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It's not easy being Colombia's 1st left-wing president

People take part in a rally in support of Colombian President Gustavo Petro in Medellín, Colombia, on Feb. 8.
Jaime Saldarriaga
/
AFP via Getty Images
People take part in a rally in support of Colombian President Gustavo Petro in Medellín, Colombia, on Feb. 8.

BOGOTÁ, Colombia — Chanting and waving flags, hundreds of supporters of Gustavo Petro, Colombia's first-ever left-wing president, surrounded the Supreme Court building last month. They were angry because the judges inside were stonewalling Petro's push to appoint Colombia's next female attorney general.

"This is a progressive government that is trying to help the people," said one Petro partisan, retired schoolteacher Cecilia Vargas. "But they are blocking him."

Petro, who is a former left-wing guerrilla and Bogotá mayor, has pledged to transform Colombia into a more equal society. But during his nearly two years in office, Petro has often floundered and then made matters worse by lashing out at his critics on social media and in incendiary speeches.

"I think the difficulties of being the first leftist government in Colombia's history have been augmented by self-inflicted wounds," says Daniel García-Peña, a university professor who worked for Petro when he was mayor a decade ago. "Many people who voted for Petro were expecting something very different."

Petro, 63, has gotten some things done.

He pushed through what analysts describe as a more equitable tax code. He reestablished diplomatic and commercial ties with neighboring Venezuela that had been severed in 2019 over that country's crackdown on democracy. Petro has also maintained good relations with Washington, despite his efforts to overhaul Colombia's long-running U.S.-backed anti-drug strategy.

However, Petro has faced fierce opposition from the other branches of power. His push to reform health care, pensions and the labor code have stalled in Congress. Legislators have decried his efforts to make peace with guerrilla groups. Government watchdog agencies annulled the election of Petro's top congressional ally, suspended his foreign minister for alleged corruption, and are now probing his 2022 election campaign for possible illegal donations.

Petro, whose press office did not respond to NPR's request for an interview, has loudly defended his foreign minister and the integrity of his presidential campaign. He describes these disciplinary actions combined with the gridlock in Congress and the courts as amounting to a bureaucratic coup against his government by what he views as Colombia's deeply conservative deep state.

"Corrupt politicians and sectors within the Attorney General's Office are seeking the ouster of the president who was elected by the people," Petro declared on X (formerly Twitter) on Feb. 2.

Petro's complaints coincide with a broader theory within the Latin American left contending that reactionary government institutions are using legal levers — a practice often called "lawfare" — to delegitimize or even remove progressive and left-wing presidents in the region.

Petro was a fierce critic of the 2022 ouster of left-wing Peruvian President Pedro Castillo, even though he was arrested for closing Peru's Congress and attempting to rule by decree. In January, Petro traveled to Guatemala in a show of support for that country's newly elected progressive president, Bernardo Arévalo, who was briefly blocked by conservative legislators from taking the oath of office.

What's more, Petro remains bitter about his own temporary removal as Bogotá mayor in 2014 following a ruling by the archconservative head of a government watchdog institution that accused him of mishandling garbage pickup in the city.

Guatemala's new president, Bernardo Arévalo (center), with new Vice President Karin Herrera (left) and Colombian President Gustavo Petro, waves during his inauguration ceremony at the Miguel Ángel Asturias Cultural Center in Guatemala City on Jan. 15.
Johan Ordonez / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
Guatemala's new president, Bernardo Arévalo (center), with new Vice President Karin Herrera (left) and Colombian President Gustavo Petro, waves during his inauguration ceremony at the Miguel Ángel Asturias Cultural Center in Guatemala City on Jan. 15.

Luis Almagro, who heads the Organization of American States, recently spoke out against what he said were politicians' attempts to "damage the democratic process in Colombia."

"The General Secretariat condemns and repudiates the threats to interrupt the constitutional mandate of President Petro," the OAS said in a Feb. 8 statement.

Bogotá legal scholar Rodrigo Uprimny says Petro has some legitimate complaints. For example, Colombia's former attorney general, Francisco Barbosa, whose term ended this month, was a fierce and frequent critic of the president. After months of dithering, the Supreme Court has yet to approve Petro's choice to replace Barbosa as attorney general even though that process usually takes just a few weeks.

But Uprimny and other observers also contend that no one is trying to oust Petro and that most of his problems are of his own making.

Petro's legislative agenda has been stuck for months, in part, because he has gradually lost the support of much of the Congress. He has removed most of the moderate members of his Cabinet, often replacing them with left-wing ideologues, says Alejandro Gaviria, Petro's former education minister who lasted six months until he was pushed out in February 2023. He called Petro a chaotic administrator.

"He doesn't know how to lead a government," Gaviria told NPR. "Cabinet meetings were so messy that I could hardly believe it."

Opposition Sen. Miguel Uribe claims that Petro distrusts anyone beyond his inner circle — perhaps a byproduct of his time as a fighter in the M-19 guerrilla group in the 1980s. He says this mentality makes it harder for Petro to reach across the aisle, compromise and get bills passed.

Members of the Colombian Police watch over the Supreme Court of Justice headquarters during the election of the new attorney general of the nation in Bogotá on Feb. 22.
Raul Arboleda / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
Members of the Colombian Police watch over the Supreme Court of Justice headquarters during the election of the new attorney general of the nation in Bogotá on Feb. 22.

Although Petro has never embraced communism, "he has a very communist logic," Uribe says. "It's like Che Guevara. You only have two options. Either win or die and that's it."

Petro has also been hobbled by family scandals.

His eldest son, Nicolás Petro, was indicted Jan. 11 for allegedly pocketing donations from drug traffickers meant for his father's presidential campaign. The Attorney General's Office is investigating the president's brother, Juan Fernando Petro, for allegedly seeking payments from jailed drug dealers in exchange for judicial benefits from the Petro administration. The president has tried to distance himself from the cases and says justice should take its course.

Meanwhile, first lady Verónica Alcocer is facing scrutiny in the Colombian media for lavish spending.

Petro's job approval rating suffered. It fell from 48% in December 2022 to 26% a year later, before climbing to 35% in February, according to surveys by the pollster Invamer.

In speeches and on social media, an increasingly frustrated Petro has been urging his followers to take to the streets to defend his government. They responded with their march to the Supreme Court building on Feb. 8.

But the protest sparked a flurry of accusations that Petro was bullying the judiciary branch. In addition, some protesters carried flags of the M-19, Petro's former guerrilla group. That brought back painful memories of the rebels' 1985 takeover of the Supreme Court, which led to a military siege that killed more than 100 civilians, including 11 court justices.

With Petro closing in on the halfway point of his four-year term, Uprimny says he's proving to be a better provocateur than president.

People take part in a rally in support of Colombian President Gustavo Petro in Medellín, Colombia, on Feb. 8.
Jaime Saldarriaga / AFP via Getty Images
/
AFP via Getty Images
People take part in a rally in support of Colombian President Gustavo Petro in Medellín, Colombia, on Feb. 8.

"He likes to make speeches. He likes to be cheered. He wants to be loved," Uprimny says. "But the problem is that he doesn't deliver. Because maybe he doesn't like to govern."

That said, Petro has two more years to turn things around.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Corrected: March 9, 2024 at 10:00 PM MST
A previous version of this web story mistakenly said Colombia's president was seeking to appoint the country's first female attorney general. Viviane Morales became the first woman appointed to that post in December 2010.

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