized the Colombian Supreme Court in 1985. When authorities took the building back by force, almost 100 people died.

Petro was in jail at the time, and he has always maintained that he was a community organizer for the group, not an armed combatant.

And then there's his fondness for Chávez, the godfather of Latin America's new left, who led Venezuela from 1999-2013.

In a 2013 interview with Colombia’s El Espectador newspaper, as Petro was on his way to Chávez’s funeral, he reminisced about how the two had walked the streets of Bogotá together decades earlier and talked about social justice, and how the ideals of independence hero Simón Bolívar should be revived to unify Latin America.

“I’m going to say goodbye to [Chávez], a great man who was able to reduce poverty like no other Latin American leader,” Petro said.

In any other context, those comments might be benign, but in Colombia’s polarized political race, they’ve been used to paint Petro as a Chávez wannabe.

On Thursday, questioned once again on local radio about his stance on Venezuela, Petro snapped back.

“You want people to believe that I support Maduro, you repeat it every morning, and it’s false,” he said.

Sandra Borda, a political scientist at Colombia’s Los Andes University, said the attacks on Petro have played into Colombians' deepest fears: that this traditionally right-wing country — the United States' staunchest ally in the region — could devolve into a failed socialist state.

While Petro does represent the ideals of the left, “in no way does he represent [Venezuela’s] ‘21st century socialism,' " she said. “To claim that Petro’s proposals are just the same as Chavismo is completely harebrained.”

In many ways the Venezuela debate is a distraction. Colombia has plenty of its own problems.

The next president will have to continue implementing a fragile peace pact with the country’s largest guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). The deal, signed in late 2016, won Santos a Nobel Peace Prize but hasn’t ended all of the nation's violence.

Since 2016, more than 280 social leaders and human rights advocates have been murdered. And at least 40 former FARC combatants have been assassinated since they put down their weapons.

In addition, coca crops — the raw ingredient of cocaine — have increased dramatically, and new, bloody criminal groups are filling the vacuum left by the FARC.

The country also is reeling with corruption scandals.

Petro is already warning that a new scandal is brewing, that the political establishment is planning to commit fraud on Sunday, perhaps tweaking the software used in the voting machines, to knock him out of the race. He’s threatening to hold rallies and protests to “defend” the vote.

Santos responded by saying that Sunday’s election would be the most transparent and safe “in the history of Colombia.”

And Vargas Lleras, true to form, didn’t miss the opportunity to accuse Petro of attacking government institutions, including the electoral authority, just like Maduro.

If Petro doesn’t like Colombia’s voting software, he said, “then let him bring Venezuela’s and Maduro’s” voting machines, he said.

“There are millions of Colombians here willing to defend our institutions,” Vargas Lleras said. “Millions of Colombians who will not follow the Venezuelan model that he [Petro] represents.”