Exclusive Interview: A Former Member of a Notorious Colombian Guerrilla Group Is Running for President. Will He Win?

“If you ask me whether Chávez was a dictator, I would say no. If you ask me whether Maduro is a dictator, I would say yes,” Colombia's presidential candidate Gustavo Petro told Newsweek in an exclusive interview. Gustavo Petro Campaign/Colombia Humana

Updated | More than three decades ago, the M-19, a center-left Colombian guerrilla group, stormed the Palace of Justice, the country's top court, to condemn then-President Belisario Betancur for allegedly violating a truce. A 28-hour siege ensued, as militants squared off against the armed forces, leaving dozens dead, the building burned and the country mired in chaos.

A month before the siege, in October 1985, the national army detained a young militant named Gustavo Petro—who was not part of the raid—and tortured him for days at a cavalry school. After his release, Petro helped craft a peace treaty between the militants and the government.

Now, he wants to be Colombia's next president, and he has a legitimate shot. As of publication, Petro, who is running for the progressive Colombia Humana Movement, was slightly trailing Iván Duque, his staunchest rival. (Duque was nominated by Democratic Center—a center-right party spearheaded by former President Álvaro Uribe Vélez.)

It's not Petro's first foray into politics. The 58-year-old served as a congressman in the early 2000s, and in 2012 he became mayor of Bogotá. In 2013, he was involved in an alleged political scandal involving the city's sanitation program that temporarily forced him out of office; the Supreme Court ruled in his favor, and he came back to finish his term.

But as Colombians get ready to vote on May 27, the turmoil in neighboring Venezuela is getting more attention than Petro's time running Bogotá. Critics say he hasn't adequately condemned the left-leaning movement chavismo, whose policies have arguably created a humanitarian crisis along the Colombian border. Petro argues otherwise, but this is no mere ideological debate: In March, shots were fired at his bulletproof vehicle during a campaign rally. (Officials found no evidence of gunshots at his armored car, according to local reports. However, the candidate claimed independent investigations have revealed a bullet impact.)

Petro spoke to Newsweek about U.S. President Donald Trump, late Venezuelan leader Hugo Chávez and why politics is a matter of life and death.

Colombian presidential candidate for the Colombia Humana party, Gustavo Petro delivers a speech at a rally in Medellin, Colombia, on February 22, 2018. Joaquín Sarmiento/AFP/Getty Images

Let's talk about Trump. How would you deal with a U.S. president who is increasingly protectionist?
Trump's actions [regarding stiff trade measures, especially on Chinese products] inadvertently would help us because they allow us to impose a tariff on basic imports on farm products and industrial goods, which are of interest to protect Colombia's agriculture and industry.

Would you also renegotiate the free trade agreement Colombia signed with the U.S. in 2006?
That would not be necessary from a legal standpoint because of the carbon tax [which measures greenhouse gas emissions on imports], a tariff I propose. Trump's protectionist take helps legitimize Colombia's protectionism, but the position I'm proposing, in the protection of Colombia's productivity, is founded on mitigating climate change.

In recent years, Colombia has witnessed a rise in coca production. How would you tackle drug trafficking?
We cannot base our agenda on narcotics like in past decades. The war on drugs is a failure, and that is recognized in Colombia and in the U.S., and it has opened a floodgate of violence across the Americas, from Baltimore to Brazil. I propose an agrarian policy I call land substitution and the democratization of fertile land. Coca leaves do not grow on fertile land, and if farmers can be taken to arable fields, they will produce basic agrarian goods that are more profitable.

But how would you cooperate with the U.S. when Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Trump are intent on pursuing a draconian drug policy and even contemplate the death penalty for drug dealers?
Populism can lead U.S. right-wing factions to believe that stringent penalties can end drug consumption. The fact that a death toll reached over 60,000 [in 2016] due to [overdose from illicit drugs and prescription opioids] is a demonstration that the U.S. policy is a failure and is leading to more deaths.

Former U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Latin American countries should not let China or Russia erode their sovereignty or give in to their influence. Do you agree?
To think about politics as gray areas or in a binary way is the worst approach to understand societies. This is a naïve policy, and rather a stupid one. It's not about being allegiant to the U.S. or Russia or China; it's about forging ties with the politics of life, meaning those who want to mitigate climate change for a better future.

Gustavo Petro (R) and Ivan Duque (L) of the Democratic Center Party laugh during a TV debate in Medellin on April 3, 2018. As of publication, Petro, who is running for the progressive Colombia Humana Movement, was slightly trailing Duque, his staunchest rival. Joaquín Sarmiento/AFP/Getty Images

Let's talk about Venezuela. What do you think should be the role of the U.S. in the humanitarian crisis?
The best role the U.S. should assume—now, this is a suggestion because I'm respectful of every country's sovereignty—is to stay away from fossil fuel. However, this is not a concept that's being analyzed by our traditional political elites or the Trump administration. The Venezuelan regime, for its part, would not have survived if the world had not had a higher demand for oil. Therefore, the discussion over Venezuelan politics would have been very different between the opposition and the [Nicolás] Maduro administration today, but there is a dispute over oil revenues among interest groups.

During an interview with Univision's Jorge Ramos in March, your detractors lambasted you because you couldn't answer whether Chávez was a dictator. Do you think this interview harmed your chances of becoming president?
Not at all. I heard over the earpiece "Is Chávez a dictator or not?" But I differentiate the Chávez years from Maduro's—and whoever wants to analyze Venezuela in depth must establish that difference, which I was not allowed to do…. If you ask me whether Chávez was a dictator, I would say no. If you ask me whether Maduro is a dictator, I would say yes. They are not the same in this case.

What makes them different?
During the Chávez tenure, he was riding on high oil prices, and he could wield political clout. Maduro, on the other hand, is grappling with plummeting oil prices. Chávez allowed some pluralism…because there was a coup attempt in 2002 against him and several other strikes. He had to maintain or increase that pluralism. Maduro, on the other hand, murders. But during the Chávez years, there were operating TV channels from the opposition, for example.

But Chávez allowed the closure of Radio Caracas Televisión, an opposing TV channel, in 2007.
But he sustained a degree of pluralism. Today, Venezuela can't find a solution to its woes. During the Chávez years, there were elections; he lost a 2007 referendum to stay longer in power, but he accepted his defeat. I can't find opposition members who would say that there was a fraud during the times he was re-elected, since there was some sort of consensus that the majority of Venezuelans were supporting Chávez. And this is because oil prices were high, turning Venezuela into a bursting bubble—something Chávez, unfortunately, did not foresee.

Chávez was aware that Venezuela's economy needed to be transitioned from an oil-based economy to a more diverse one, but he depended even more on its petroleum until the end of his term. Now, Maduro makes the effort to sustain a higher price of oil, and he does not allow openness for a national dialogue to solve problems. That's what we call a dictatorship.

So do you still support your claim that Chávez was a good president?
That's not what I said. What I'm saying is that Chávez was not a dictator. Whether he was a good or bad leader, that's up to the Venezuelan society to decide. We did not see a deep-seated authoritarian approach under Chávez, despite aligning Venezuela with the Cuban model. Maduro fights for an increase in oil production, instead of contemplating a transition to a more productive economy—and he closed any democratic forums for social protests.

If you become president, how would you deal with Maduro while addressing Venezuela's humanitarian crisis?
From the Colombian perspective, it's all about staying away from coal and oil. That would pave the way for an exemplary model to Venezuela. The richer we are, the more capable we'll be to help Venezuelan society…stay away from oil. This can only be achieved if Colombia shifts to a more productive economy and supplies Venezuela with more food, so we can curb such a massive exodus. What is the Venezuelan problem? It can't untether from oil, but that problem can only be resolved among Venezuelans.

Your political adversaries could bring up your former M-19 militancy in future presidential debates. How would you cope with those attacks?
The history of M-19 showed us that peace is not a pact with guerrillas, but an agreement with society in the pursuit of social reforms to make Colombia, one of the world's most unequal countries, into a fair one. If we don't recognize that this is the root cause of drug trafficking, violence or poverty, then we're having a distorted view of our country.

If the Uribe-led conservative movement known as uribismo is defeated and I win, we should discuss with its upper echelon how we can peacefully move from an unproductive large estate to a productive model.

Speaking of the economy, analysts believe that Colombian markets are afraid of you. Should they be?
What a foreign investor wants is a clear set of rules, so here is mine: Businesspeople dedicated to clean energies like solar power are welcome. Those who want to help us in the industrialization of food production are welcome. Those who want to help us in the programming, web and computer science business are welcome. Now, when it comes to the extractive business, such as ore mining in moorlands, fracking, oil and coal exploration, then they will not find a friendly government.

Gustavo Petro delivers a speech during a campaign rally in Colombia. He told Newsweek that he has a chance to win the presidency if he's not assassinated. Gustavo Petro Campaign/Colombia Humana

Another left-leaning candidate in Latin America on the rise is Mexico's Andrés Manuel López Obrador. Despite the Venezuelan experience, do you believe that the left still has a future in a region that has probably grown weary of it?
I no longer see the world as right versus left. The world today sees politics as a matter of life versus death.… There are entities that support and deepen wars, wall constructions, xenophobia and fossil fuel economies. Those are the politics of death. I don't know López Obrador…but I'd like to because we would have some much to talk about. There could also be a political change in Brazil if [Luiz] Inácio Lula Da Silva manages to run again.

This is also true of Peru. With the ouster of President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski and the fall of former leader Alberto Fujimori's ideology, we can witness a beautiful opportunity for a progressive bloc's rise. This would be a completely different axis from the one made up of Caracas, Managua and Havana. My hope is that this new dawn in Latin American progressivism is established in a productive economy.

Would you renegotiate the peace accord the government reached with the Armed Revolutionary Forces of Colombia (FARC) more than a year ago?
The peace deal must be respected, and they must be un-vilified because Colombians no longer believe the fallacy that our country was going to be handed over to guerrillas. FARC, now a political party, received a meager 50,000-vote tally in the congressional elections. The treaty with FARC is not a top concern for Colombians.

When the country votes in May, do you think you'll win?
There is a possibility. For the first time in five centuries, a person who is not a member of the elites that have ruled the country has a chance to win the presidency—that is, if I'm not assassinated.

Excerpts from Petro's interview (in Spanish):

This article contains an update on Petro's alleged attack in the city of Cúcuta.