A few days before Sunday’s presidential election in Colombia, several dozen Venezuelans huddled in a small church in the capital of Bogotá to pray that voters “wouldn’t make a mistake.”
They were hoping that Ivan Duque, a 41-year-old former senator who is leading the polls, will emerge Sunday night as the winner in a country that has been one of the United States' staunchest allies in the hemisphere. Virtually unknown just a few years ago, Duque is presenting himself as the law-and-order, pro-business candidate who has the backing of powerful former President Alvaro Uribe.
The candidate they don't want to see win: Gustavo Petro, a 58-year-old former mayor and senator, who is campaigning from the other end of the political spectrum as a progressive reformer and anti-corruption crusader.
Petro’s past as an M-19 guerrilla, and his coziness with the late Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, however, has made him toxic to the hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans who have sought refuge in Colombia as their own country has descended into economic chaos. And while Venezuelans cannot vote here, their advocacy, activism — and calls for divine intervention — may help push Duque over the finish line on Election Day.
“We are praying for peace in Colombia, and so that Sunday, our Colombian brothers know who to elect for president and don’t fall in the same abyss that Venezuela is in,” said Francine Howard, a Venezuelan political activist living in Bogotá, who organized Thursday’s prayer vigil.
Most polls give Duque a comfortable lead in Sunday’s race. An Invamer survey, released June 8, predicted he would win 57 percent of the vote versus Petro’s 37 percent. Another poll by CELAG, however, put Petro within six points of Duque.
But closer to the Venezuelan border — where the Venezuelan exile population is denser — Duque’s dominance is evident. During the May 27 first round vote, he won five out of six border states, often by whopping margins.
Jairo Tarazona, a 39-year-old Colombian street vendor in Cúcuta, the gateway for most Venezuelans entering Colombia, said he didn’t know anyone who was going to be voting for Petro on Sunday.
“Everyone around here is voting for Duque,” he said, waving to the sea of vendors along the international bridge, where tens of thousands of Venezuelans cross every day. “People here are scared of [Petro’s] ideas — that he’s going to turn us into Venezuela.”
Indeed, during the first round of the election, Duque won 60 percent of the vote in Cúcuta, while Petro came in a distant fourth with just 9 percent.
Colombia’s next president will have to face a series of tough issues, including implementing a fragile peace deal with the hemisphere’s largest guerrilla group — the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC — containing a boom in drug crops, reducing income disparity and steadying the economy.
But along the border, the Venezuelan crisis is drowning out complex or nuanced debate, said Yolima Gómez, one of the coordinators for Petro’s campaign in northeastern Colombia.
“It’s been very, very difficult in this area to get beyond the Venezuela issue,” she said “People here see Venezuelans sleeping on the street, or begging, and they fear that might happen here without even knowing why it’s happening there.”
Petro and his team argue that Venezuela’s economic collapse and rampant hunger have more to do with corruption and cronyism than the country’s adherence to socialist policies. And Gómez pointed out that some areas of Colombia have been so neglected and are so poor that "people are living even worse than people in Venezuela."
But that argument has been hard to make along the border.
When Petro visited Cúcuta in March, his caravan was attacked. His campaign insists it was gunfire that shattered the windshield of his armored car, but authorities say it was likely rocks. Either way, the city has been considered too dangerous for Petro to return, Gómez said.
Duque, on the other hand, has visited the border multiple times — and often received a raucous welcome.
With his scholarly air and rambling speeches, Petro makes an easy target. A former Marxist guerrilla, he was at one time friendly with Venezuela’s Chávez, the godfather of Latin America’s new left, who died in 2013.
But Petro has distanced himself from Venezuela’s current President Nicolás Maduro and called his May 20 reelection illegitimate. Instead, Petro argues, it’s Duque and his powerful backer that the country needs to be wary of.
He says Duque’s support of the coal and petroleum industries mirrors the “extractive,” oil-addicted policies that have doomed Venezuela. He also accuses Duque of being a “puppet” for Uribe, a man who attempted to scrap term limits while he was president from 2002 to 2010, just like Venezuela’s Chávez did.
And Petro’s campaign has suggested that Duque will use his presidency to shield Uribe from allegations of extrajudicial killings and other human rights violations, and could put the 2016 FARC peace deal at risk — a deal that Uribe actively campaigned against.
Duque has repeatedly said he’s his own man, and Uribe, now a senator, has said there are no “puppets” in this race, and that he’s “no puppeteer.”
In his final trip to the border last week, Duque went to the international dividing line to greet Venezuelan opposition leader Maria Corina Machado, who has been barred from leaving her country.
After the meeting, Duque said he planned to “work tirelessly so that all of the countries of Latin America isolate the Venezuelan dictatorship diplomatically and so that Venezuela can return to democracy.”
Those kind of fighting words have helped turn many of the 800,000 Venezuelans living in Colombia into cheerleaders for Duque’s cause.
Howard, the Venezuelan activist, is volunteering for Duque’s campaign. She said Venezuelans living in Colombia are indeed playing a role in these elections.
“They have a story to tell,” she explained, “about what it’s like to live under a leftist authoritarian government.”