On June 19, Colombians elected former Marxist guerrilla Gustavo Petro as their next president. A close ally of Venezuelan socialist dictator Nicolás Maduro, Petro has pledged to confiscate and redistribute the country’s wealth. His win—along with the recent wave of victories by far-left candidates across Latin America—highlights the need for the United States to reengage with its neglected southern neighbors, or risk their falling into the grip of socialist rulers for decades to come.
At the turn of the century, Colombia was a dangerous and poor country where guerrillas and gangs killed tens of thousands of people every year. Since then, the murder rate has more than halved, average incomes have risen 50 percent, and electricity coverage is now universal.
In the same time span, neighboring Venezuela fell under a socialist regime, led first by Hugo Chávez and now by Nicolás Maduro, that has transformed the country from one of the richest in Latin America to one of the poorest. While Venezuela used to host millions of Colombian migrants, it’s now Colombia that hosts millions of Venezuelans.
The agenda of Colombia’s new president puts the country at risk of losing all it has gained over the past two decades. President-elect Petro proposes the same policies and uses the same rhetoric as Chávez. He promises to nationalize the health system, make college education free, create a government bank to issue loans and hold people’s savings, confiscate and redistribute land, and severely curtail Colombians’ ability to engage in international trade.
Some of his proposals sound like those of a mainstream left-wing candidate, but make no mistake, Petro is a Marxist who will turn Colombia into a socialist state if he’s allowed. Petro and Chávez were friends for decades. In 1994, he met Chávez shortly after his release from prison for attempting to overthrow Venezuela’s democratic government in a coup two years earlier. At the time, he was a member of M-19, the Marxist guerrilla movement-turned-political party. When Petro traveled to Venezuela in 2016 amid that country’s struggles with hyperinflation and mass shortages of goods, he tweeted a photo of a grocery store with full shelves, implying that the stories of privation were anti-government propaganda. Such denials are an insult to Venezuelans, who, according to one study, lost an average of 19 pounds of body weight in 2016 due to lack of food.
Whether Petro succeeds in turning Colombia into a socialist country depends on the ability of Colombia’s bureaucracy to resist his directives, and on the capacity of a fractious opposition in Congress to unite and limit his presidency to one term.
The rise of socialism isn’t a problem confined to Colombia. Peru and Chile elected socialist presidents this year, and Brazil will likely soon join them. The United States will also feel the effects of these elections before long. As these countries’ economic conditions worsen, emigration will increase, trade will suffer, and the price of essential commodities will rise, since these nations are key producers of oil, copper, fish, and coffee, among other goods.
America needs to reengage in the region, helping to ensure that Latin America is prosperous and that its citizens don’t feel marginalized by their economies. Unfortunately, it has been doing the opposite. Over the past two decades, China replaced America as the main trading partner of most nations south of the border, and the U.S. only has a few narrow free trade agreements with a handful of South and Central American nations. Our goal should be to create a free trade area covering the entire Western Hemisphere, much like the one we now have with Canada and Mexico. (Former President George W. Bush failed to achieve this goal, thanks to opposition from Chávez.) Our strategy should be to enter into an agreement with the countries that are willing now and thereby create a framework for others to join later. A Hemispheric free trade area would create tremendous wealth in all countries, allowing America to substitute Chinese imports for Latin American ones and helping American goods to reach more markets to the south.
America should also consider modifying its immigration policy to make it easier for Latin Americans opposed to socialism to come to the U.S. legally. The first people to leave when socialists come to power are the educated middle and upper-middle classes. That’s why Venezuelans are among the most highly educated Hispanic populations in the United States. Though the far-Left triumphs in their countries of origin, Colombians, Peruvians, and Chileans in the U.S. overwhelmingly vote for right-wing candidates.
A reasonable objection to allowing more high-skilled Latin Americans into the U.S. is that it would cause “brain drain” in the same countries we want to help and would reduce pressure for regime change. But this concern is overblown. The Berlin wall limited outmigration from socialist Europe for decades, and to this day it’s nearly impossible to leave North Korea. Yet there’s no evidence that this lack of emigration helped these nations change or prosper. On the contrary, welcoming educated and politically conservative immigrants would allow them to innovate here in ways they could not in their native countries, exporting their innovation back home and helping us to develop closer international ties with their respective native countries through the diaspora.
“Venezuela isn’t Cuba” is what Venezuelans used to tell one another when Chávez came to power. Now Petro’s cheerleaders are saying that “Colombia isn’t Venezuela.” This should be a wakeup call for the Latin American Right—and for the U.S., which should put a higher priority on its southern neighbors.
Photo by Ovidio Gonzalez/Getty Images