Colombian officials and conservative opponents of the socialist presidential candidate fear he may win in late May's polls with help from Russia and Venezuela. The Left and the Russian embassy have called the charges "fake news" and nonsense.
Conservative leaders in Colombia have been raising the specter of Russian meddling in the presidential elections, scheduled for May 29. The allegation reveals fears in this polarized country that the leading leftist and former Marxist guerrilla, Gustavo Petro, could become Colombia's next president.
The charges most recently emerged in reports in the Bogota daily El Tiempo and the broadcaster RCN on Russian elements entering the country to stir up unrest.
Petro was mayor of Bogotá in 2012-14, until he was sacked for alleged irregularities involving trash collection. However, the results of preliminary polls held in mid-March to choose the candidates of the main political blocks showed him as the leading contender for next president. He may have to run in a second round of voting. Should he win, he would become the country's first socialist president, with unknown consequences for Colombia's partnership with the Western alliance.
Suspected Moscow meddling
Early in March, the head of the National Registry, which announces electoral results, said it had been warned about Venezuela, Nicaragua and Russia targeting electoral software ahead of the March vote. One columnist wondered if the warnings were not merely echoing those made earlier by the visiting U.S. Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs, Victoria Nuland and the outgoing Colombian president, the conservative Iván Duque.
The Russian embassy has denied such charges as "insinuations and calumny."
In January 2022, the weekly Semana also warned about potential Russian meddling in the general elections. They outlined the reasons: Firstly, Russia has a history of suspected meddling — in the 2016 U.S. elections, for example — and it has big interests and a presence next door, in socialist Venezuela. Colombia's former ambassador in Washington, Francisco Santos, told the same paper in early March that Colombia, as a key Western partner, cannot expect to be spared hostile shots from Russia, Iran or Venezuela.
The Russian embassy in Bogotá has denied such charges as "insinuations and calumny," declaring in late March that it did not meddle in the March polls nor did Moscow intend to meddle in May. More recently, as if to chime in with other reports, a Russian was among several people arrested on suspicion of financing unrest in Bogotá in the general strike of 2021.
Protest in support of Petro's destitution as Bogotá mayor in 2014
Uribe, Aznar and Marcio Rubio
For the Colombian columnist José E. Mosquera and others on the non-conservative side of politics, the charges are classic, right-wing fear-mongering. He recently wrote in América Economía they were the typical discourse of the Democratic Center, the party formed around the conservative ex-president, Álvaro Uribe Vélez, and foreign figures like the former Spanish prime minister José María Aznar or the U.S. Florida Senator Marco Rubio.
Anyone with knowledge of international affairs, he wrote, knew that Russia's interests were in eastern Europe and its eyes were not set on Colombia, which "plays no transcendental role" in its "strategic and hegemonic interests in the world."
Fears of communism have not subsided in the region.
The accusations against Russia, and implicitly Petro, show that many Colombians fear a left-wing president. The country is emerging from a century of civil conflict between the Liberals and Conservatives and then the Left and the Right. Many see the hostilities as essentially unresolved, as evidenced in endemic rural violence, in spite of the peace pact signed with the communist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia.
Nor have fears of communism subsided here or in the region, as the former communist superpowers stage a global resurgence. In 2018 in Mexico, rivals warned the Russians wanted the leftist Andrés Manuel López Obrador to win the presidential elections. Regional states also suspected Cuba and Venezuela of stoking unrest in Colombia, Chile and Ecuador in 2019.
The charges work both ways. More than once at least, Venezuela's President Nicolás Maduro has told Spain to "take your nose out" of Venezuelan internal affairs. As is often the case with rumors, they may sound exotic or be, strictly speaking, inaccurate — but is there ever smoke without a fire?