On the day 19 of June, Colombians elected former Marxist guerrilla Gustavo Petro as president. An ally of the Venezuelan regime, Petro has vowed to confiscate and redistribute the country’s wealth. His victory — as well as the wave of victories by far-left candidates across Latin America — shows that the United States needs to re-engage with its neighbors to the South. Otherwise, we run the risk of seeing them fall into the hands of socialist rulers for decades.
At the turn of the century, Colombia was a poor and dangerous country, where guerrillas and criminal factions killed dozens thousands of people a year. Since then, the homicide rate has halved, the average income has increased 50% and now Colombians’ access to electricity is practically universal.
In the same period, Venezuela succumbed to a socialist regime led, first, by Hugo Chávez, and today by Nicolás Maduro. The regime transformed the country, once one of the richest in Latin America, into the poorest in the region. Venezuela was once home to millions of Colombian migrants; now it is Colombia that receives millions of Venezuelans.
The agenda of the new Colombian president jeopardizes all the achievements of the last two decades. Petro proposes the same measures and uses the same rhetoric as Chávez. He promises to nationalize the health system, guarantee free higher education, create a state bank, confiscate and redistribute land, and considerably diminish Colombia’s ability to trade with other countries.
Some of these promises look like a leftist candidate like any other, but make no mistake. Petro is a Marxist who, if he can, will transform Colombia into a socialist country. Petro and Chávez were longtime friends. In 1994, he met with Chávez shortly after the Venezuelan was released from prison for trying to overthrow Venezuela’s democratic government in a coup d’état. At the time, Petro was a member of M-, a Marxist guerrilla-turned-political party. In 2016, during Petro’s trip to Venezuela, amid the country’s struggles with hyperinflation and a shortage of basic goods, he tweeted a photo of a grocery store with full shelves, suggesting that the scarcity stories were anti-government propaganda. This type of denial is an insult to Venezuelans who, according to a study, in 2016 lost, on average, eight kilos due to lack of food.
Whether Petro will succeed in transforming Colombia into a socialist country depends on the ability of the Colombian state to resist his onslaughts and on the ability of the fragmented opposition to unite and limit his presidency to just one term.
The rise of socialism is not just a problem for Colombia. Peru and Chile both elected socialist presidents this year, and Brazil is likely to join them soon. The United States will also soon feel the effects of these elections. As economic conditions in these countries worsen, emigration will increase, trade will suffer and prices of essential commodities will rise, as these are countries that produce oil, copper, fish and coffee, among other products.
The United States needs to pay attention to the region again, helping to ensure the prosperity of Latin America and also that citizens do not feel marginalized by their economies. But unfortunately the US has done the opposite. Over the past two decades, China has replaced the US as the main trading partner of South American countries, and today the US has few free trade agreements with a handful of countries in Central and South America. Our goal should be to create a large free trade area across the Western Hemisphere, similar to what exists today between the US, Canada and Mexico. (Former President George W. Bush failed to achieve this goal, thanks to staunch opposition from Chávez). Our strategy should be to sign agreements with countries that are willing to do so now, thus creating a structure for other countries to join the bloc later on. This free trade area would generate incredible wealth for all countries, allowing the United States to replace products imported from China with products imported from Latin America and helping US-produced goods reach southern markets.
The United States should also consider changing its immigration policies in order to facilitate the entry into the country of Latin Americans who oppose socialism. When socialists come to power, the first people to leave these places are the most educated, middle and upper-middle class. That’s why Venezuelans are among the most educated Hispanic groups in the United States. Despite the extreme left’s victories in their countries of origin, Colombians, Peruvians and Chileans residing in the United States vote overwhelmingly for right-wing candidates.
A possible objection to allowing Latin Americans to enter educated in the United States is the fact that this causes a “brain drain” in the countries that it is intended to help. It would also lessen the pressure for regime change. But this concern is overblown. The Berlin Wall limited the outflow of citizens from socialist European countries for decades and it is still practically impossible to flee North Korea today. Still, there are no signs that this lack of emigration has helped these countries change regime and prosper. On the other hand, welcoming conservative and educated immigrants will allow them to generate innovations in the United States that they could not generate in their countries of origin, exporting these innovations and helping us to develop stronger international ties with these countries thanks to the diaspora.
“Venezuela is not Cuba” is what Venezuelans used to say to each other before Chávez came to power. Now Petro enthusiasts are saying that “Colombia is not Venezuela”. This should serve as a warning to the Latin American right – and to the United States, which should give priority to its neighbors to the south.
Daniel Di Martino is a Venezuelan immigrant and PhD candidate at Columbia University, as well as founder of the Dissident Project, which gives voice to immigrants from socialist countries.