Colombian leftist Petro leads polls with plans to tackle poverty, climate change Colombian presidential candidate Gustavo Petro sits down with NPR and talks about his time in a guerrilla group and proposals to tackle poverty and climate change.

He's running to be Colombia's 1st left-wing president. Here's what he plans to do

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Colombia holds a presidential election next month. And the frontrunner is a man who once took up arms to fight for a leftist revolution there. Gustavo Petro says he no longer believes in armed struggle, but he is still promising to shake up Colombian society. John Otis reports from Bogota.

JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: Gustavo Petro has spent his whole life challenging Colombia's status quo. And to be sure, there's a lot that needs changing in a nation with 40% poverty and one of the world's largest gaps between rich and poor. In an interview with NPR, Petro said frustrated Colombians have had enough.

GUSTAVO PETRO: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: "If we continue along the same path, the country will fall into the abyss," he said, speaking on Zoom. Petro, who is 61, grew up in a mining town just north of Bogota, where he jumped into politics. But for decades, government repression, as well as a power-sharing pact between Colombia's traditional parties, made it extremely difficult for leftists like Petro to get elected. That's why in 1978, Petro joined the M-19. It was one of several Colombian rebel groups that formed in the wake of Fidel Castro's revolution in Cuba. Petro stockpiled weapons and helped organize guerrilla cells in cities and in the impoverished countryside.

PETRO: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: "I slept in the homes of poor farmers," he said in the interview. "I hiked across mountains and Indigenous reserves. I was in daily contact with poor people." All this, Petro says, made him a better politician once the M-19 disarmed and formed a political party.

PETRO: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: "I think a president should have these types of experiences," Petro told NPR. But for former M-19 guerillas, running for office was risky.

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UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing in Spanish).

OTIS: This is a campaign spot for Carlos Pizarro. He was the M-19's top commander who ran for president in 1990, but he was assassinated by an anti-communist gunman. When Petro tried his own hand at electoral politics, he surrounded himself with bodyguards and has been successful. He served nearly two decades in Colombia's Congress and in 2011 was elected mayor of the capital, Bogota. Crime and poverty decreased, but his administration was chaotic, marked by a botched plan for garbage pickup that led to small mountains of trash in the streets. Four years ago, Petro ran for president but lost to conservative Ivan Duque. However, President Duque is now deeply unpopular, mainly due to a sharp increase in poverty brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.

SERGIO GUZMAN: The government's lack of capacity to deal with a national emergency just left a lot of people angry and upset, and I think that's what gives Gustavo Petro a real chance.

OTIS: That's Sergio Guzman, director of the consulting firm Colombia Risk Analysis. He notes that Petro stands to become Colombia's first-ever left-wing president, and that has alarmed the country's business class. Petro has proposed raising taxes on the rich and printing money to pay for anti-poverty programs. To forge a greener economy, he pledges to stop all new oil exploration and replace the lost income with tourism. That, Guzman says, seems unrealistic.

GUZMAN: Hydrocarbons account for close to 80% of Colombia's exports, and being able to substitute those incomes is going to be, in the short term, very difficult to accomplish.

OTIS: Petro has also talked of declaring a temporary state of emergency to pass laws by decree. That prompted harsh criticism from Petro's main rival in the presidential race, Federico Gutierrez.

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FEDERICO GUTIERREZ: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: In a televised debate, the right-wing Gutierrez compared Petro to socialist leaders in neighboring Venezuela who brought dictatorship and economic ruin to that country. He also warned that a Petro government would seize or expropriate private businesses, a claim Petro hotly denied in the debate.

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GUTIERREZ: (Speaking Spanish).

PETRO: (Speaking Spanish).

GUTIERREZ: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: Rather than threatening democracy, Petro claims he would open up Colombian politics to new voices. One example is his running mate.

(CHEERING)

OTIS: Francia Marquez could become Colombia's first-ever Black vice president if the Petro ticket wins. The latest polls show Petro leading the seven other candidates. However, if no one wins a majority in the first round of balloting on May 29, the two top vote-getters will meet in a June runoff. For NPR News, I'm John Otis in Bogota, Colombia.

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