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Whoever wins Sunday's election, Colombia should aspire to be better than today's U.S.

Fernando Vergara
LEAVING URIBISMO A supporter of Colombian presidential candidate Gustavo Petro and vice presidential running mate Francia Marquez records them at a campaign rally this week in Zipaquira, Colombia.

COMMENTARY This month's horrifying and racist mass shootings remind us why it rings hollow now to urge Colombia and Latin America to be more like the U.S.

Regardless of who wins this Sunday’s presidential election in Colombia, left or right, here’s one big reason the vote is so important:

It offers Colombia a chance to go in a different, healthier direction than the country we’ve always told it and the rest of Latin America to aspire to — the United States of America.

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There’s no more horrifying reminder of that reality than the massacre of 19 children and two teachers at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, this week. Or the racist slaughter of 10 Black people at a grocery store in Buffalo, New York, last week.

Those atrocities expose both the psychotic gun culture and the unhinged political extremism we’ve cavalierly associated with Colombia, but which now characterize the U.S. — and which Colombia can start shaking off like volcano ash if it gets serious after this election about implementing its post-civil war peace plan.

READ MORE: Will Colombia's Petro build 'reservoirs of credibility' — or pull the rug from his cause?

To all the American exceptionalists out there: please spare us your shocked objections to the U.S.-Colombia parallels I’m drawing. Any country, especially any state like Texas, that makes it easier for a deranged 18-year-old to pick up a semi-automatic rifle than to check out “Maus” (Texas also leads the U.S. in school book-banning) deserves the life-is-cheap-there epithet we used to hurl at Colombia during its Pablo Escobar days and especially its half-century-long civil war, which ended in 2016.

Likewise, any country where the waning majority demographic erupts as rabidly and violently as waning White Christian America is lashing out today — any nation where knuckle-dragging “replacement theory” replaces “The Federalist Papers” as a civics handbook for close to half the electorate — merits being lumped in with developing democracies like Colombia.

That country’s historically dominant and Whiter cohort — the folks whose gluttonous land and wealth ownership makes Colombia one of the world’s most inegalitarian places on Earth — also explodes whenever it smells egalitarian change, especially the racial variety. They reflexively demonize it as “socialismo.” Ergo the passionate kinship between Colombia’s right-wing Uribistas (named for their demigod, former President Alvaro Uribe) and America’s right-wing Trumpists (you know who their demigod is).

Any country that makes it easier for a deranged 18-year-old to pick up a semi-automatic rifle than check out “Maus” deserves the life-is-cheap-there epithet we used to hurl at Colombia.

Despite some recent setbacks in GOP primaries, Trumpism is sure to rear its head again in November’s U.S. mid-term elections. (Uvalde, if recent history is any guide, is unlikely to change that.) But Uribismo’s grip on Colombian politics has loosened dramatically. Look no further than the fact that a leftist former guerrilla, Senator Gustavo Petro — whose historic running-mate choice, Francia Márquez, is Black — is comfortably ahead in the polls before this Sunday’s election.

Petro would be Colombia’s first left-wing president. But even if his closest rival, right-wing candidate Federico Gutiérrez (or surging anti-corruption populist Rodolfo Hernández) were to win, it’s doubtful Colombians would tolerate a return to the kind of Uribismo that, under current right-wing President Iván Duque, bitterly refused to prioritize the egalitarian reforms of a 2016 peace plan it always hated.


Dario Lopez-Mills
San Antonio's Roman Catholic Archbishop Gustavo Garcia-Siller consoles parents in Uvalde, Texas, Tuesday after the mass shooting at Robb Elementary School.

I certainly don’t deny Uribismo did Colombia a service in the 2000s by militarily beating back the country’s criminal Marxist guerrillas, the FARC, which led to the 2016 peace accord — just as I’d never withhold kudos to Ronald Reagan and the Republican Party for bringing down the Soviet Union in the 1980s. But Uribismo, like today’s GOP, has since morphed into a hysterical, us-against-the 21st century religion. One whose contempt for reform blew up in its face — literally, in furious Colombian streets protests — during the economic hell of the pandemic.

So one hopes that after Sunday’s vote (or next month’s runoff if no candidate gets 50% in the first round) Colombia will move beyond its own White panic and move forward with the land reform, education, rural infrastructure and other socio-economic peace projects meant to prevent another half-century-long civil war from igniting. Or at least keep its infamous gun violence from spiking again.

A decade ago bullet-weary Colombian cities like Bogotá and Medellín enacted stronger gun-control codes. Studies show their gun-related death rate dropped almost 40%. Gun violence is still a plague in Colombia, as it is all over the Americas. But, like the country’s political climate, it appears to be moving in the opposite direction of the U.S.

Colombia needs real peace to keep that up — to aspire to be something better than the U.S.

Tim Padgett is the Americas editor for Miami NPR affiliate WLRN, covering Latin America, the Caribbean and their key relationship with South Florida.