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Florida political leaders voice concern over ex-rebel’s win in Colombia’s presidential election

Gustavo Petro, a former member of the M-19 guerrilla group, becomes the country’s first leftist president.
Former rebel Gustavo Petro and his running mate, Francia Marquez, celebrate before supporters after winning a runoff presidential election in Bogota, Colombia, Sunday.
Former rebel Gustavo Petro and his running mate, Francia Marquez, celebrate before supporters after winning a runoff presidential election in Bogota, Colombia, Sunday. [ FERNANDO VERGARA | AP ]
Published Jun. 21|Updated Jun. 21

Florida leaders from both political parties expressed concern Monday over the results of the Colombian presidential election.

A former member of the M-19 guerrilla group, Gustavo Petro, 62, won the race on Sunday by a small margin to become the first leftist president in the country’s history. His election heralds a new era of changes for a country traditionally ruled by conservatives and moderates.

His past and his sharp criticism of the status quo tend to frighten the wealthy and some in the middle class, who fear he will attempt to uproot the political system of Colombia to replace it with a leftist totalitarian regime as the late Hugo Chávez did in Venezuela.

Others, however, don’t think this is likely, claiming that conditions are so different in the two countries that what Chávez did 20 years ago in Venezuela could not be replicated today in Colombia.

“The results of that election have been very very troubling for people who believe in freedom in the Western Hemisphere, to elect a former narco-terrorist and a Marxist to lead Colombia is gonna be disastrous,” Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, said at a press conference near Jacksonville. “We were all hoping that the outcome would be different, but we’ve got a problem in the Western Hemisphere with Marxism, with totalitarianism, really spreading.”

Petro won on Sunday with 50.4% of the vote against his rival, businessman Rodolfo Hernandez, who obtained 47.3% of the vote. The election was conducted amid a deep-seated desire for change in the Andean country, which was heavily impacted by the economic slowdown caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

Florida has the largest population of Colombian-Americans in the United States. According to figures of the 2020 U.S. Census, 1.2 million of them live in the state, far surpassing New York’s population of 503,128, and New jersey’s 238,551.

The United States is also Colombia’s largest trading partner. Bilateral trade between the two countries reached almost $27 billion in 2017. Florida accounts for 27% of all U.S. trade with Colombia, more than any other state.

Petro, who spent time in prison during his youth on charges of rebellion and illegal arms possession, was a member of the guerrilla group that conducted some of the most shocking raids of the decades-long armed conflict in Colombia.

The April 19 Movement, or M-19, carried out a series of high-impact propaganda actions during the 1970s and 1980s, including the theft of Simón Bolívar’s sword, the raid on the Dominican Republic embassy — which led to the kidnapping of 14 ambassadors, including that of the United States — and the raid on the Palace of Justice in 1985, which left dozens dead, including 11 of the 25 justices of the highest court.

Petro said he left his subversive past behind when the M-19 submitted to a peace process and its members agreed to lay down their arms to compete for power through elections.

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But some still worry about Petro’s ties and shared ideology with the leaders of Cuba and Venezuela. Manny Díaz, Florida Democratic Party chairman and former Miami mayor, said this is one issue that worries him.

“I am concerned that the newly elected leader, Gustavo Petro, has in the past aligned himself with the policies of the Castros, Hugo Chavez, and Nicolas Maduro, which have brought so much pain and suffering to Cubans and Venezuelans,” he said in a press release.

“My sincerest hope is that Petro respects the Colombian Constitution and protects private property, freedom of the press, and the private industry that has brought Colombia so much prosperity in the past decades,” he added.

Other South Florida leaders had expressed their concerns about Petro even before the election. Last week, Miami Congresswoman Maria Elvira Salazar warned that his victory would be very dangerous for Colombia.

“Colombians, be very careful, because Petro will bring more corruption. His promises are precious in theory, but in practice they translate to misery for the people”, she said on her Twitter account.

Romy Ellenbogen of the Herald/Times Tallahassee Bureau contributed to this report.

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