Petro's Guaidó blunder was a reminder he's botching his 'revolución'
COMMENTARY Thanks to ideological arrogance, Colombia's first-ever leftist president, Gustavo Petro, risks fumbling the important reform agenda he was elected to carry out, at home and abroad.
Latin America’s right-wingers know which emergency glass to break when they’ve screwed up: they call their opponents “¡comunistas!” Latin American left-wingers have their own tiresome fire-alarm lever: they shout “¡revolución!”
So ¡qué sorpresa! that’s exactamente what Colombia’s first-ever leftist president, Gustavo Petro, bellowed from the Casa de Nariño presidential palace in Bogotá on Monday to finish one of the worst weeks of his 9-month-old administration. He warned that if the reforms he’s trying to push through Congress keep getting thwarted, Colombia will see “a revolution” from the masses he insists only he represents.
Colombia doesn’t need a revolution. It needs a resolution — a decision by Petro to wise up before he irreparably fumbles the agenda he was elected to carry out. That includes desperately needed domestic changes, like agrarian reform, to fix the monstrous, feudal inequality that keeps Colombia from realizing its enormous development potential; and urgent foreign policy projects, especially a solutionto the brutish humanitarian crisis next door in Venezuela.
It was in the latter campaign that Petro misstepped most notably last week. To his credit, he hosted a conference in Bogotá where representatives from 20 countries, including the U.S., discussed how to re-start democracy talks between Venezuela’s socialist dictator, Nicolás Maduro, and Venezuela’s political opposition. Neither Maduro’s regime nor that opposition was invited to attend — which, again to Petro’s credit, seemed a fair set-up.
Then Petro got played, and exposed, in ways that he, Colombia and the Venezuelan democracy effort could ill afford.
Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó — whom the U.S. and much of the rest of the world had until recently recognized as Venezuela’s constitutionally legitimate president, because Maduro’s 2018 re-election was widely considered illegal — slipped into Colombia on the eve of the conference. He said he’d come because his arrest back home was “imminent.”
Guaidó, in an obvious bid to revive his waning influence, also sought to talk to the conference delegations. That’s when Petro blundered on the optics front.
Petro keeps screwing up and stalling out largely because the leftist guerrilla he used to be keeps getting in the way of the pragmatist leader he needs to be.
Petro could have politely told Guaidó, “We understand you feel threatened in Venezuela; so in the interest of human rights we’ll put you up as a political refugee and you can figure out what to do from there. But please respect the protocol of the conference I’m hosting, which is meant to help your democracy movement regain traction.”
Here’s what Guaidó says happened instead: Petro officials took offense and accused Guaidó of entering Colombia illegally. They wanted to deport him back to Venezuela — where indeed he might have been jailed upon returning — until the U.S. intervened. Colombian authorities then had Guaidó flown to Miami. While here last week, Guaidó announced to the media — not completely unfairly — that “Petro has put himself on Maduro’s side.”
Opening the door for conservatives
Petro's government denies it sought to expel Guaidó; and Guaidó's move admittedly felt like a political stunt. Nonetheless, Petro’s credibility as an honest broker in the Venezuela crisis appeared to sink into the Caribbean, especially since it wasn't the first time he's given the impression he's coddling Maduro — that he's an ideological lefty helping out an authoritarian lefty.
And Petro let it happen just days after visiting the White House and urging President Biden to trust him as a Venezuela mediator — as the guy who can find a way to get Maduro to move toward holding a new, transparent election and in turn move the U.S. to ease sanctions against Maduro’s regime.
Petro’s botch-up prompted right-wingers like Miami Congressman Mario Diaz-Balart, who chairs a House subcommittee that determines the foreign policy budget, to suggest withholding U.S. aid to Colombia — something Diaz-Balart repeated in remarks at Florida International University’s hemispheric security conference this week.
I certainly don’t agree the U.S. should take that tack. But it's no surprise that a politician like Diaz-Balart is walking through the door Petro opened for him.
Petro opened it again with Monday’s “revolución” remarks. His reform crusade also stalled out last week in large part becausethe leftist guerrilla he used to be keeps getting in the way of the pragmatist leader he needs to be. His important health care overhaul, for example, couldn’t even make it to debate in Congress because he insists on a system many Colombians fear will be too costly and, above all, too centralized.
Before it’s too late, Petro needs to resolve to change his approach at home and abroad. ¡Viva la resolución!