Gustavo Petro: Petro’s balance | International


Political adviser Alfonso Prada, photographed in his apartment in Bogotá, in early April 2022.Camilo Rozo

—I do not pretend to temper Petro, nor to be his emotional balance.

Says Alfonso Prada crossed his legs on the sofa in his apartment. The windows have been fogged up by the rain and the outlines of the city have been blurred on the horizon. It seems to be a phrase that he has repeated incessantly in recent weeks, since he was named debate chief for Gustavo Petro, the left-wing candidate in Colombia and favorite in the polls.

Prada is a tall, broad-shouldered 56-year-old lawyer with a theatrical edge to his gait and fuss. He is now part of Petro’s inner circle of strategists. There are also Armando Benedetti, a cunning politician who likes to fight, and the Spaniard Antoni Gutiérrez-Rubí, a discreet and perfectionist communication consultant. Prada claims not to be there to take care of his temperament, but his work has a lot of that, although he says otherwise. “Your name is not Gustavo nor is your last name Petro” —those around him insist lately, including Prada—. “You are the transmission belt of change. Get rid of everything, even yourself.

It is not easy for someone with a personality as marked as yours. To a large extent, it is what has made him get here, on the verge of being the first left-wing president in the modern history of the country. His name, his resume, is the most powerful political brand that exists right now. The campaign revolves around him. However, it also generates enormous polarization. He has a considerable advantage over his most direct competitor, the former mayor of Medellín Federico Gutiérrez, and the center candidate, Sergio Fajardo. Others in his place would sit in a corner, waiting. But he gives all the battles, with the aim of winning in the first round, as only Álvaro Uribe, his old enemy, has done so far.

To do this, he surrounds himself with strategists who have little to do with him and his conception of the world. Prada, secretary of the Presidency of former President Juan Manuel Santos during his last year in office, is part of the Bogota elite that Petro has criticized so much. In his living room there are no obvious references to the political place from which the one who is now his boss comes from. On his site are Winston Churchill’s memoirs and one of Yuval Noah Harari’s books. Portraits of him with Joe Biden and Charles of England. “The attacks on Petro are very unfair, those who want to build the imaginary of the radical left. I would like to play a role of demystifying, of denying all that. Because I am a man more than the establishment”, he explains.

Seven days before this interview, two people close to Petro called him to join the campaign. She had heard her analysis on the radio and believed that she could provide a different look. She told both of them the same thing, that she was joining, but that she would only answer to Petro.

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“Chief na-tional de-ba-te,” he spells. I make fun of the name. What a bog so bog. Actually, I’m just a grain of sand.

Well seen is something more than that.

As Prada came from the circle of President Santos, some interpreted that the Nobel Peace Prize paved the way for giving his support to Petro. There are no indications that this will happen. There is santistas (a political-cultural movement that does not exist, but is everywhere) also with Fico and Fajardo, the center candidate. The rumor with Prada intensified because she is also his personal lawyer. Santos, however, has not said this mouth is mine.

Except that sometimes the phone rings in Prada’s pocket and when he sees the number on the screen he has no choice but to interrupt the conversation to answer.

Tell me, President.

He comes back five minutes later and doesn’t want to reveal who he’s been chatting with. There is no need to.

Let’s go back to Petro: “Four years ago, Petro surprised the country with his level of knowledge, intelligence and preparation. He swept the debates. He started from 0%. His evolution has still been for the better. Now I see a mature Petro, different and also misunderstood.”

That’s where he comes into the picture. Prada believes that it is about “communicating well”. For example, his rivals sometimes accuse him of wanting to expropriate land from large estate owners, something that sounds too much like Chavismo, a word that generates strong rejection in Colombia. “We just want to put the land to work. He never spoke of expropriating. If a property is unproductive and affects the general interest, we are going to tax it to compensate. If he doesn’t pay, sell it. It’s a very different way of presenting it.”

Petro is not an easy candidate to handle. In his time as mayor of Bogotá, he earned a reputation for not listening too much to his team. He spends a lot of time looking at Twitter and responding to some frontal attacks without consulting anyone, without prior filtering. During Holy Week, he got confused about a not very grounded concept, that of social forgiveness, which he unluckily linked to a visit by his brother to prison. For days he had to explain that he was not going to grant sentence reductions to imprisoned politicians. Days later, he receded the tide. Anyone would have left the subject parked. Petro, No. This last weekend he got up on stage in Ciénaga de Oro, his hometown, and he returned to the subject before his stunned neighbors with a cataract of words among which he introduced thick words like forgiveness, Jesus Christ and redemption . He not only wants to win, he also wants to be right.

Alfonso Prada, appointed head of debates.
Alfonso Prada, appointed head of debates.Camilo Rozo

There is some forgiveness and second chances between Prada and Petro himself. When one was mayor, the other was a congressman for Bogotá. They argued on behalf of the Metro. Petro wanted it underground, Prada above ground, along the lines of a previous mayor with whom he worked, Enrique Peñalosa, Petro’s archenemy. They had their pluses and minuses, of course, on Twitter. “These clashes even legitimize us,” Prada now argues. “They are absolutely minor things compared to the fight against poverty, the protection of the environment and economic development with social justice. I am calm, I believe that he is the way”.

Shortly after arriving, Petro, who does not maintain a very fluid relationship with the press, called neo-Nazi to a journalist from the RCN channel of television that criticized him in an article. Prada had to suffocate that fire, the product of “an impulsive reaction”. Pure Twitter. He also lowered the decibels when the candidate and those around him complained that hundreds of thousands of votes for the Senate had not been counted. That happened, it was a bug that was corrected. The left began to talk about electoral fraud, but as the days went by, upon receiving those votes, it was the other side that accused them of the same thing. The matter got tangled. Prada believes that referring to fraud is a losing speech, and they are winning so far.

And the fear of Petro from a sector of the population accustomed to conservative governments in charge for decades? He sees it differently. In the analysis of him, there is an equal or greater rejection against Fico because he represents the continuity of the current president Iván Duque, very little valued in the polls. At this point, Prada gets very Bogota:

—I have nothing against him, we have a good relationship. But he tries to hide that he is the government candidate. And from Uribe, but he has been very careful not to do it so as not to harm him. What he clearly says is that he is his candidate, but he is going to deceive people so as not to cause disturbance.

There is one more unknown that revolves around Fajardo. So far it is very difficult for him to go to a second round, unless he defeats Fico in the month that remains. If not, what will Fajardo do then? Four years ago he crossed his arms and Duque won by quite a margin. A part of the left still reproaches him for this attitude. Fajardo has many similarities with Petro, his programs are similar, although his temperaments are very different.

Prada believes that Fajardo will not be able to stay on the sidelines now, ignore the future of the country. Or yes, who knows. To venture to sentence is to risk being exposed.

—The long term in Colombia is 24 hours.

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