in a country marked by social exclusion and political violence

by Sep 9, 2022Amandla Issue 83, Articles

ON 7TH AUGUST 2002, THE Colombian Left will take over the national government for the first time in the country’s troubled history. The presidential election of June 2022 marked a significant turning point in a Latin American nation characterised by a long history of violence and repression. The Left’s victory will have profound impacts both at the national level and in the Americas as a whole. Colombia has particular significance as a country ruled for more than half a century by corrupt and bloodthirsty right-wing governments, constantly supported by the imperial power of the United States.

The progressive government will be headed by Gustavo Petro, a former guerrilla militant who became Colombia’s president on his third attempt, and Francia Márquez, a Black woman who envisions the vice-presidential office as a platform for empowering feminist, anti-racist and environmental struggles. The Left’s electoral commitments include recovering and strengthening the role of the state in the economy and society, higher taxes on the rich, transforming the health and pension systems, and initiating a just transition. The suspension of oil exploration will make way for renewable energy in the face of the climate crisis.

Petro and Francia: two 
activists in governments

Gustavo Petro is an experienced activist from four decades of struggle, first as an armed combatant and then within the institutions of liberal democracy. The 62-year-old former guerrilla, parliamentarian and mayor won the presidency in the second round with 50 per cent of the vote against the right-wing populist businessman Rodolfo Hernández, who received 47 per cent. In his third presidential attempt, Petro defeated the elites he had always fought. He moderated his discourse to capture undecided voters. The candidates of the Pacto Histórico (Historical Pact) coalition had to confront a mighty establishment that controls every lever of power.
In 1978, at the age of 18, Petro joined the M-19 guerrilla, one of the main armed organisations, until its dissolution in 1990. He was captured in 1985, spent two years in prison, and re-joined the political struggle as a legislator. In the early 2000s, he became one of Colombia’s best-known parliamentarians for his denunciations of the links between politicians, government authorities and paramilitary groups. For over two decades, his archenemy has been former president Álvaro Uribe, who served in government between 2002 and 2010 and became the most influential figure on the Colombian Right.

The progressive government will be headed by Gustavo Petro, a former guerrilla militant who became Colombia’s president on his third attempt, and Francia Márquez, a Black woman who envisions the vice-presidential office as a platform for empowering feminist, anti-racist and environmental struggles.

In 2011 Petro was elected mayor of Bogotá for the Progresistas party, leading the capital city’s government until 2014. In 2010, in his first presidential bid as the candidate of the centre-left Polo Democrático (Democratic Pole) coalition, Petro won 1.3 million votes. In his second attempt, in 2018, he got more than eight million and came within a whisker of winning the election. In 2022, after moderating his more radical discourse and weaving deals with centrist political leaders, he managed to make the third attempt a success.

In the past two weeks, Francia Márquez has toured Latin America to deepen the ties between the new government and the region’s progressive governments and social movements. In a dialogue with Argentinean activists, Márquez declared that her presence in the Colombian government means “representing historically excluded, marginalised, racialised and forgotten peoples”. Márquez was born in 1981 in one of the poorest and most marginalised Afro-Colombian communities. She is a lawyer who gained a national and international reputation in the struggle against indiscriminate extractivism by mining companies. One of the milestones of her social activism was
the 2018 Goldman Environmental Prize, considered the alternative Nobel Prize.

Challenges and 
prospects of 
the progressive 

The political, economic and social panorama that the new government will have to face is very complex and multifaceted. It includes predictably strong opposition from the military and business powers, the persistence of the armed conflict and the worsening of the social fractures derived from the pandemic.

The Left government will have to respond to the many urgent problems in a country in crisis. Almost 40 per cent of the population is living in poverty. A peace agreement was signed in 2016 between the Colombian state and the Farc guerrillas. There are flashing red warning statistics highlighting the resurgence of violence. The peace agreement identified reintegration mechanisms. These have not been completely implemented. At the same time, the political influence of drug trafficking has not diminished in a country that remains the world’s largest cocaine producer.
 In parliament, the new government will be backed by an important number of members, but far from the majority needed to pass crucial legislation. To ensure governability and facilitate political agreements, Petro and Márquez have proposed a “grand national accord”. This will be difficult to achieve. The recent presidential election in June has shown that the country is split into two halves, with opposing interests and visions. During his previous experience in government, as mayor of Bogotá, Petro already faced strong opposition from the Municipal Council, which blocked many of his most ambitious initiatives.

In his first public speech as president-elect, Petro tried to reassure the markets. On the night of his victory celebration, he sent a pacifying message to business associations that had accused him of promoting a failed socialist project during the campaign. In his response, Petro declared that “it was a campaign of lies and fear… that we were going to expropriate ordinary Colombians, that we were going to destroy private property”. He added that his government was committed to “developing capitalism in the country, not because we adore it, but because we first have to overcome pre-modernity”. In short, the new government will seek a tricky balance. It will try to satisfy the demands and aspirations of its left-wing voters. At the same time it will face the pressures of the establishment.

To appease the markets, Petro appointed José Antonio Ocampo as the minister in charge of economics. Ocampo, a professor at Columbia University, has the responsibility of calming the corporate sector. One of his biggest challenges will be implementing a progressive tax reform in a place where unemployment is around 11 per cent, informality is 45 per cent, and poverty affects 39 per cent of Colombia’s 50 million inhabitants. The outgoing government tried unsuccessfully to tax the middle class in the midst of the pandemic. This provoked an unprecedented social outburst that left at least 46 people dead due to police repression.

Ocampo already held the same post between 1996 and 1997 during the (neoliberal) government of Ernesto Samper. He was Executive Secretary of the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) between 1998 and 2003, and United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs between 2003 and 2007. He has also co-authored books with Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz, one of the unorthodox economists most critical of the free market paradigm.

Another big challenge is how to control the military. The generals will have to swear allegiance as commander-in-chief to a person who they still see as an enemy, a former leftist guerrilla militant. During the election campaign, Petro accused members of the military leadership of being in business with the Clan del Golfo, Colombia’s largest narco gang. In response, army commander General Eduardo Zapateiro accused him of “politicking” – an inappropriate statement in a country where the constitution prohibits the military from participating in political exchanges and voting.

The distrust between the president and the military is very obvious. At the end of July, Petro confirmed that he would remove the current heads of the army and police to “put an end to the policy built on the notion of an internal enemy, which has led to tremendous human rights violations, such as the murder of 6,402 youths to pass them off as guerrilla casualties”. This is a tragedy popularly known as the “false positives”. The new government redoubled its bid to end the impunity of the military with the appointment of former judge Iván Velásquez as Minister of Defence. For the first time, a left-wing government will have authority over the armed forces, and it will do so under the guidance of a judge who investigated the links of businessmen, politicians and the military with far-right paramilitary groups.

The outgoing president, Iván Duque, has given assurance that he would be the guarantor of a “peaceful” and “transparent” transition, while the National Liberation Army (ELN, the last guerrilla organisation still active) expressed its “full disposition to advance in a peace process”. In a press release, the ELN warned the new government that to have the backing of the “popular movement” it must implement “changes that will lead us to overcome clientelism and remove violence from politics, to advance social inclusion plans that include employment and economic opportunities for the majority”. In response, Petro pledged to restart the peace plan of former president Juan Manuel Santos (2010-2018), including implementing the peace agreement signed with the FARC in its entirety and formally requested the Cuban government to host the dialogue with the ELN.

In this context, a big question that hangs over Colombia’s future is the country’s relationship with the United States government. For decades the US has been directly involved in domestic politics under the guise of combating the guerrilla insurgency and drug trafficking. On 26th May, three days before the first round of the election, a bill was presented in the US Congress to ratify Colombia as a “non-Nato ally”. The maintenance (and eventual strengthening) of Colombia’s military alliance with the United States has great geopolitical significance. Colombia, and its neighbours, Venezuela and Ecuador, are oil-producing countries. Their significance has increased in the face of the worsening global energy crisis provoked by the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

The regional and global 
significance of the 
Colombian Left’s victory

The Colombian victory has generated much enthusiasm among progressive parties and movements in Latin America and around the world. There has been a brief interregnum marked by the electoral rise of the Right in several Latin American countries. Many analysts characterised this as the end of the so-called pink tide. But now the region’s political course has turned leftwards again.
 In July 2018 Andrés Manuel López Obrador, leader of the Morena party, was elected president of Mexico. A year later, in 2019, the progressive coalition Frente de Todos (Everybody’s Front) led by Alberto Fernández and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, reconquered the presidency of Argentina. In 2020, after a coup against the Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) government led by Evo Morales in Bolivia, Luis Arce was elected president of the Andean country. This was followed by the victories in 2021 of Pedro Castillo, Xiomara Castro and Gabriel Boric in Peru, Honduras and Chile, respectively.

In this context, the success of Petro and Márquez in Colombia has boosted the hopes of the Brazilian Left, currently immersed in the great electoral battle for the presidency that will conclude in October this year and in which Luiz Inacio Lula de Silva is expected to win. The triumph of Lula and the Workers’ Party (PT), with the support of a wide range of progressive parties and movements opposed to the current far-Right government led by Jair Bolsonaro, would consolidate the political turn in the region. This is a region of the world that has prompted most debate and hope (as well as much disillusionment, particularly in relation to the authoritarian governments of Venezuela and Nicaragua) among Left activists around the world.

Dr Daniel Chavez is a Uruguayan-Dutch political economist. He is a Senior Project Officer at the Transnational Institute (TNI) and a Senior Research Associate at the University of Johannesburg. 

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