Colombia ventures into the unknown with election of leftist president

For the first time in its history, Colombia has elected a leftist president. Gustavo Petro is a former guerrilla who became mayor of Bogota and then a senator. He defeated right-wing populist Rodolfo Hernández. As Nick Schifrin reports, his election overturns the center-right political establishment that has long run Colombia, and it could usher in a dramatic change with its U.S. relationship.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    For the first time in its history, Colombia has elected a leftist president.

    Gustavo Petro is a former-guerrilla-turned-mayor of Bogota and then a senator. He defeated right-wing populist Rodolfo Hernandez.

    As Nick Schifrin reports, his election overturns the right-of-center political establishment that has long run Colombia, and it could usher in a dramatic change in the U.S. relationship with its closest regional partner.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    In Colombia's capital last night, a population hungry for change cheered the man who promises transformation. Thousands waved flags and chanted, "Yes, we did it," and hailed Colombia's first ever left-wing president.

    Gustavo Petro introduced by the country's first Black vice president, president-elect Gustavo Petro pledged a new path.

  • Gustavo Petro, Colombian President-Elect (through translator):

    Today is undoubtedly a historic day. We are writing history at this moment, a new history for Colombia, for Latin America, for the world. What is coming is a real change.

  • Oscar Pietro, Petro Supporter (through translator):

    For 200 years, we have been governed by the same people. But today begins to transition to the government of change that will benefit all Colombians.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Never before has Colombia elected someone with Petro's past. He fought for M19, the leftist guerrilla group that targeted the Colombian state, and spent two years in jail.

    He became an opposition politician, first mayor of Bogota and now senator. For a country that long marginalized the left, Petro's election is a dramatic departure from decades of right-wing and central-right governance. The 62-year-old became an icon for the country's frustrated youth.

    Cynthia Arnson, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars: There has been a rising level of discontent, a sense of a lack of opportunity, a sense that education was too expensive.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Cynthia Arnson is a Woodrow Wilson Center distinguished fellow. She says Petro's victory is part of a regional anti-establishment shift.

  • Cynthia Arnson:

    Throughout Latin America, there is a desire for change, to throw out the people that have been in charge over these last very, very complicated, difficult years economically, which have seen rises in inequality and poverty and food insecurity.

    And so there's a strong anti-incumbent sentiment.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    For decades, Colombia has been the United States' strongest regional ally. The two militaries work together.

    Colombia is the U.S.' largest regional trading partner, and the U.S. and Colombia have teamed up to fight what the U.S. has called the war on drugs. But Petro calls the drug war a failure and demands to reexamine the trade deal to focus on climate change.

  • Cynthia Arnson:

    Colombia and the United States have been partners in efforts to suppress coca and the production and export of cocaine. And so shifting away from that and implanting another strategy that is unproven and unknown, I think, is going to create friction.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Another change, Petro's embrace of the regional left. He met with Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez before his death in 2013. Today, Petro vows to create what he calls a progressive partnership with current Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro and other regional leftists.

  • Francisco Santos Calderon, Former Colombian Vice President:

    He's very close to Maduro. He's been very close to the Venezuelan dictatorship. And I think he's going to play on that side of the game from now.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Francisco Santos Calderon was Colombia's former Vice President from 2002 to 2010. He says Petro is on the opposite side of history from the United States.

  • Francisco Santos Calderon:

    Colombia will probably be more on the side of the autocracies than the democracies. So, the U.S. will take a backdoor in policies, changing and putting an end to a relationship, a very close relationship between Colombia and the U.S. for the past 30 years.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Petro also vows to upends Colombia's decades-old dependence on fossil fuels and raise taxes on the rich. His victory comes six years after the armed leftist rebel group FARC agreed to stop its guerrilla warfare and embrace the political process.

    Another first in this year's election, Vice President Francia Marquez, a former made, miner and farmer turned environmental activist.

  • Cynthia Arnson:

    And I was really struck in her acceptance speech last night when she talked about this was a government now for the people with calloused hands, for the nobodies in Colombia.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Petro promises a government for the people, but his sweeping reforms may be hard to implement, as Colombia ventures into the unknown.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Nick Schifrin.

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