A Strongman in Bogotá? Venezuela Worries About Colombia’s Future

A Strongman in Bogotá? Venezuela Worries About Colombia’s Future

What Gustavo Petro has sophisticated is the same strategy that left-wing strongmen used in the past.


Everyone seems to be familiar with Venezuela in a caricatural manner—nightmarish hyperinflation, dog-eating citizens, communism!

The depictions drawn by American media are not necessarily untrue, although sometimes the comparative element introduced into their commentary appears disingenuous. With the far-left and their “America is to blame for everything” rhetoric, but especially with the activist right and their “government intervention always leads to Maduro-style dictatorship” discourse, politicos have made the poverty-ridden country their most refined paragon. 


While that approach is a great source for slogans, those who want to use the country as a case study to learn the right lessons and prevent chaos benefit from examining what occurred in the once-giant Latin American nation with caution and inquisitiveness. 

A tad of Venezuelan contemporary history would do the trick, but let’s be honest: most are not that obsessed about the issue to begin buying books about a distant nation. But for many Venezuelan leaders and intellectuals, history is repeating itself. Hence, for this lesson, no books are necessary—you can turn on the TV.

Earlier this week, Colombia elected its first leftist president, Gustavo Petro—a former M-19 rebel and longtime revolutionary socialist. Like the late Marxist sweetheart Hugo Chávez, who he admires, Petro speaks passionately and promises grandeur. 

Unlike his former challenger in the second round, Rodolfo Hernández, a businessman-turned-mayor who ran on an anti-corruption platform that resembles Trump’s “Drain the Swamp” pledge, Petro’s populism penetrated not just because his message was expressed with eloquence and popular charm. Like the Venezuelan socialist legend, the words came accompanied by the embodiment of the caudillo archetype. Though Petro’s rise to power was partly successful because its social progressivism attracted various strong factions, what captures the attention of Venezuelans who have studied Chavismo, and as an extension, Castro’s Cuba, is Petro’s relationship with the two, his past, and the similarities between his upcoming first steps in office and Chávez’s accession.

The former guerilla fighter may not be wearing the Venezuelan tyrant’s signature red beret, but he still evokes an image that all-too-often enamors Latin Americans who position themselves in a continent of massive inequalities, high crime, and unbridled corruption. What Petro has sophisticated is the same strategy that left-wing strongmen used in the past. The only difference is that it has morphed in congruence to the times.

According to Diego Arria, a former United Nations (UN) Security Council President and ex-governor of Caracas, the mistakes made by Venezuela yesterday are being made by their neighbors today. In his words, “appearing associated with the Maduro narco-regime is already not a great start.” After all, Arria posits that “the fact that the United States has already offered rewards for information leading to the capture of the Venezuelan tyrant, and the ongoing International Criminal Court investigation over Maduro’s crimes,” leaves Petro in an uncomfortable position that is “absolutely undesirable.” Additionally, what concerns him is not just the position Colombia has put itself in internationally, but the domestic conditions that might not be enough to constrain changes that lead to a less democratic sister nation. 

In the 1970s, when Arria was first elected to Venezuela’s National Assembly, his country, like today’s Colombia, was for many a bastion of liberty in a continent of storied dictatorships. Democratic decline appeared inconceivable when Venezuela had the resources and international support to succeed.

Some years before Arria’s rise to prominence, in his visit to La Morita Resettlement in Caracas, John F. Kennedy said that “the United States and Venezuela [were] bound together,” and that “I shall return to Washington on Monday and tell the people of my country that you and they are bound together in one of the great adventures of human experience, to make of our hemisphere a bright and shining light for all the world.”

How did everything go downhill? With a change in electoral conditions, a fresh face, and a desire for something new, Venezuela went for innovation. But such innovation is not inherently positive. 

Arria explained that “it is evident that there is a difference between having what half of the country desires and having half of the votes to succeed electorally.” He believes that the latter is what occurred in Colombia, as the votes cast for Colombia’s president-elect were mostly cast “against Petro, but not for the alternative.”

Ramón Muchacho, an exiled Venezuelan political leader, who was formerly the mayor of Chacao, one of the country’s most populated municipalities, agrees with Arria on this.“Colombia found itself at a crossroads,” he says, “where they could only elect between two versions of bad governance, two inadequate options. I don’t like what is happening in Colombia.”

What both of them seem to agree on is that as disenchantment with the previous administration leaves the nation virtually leaderless, the results of the election should give everyone more reasons to brood.

For Arria, who asks “who will lead the opposition?” with some frustration, “looking at the month of August,” he believes that “Petro will put the Chávez formula into practice. First, he will summon up a constitutional reform to arm himself with a constitution that is tailored for his success.”

For Venezuelans this is nothing, but a flashback. 

In the late 1900s, the late Hugo Chávez said with confidence that he would not become a tyrant. “I am a democrat,” he guaranteed. He even went on national TV, consistently stating that he would respect private property to the point that he even got some corporative backing from those who were also thirsty for change. But once he got into power, the message changed. Once elected, the Venezuelan president assured with confidence that “private property was not sacred.” Not only that, but his actions proved that for him, property rights were not just unsacred, but they were worth nothing. 

Slowly but surely, his interference evolved until the point that exprópiese! (expropriate) became his favorite cry. Words that kids grew accustomed to after he shut down private TV stations, and started his own show Aló Presidente! (which went for hours) with the state-run Venezuelan Television Corporation

All this started in 1999 with a constitutional referendum led by the socialist fresh face, similar to the one Petro is already promising. In it, he eliminated the bicameral structure of Congress and replaced it with a unicameral one. He packed the court. He created new ombudsman-esque institutions that vowed to protect social property. He extended the presidential and gubernatorial terms by one year.

He changed a lot, some supposed for the better. But in the end, what he conceptualized as better for el Pueblo was also what gave him perpetuity. 

This is what worries Venezuelans. The future is always uncertain, but in the country that is the most—culturally, demographically, and geographically—similar to Venezuela; in a country, from which people escaped from at their worst and came to a Venezuela of prosperity; and in a country that now millions of Venezuelans call home, the prospects of the same story repeating itself worries, if not anger, many

Juan P. Villasmil “J.P. Ballard” has been featured on The American Spectator, Fox News, Telemundo, MSNBC, and others. He currently contributes for WSJ on Snapchat (a recently premiered show), and was also featured on its Future View series on the Journal’s opinion section.

Image: Reuters.