Colombia’s business elite must do more to help close the country’s yawning inequality gap or risk further street protests, says Federico Gutiérrez, the main centre-right contender in this month’s presidential election.
Although eight candidates are standing, polls show that the contest has become a fight between Gutiérrez, a former mayor of Colombia’s second city Medellín, and Gustavo Petro, a senator and radical former leftist guerrilla.
In a country hungry for change after four years of drift under the unpopular centre-right incumbent Iván Duque, Gutiérrez is hoping his down-to-earth style can convince voters he is the right choice to tackle Colombia’s stubbornly high levels of poverty, unemployment and inequality.
In an interview with the Financial Times, Gutiérrez — or “Fico”, as he quickly asks to be called — said Colombia needed “a new model of social conscience”.
“I would tell the entrepreneurs of this country to concern themselves more with the people around them,” he said. “To the extent that they can pay better wages, they should pay them . . . because we need our people to be better off. Companies do better if their people are better off.”
“I myself will speak with businessmen, with the productive sector, to make them see the reality of what’s happening in the country,” he said, speaking a year after Colombia was convulsed by protests against Duque’s government in which dozens of people were killed.
“The only way for Colombia to be increasingly prosperous . . . is if we understand that we have to put ourselves in the situation of those who have the least.”
Despite decades of solid economic growth, income inequality in Colombia is the highest in the OECD and the second highest in Latin America behind Brazil, according to the World Bank.
Successive governments have vowed to close the gap between rich and poor but made little headway.
Under Duque, inequality has increased, says the World Bank. That is partly due to the pandemic. But Colombia’s Gini coefficient — the most commonly used measure of income inequality — has risen every year since 2017, well before the pandemic hit.
The bank says the richest 10 per cent of Colombians earn 11 times more than the poorest 10 per cent and “there is clearly ample potential” for a more redistributive tax system. The OECD says only 5 per cent of Colombians pay income tax and fiscal revenues are worth just 20 per cent of gross domestic product, low even by regional standards.
Intergenerational mobility is another problem. The OECD estimates it would take 11 generations for a Colombian to move from the poorest 10 per cent of society to a middle point.
All these factors fuelled widespread unrest in late 2019 and again in mid-2021, and form the backdrop to the May 29 election, arguably the most significant in the country’s modern history.
For the first time, Colombia looks like it might elect a hard-left leader. Petro is leading all polls with a promise to radically overhaul the country’s economic model by guaranteeing all the unemployed a state job, redistributing agricultural land, abolishing private healthcare and pensions, and ending new oil exploration.
Gutiérrez is second in the polls and Colombia’s business elite, as well as wealthier and more conservative voters, are betting on him to stop Petro. If no candidate wins more than 50 per cent, the election will go to a run-off on June 19. Most polls suggest Petro would win that race but the contest would be close.
Gutiérrez’s main challenge is to convince voters in the centre who want change that he will not simply represent a continuation of Duque’s unpopular government, which is seen by many voters as aloof and insufficiently engaged with social problems.
The 47-year-old centre-right contender insists he will be his own man and has tried to distance himself from Duque, playing up his relatively modest upbringing, his regional roots in Medellín and his lack of party affiliation.
“He has tried to soften his conservative image and reinforce the narrative that his goal is to unify the country,” said Erica Fraga, senior analyst at the Economist Intelligence Unit.
Unlike Duque, Gutiérrez says he voted in favour of a peace agreement with Marxist guerrillas from the Farc in 2016. He says he would implement the peace accords in full, “without euphemisms”.
Describing himself as the candidate of common sense, he acknowledged that the country needed change but said “changes in Colombia cannot mean leaping into the void without a parachute”.
He has vowed to increase economic growth from its 21st century average of 3.6 per cent to 5 per cent, boost investment from 20 per cent of GDP to 30 per cent and reduce unemployment from 12.6 per cent to 9 per cent.
Critics say Gutiérrez represents “more of the same” and would mean four wasted years in which Colombia fails to address its social problems.
Even some of those who respect him worry that he lacks experience in national government and could be manipulated by seasoned, opportunistic politicians once in power.
“Fico’s not the problem, it’s the politicians he has around him, who have sacked the state for years,” said Maurice Armitage, who was mayor of Cali when Gutiérrez ran Medellín and who counts him as a friend.
On foreign policy, Gutiérrez said Colombia must keep its “great relationship with the United States” as it grapples with record cocaine production and deals with the crisis in neighbouring Venezuela.
Unlike Petro, he said Colombia should resume the controversial practice of aerial fumigation to eradicate coca crops but added that this cannot be the sole solution. He accused Petro of apeing the socialist policies that have brought penury to Venezuela.
“He [Petro] was a great admirer of the Venezuelan model . . . and now he’s trying to row back from it, because he’s seen the social disaster that it brings,” he said.
Asked what a Petro victory would mean for Colombia, Gutiérrez was blunt: “Chaos, misery.”