We arrived to a “dry” Bogota. No alcohol was being sold due to presidential elections being held the next day. It is called “ley seca” (dry law) and it is practiced, as far as I know, in most Latin American countries on the day prior and on the day of elections. In some places it is even practiced every Sunday! All I wanted after a long trip and the start of a long weekend was a beer. But I digress.
As expected in any country, the election was all anyone could talk about while we were there. Especially because this election was historic in some respects. Different than past elections in Colombia but similar to other elections across Latin America in the recent past. It presented extremes: a hard-left candidate, Petro, and a far-right candidate, Duque. Petro promises, like most left leaning candidates, a more equitable society, one which is very needed in Colombia, one of the most unequal country in Latin America. But person after person we spoke to would tell us the same thing: “But what if he is like Chavez? What if we become a Venezuela?”
Let’s digest that. First, my country has become nothing more than the country noone wants to be like, how incredibly sad. I still remember the “golden years”, when Venezuela was receiving immigrants, not seeing a big portion of its population flee. I grew up with Colombia, our neighbor, being extremely dangerous due to the war on drugs, with immigration from there to Venezuela at an all time high. We wouldn’t even think of visiting. Now we see the opposite.
Second, and most importantly, my country has become an excuse to dismiss left-leaning candidates in Latin America, to paint them all with the same brush. It has become a weapon, a fear-tactic, the right telling the country: “Be careful who you vote for or we might become Venezuela”. Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying Petro or Lopez Obrador (the left leaning candidate in Mexico) will actually be good presidents, meet all their promises, make their countries better and more equal, or even that they won’t be like Chavez. I don’t know enough to tell. But what I am saying is that we shouldn’t be using Venezuela as proof that left leaning politics don’t work. What Venezuela is proof of is much more complex than that, and as an incomplete summary we can say that corrupt politicians and police, plus misguided economic controls, plus a leader that breeds dependency and hate, all happening in an oil dependent country, is a recipe for disaster.
As a Venezuelan I can tell you no country should want to be like my country at this moment in time, but what Chavez stood for initially, what he preached and said he wanted for the country, it was a worthwhile pursuit. Chavez failed miserably at what he meant to achieve, but some of the ideals are worth fighting for, just not his way.
My hope is that other countries and leaders learn from Venezuela and avoid the mistakes we made, rather than just continue to use our sad story as a reason to lean right.
(Note that the final round of the elections in Colombia are happening today (June 17) and it seems likely that the far-right candidate, Duque, will win. On the other hand, Lopez Obrador is likely to win in Mexico)